When the story of the 2011 Jets season is written, I believe that we will look back at two games as crucial turning points—Oakland and Denver.
The Oakland game was when we first saw the cracks exposed. That was the first full game without Nick Mangold. The offensive line was unprepared, and the defense was not ready for the Oakland run game. This was, and is, a massive indictment of the coaching staff. I think the Jets thought they could just waltz in and handily beat the Raiders like they did in 2009, 38-0.
The only drama on that day was Mark Sanchez getting caught eating a hotdog on the sidelines. Rookie mistake.
At any rate, what the Jets failed to realize is that the 2011 Raiders are dramatically better than that 2009 team. Add that to Mangold’s absence which caused the offensive line to fall apart, leading to a brutal day of hits (and a broken nose) for Sanchez and total unpreparedness on the part of the defense for Oakland’s Darren McFadden and you have yourself a 34-24 loss.
I love Rex Ryan’s bravado. He has made a real difference in the culture of the Jets. But swagger is a double-edged sword. When you’re as high profile and brash as the Jets, you're going to get everybody’s best shot. The day the Jets' coaching staff realizes that and prepares accordingly, the Jets will truly become a dangerous team.
In the NFL, you cannot overlook any opponent.
Which leads us to Denver. Another team that I think the Jets thought they could beat handily. Their thinking? Of course, we will be able to beat the Broncos feeble offense and a QB with questionable passing skills with little over a month’s worth of NFL starter’s experience. Oops.
And now, both those teams are part of the mad scramble for the sixth wild-card spot. The worst news is they now both hold tiebreakers against the Jets.
Talk about digging yourself a hole.
The only good news to emerge from the Denver debacle is that I think that loss was the turning point for Sanchez. Stick with me here. Sanchez was once again brutally beaten up courtesy of the Denver pass rush. He took some atrocious hits. And then he threw the back-breaking pick six. Yeah, the defense lost the game in the final five minutes. But without that interception returned for a touchdown, the Broncos would have needed to score twice at the end. That was the nadir for Sanchez.
What happened after that is speculation on my part. I think Sanchez took a soul-searching mental inventory and came to the reasonable conclusion that if his play isn’t playoff-caliber down the stretch, this team is not going to make the postseason. He decided that he did not want his poor play to be the reason the Jets miss the playoffs. So an attitude change was in order.
Watch Sanchez now on the sidelines, in interviews and especially at the post-game press conferences. He is unusually serious, all distractions have been eliminated and there's only one focus—playing mistake-free winning football. Yes, there was another unfortunate pick in Buffalo, but against both the Bills and the Redskins, Sanchez got the team into a position to win late in the fourth quarter.
It’s not pretty, but Ws are all that counts. We’ll have to work on style points another time.
(And now comes an insightful article by the NY Daily News’ Manish Mehta which pretty much confirms my speculation. Read it here.)
This new demeanor is fascinating especially in contrast to Rex’s rah-rah persona which, frankly, has a touch of whistling past the graveyard to it these days. I actually think Sanchez’s seriousness is playing better with the team itself. Especially the offense. I think Sanchez probably realized that the O-line is going to be a work in progress the rest of the way, and the defense picks the worst times to choke.
At some point, we knew this day was coming: The season rests on Sanchez’s shoulders.
So now, Washington is in the rear view mirror, and Sanchez was not Orakpoed thanks to perhaps the best showing all year by the offensive line. Credit too to Shonn Greene and Santonio Holmes for some amazing plays. The never-ending dink and dunk drives me crazy sometimes, but if it's the set-up to that gorgeous 30-yard touchdown pass to Holmes, I’ll take it. One of the prettiest throws I’ve ever seen No. 6 make.
I am a little worried about the delay of game penalties and questionable use of timeouts (again) and wonder if that had anything to do with getting the plays called in fast enough. (Apparently Tom Moore was in the booth in Washington. Whether he had a hand in play selection is unknown at this time.)
There’s always the possibility of glitchy headset communication issues causing delays too. Hopefully, that gets cleaned up at home this week. Especially since it looks like Tom Moore is going to be around for a while. Long overdue if you ask me.
Anyway, enter the Kansas City Chiefs. This is just the kind of opponent that the Jets have a tendency to look past. Tyler Palko doesn’t exactly strike fear into opposing defenses. But this game is not about the Chief’s offense. It’s about the Jets offense versus the surprisingly good KC defense. Romeo Crennel always fields strong units.
If the Chiefs can’t go to the playoffs, they can certainly play the role of spoiler. The Jets have no margin for error. They cannot drop this game. They need to play efficient, alert, mistake-free and turnover-free football for a full 60 minutes.
Gentlemen—let’s not make this another season turning point. Play smart, situational football, get the win and you can scoreboard watch after the game.