Resurrecting the 2004 New York Jets: Can Rex Ryan Perfect Their Formula?

Angel Navedo@NamedAngelSenior Writer IMay 12, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 5:  Curtis Martin #28 of the New York Jets celebrates his touchdown in the third quarter against the Houston Texans on December 5, 2004 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Jets defeated the Texans 29-7.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

They didn't win the Super Bowl, nor did they make it to the AFC Championship game. Heck, they didn't even win the AFC East that season.

While any and all of those outcomes would have been glorious, the truth is that it doesn't really matter.

Not in the slightest.

With the Jets' extensive history of heartbreak, it may defy all logic to be fond of a team whose season ended tragically. But where most see tragedy, this man sees the drama, excitement, and emotion that makes us all fans of the New York Jets and professional sports.

Despite the untimely demise of their season, the philosophy that allowed that team to achieve success is returning to the New York Jets. Better yet, it's returning with improved personnel, a chip on it's shoulder, and—of course—swagger.

The Runaway Roller Coaster

After a disappointing 2003 campaign, the Jets surprised the entire NFL by jumping out to a 5-0 start. Curtis Martin started the season with a 196-yard performance on the Bengals, and the Jets were winning games in the most thrilling fashion.

However, credit was not given where credit was due.

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The Jets 5-0 start was considered a fluke. No one believed the Jets had actually defeated any worthy contenders.

After their first loss at the hands of the New England Patriots, the Jets were brought back to reality. Their 5-0 start would ultimately fizzle out to a 5-6 finish.

The 2004 season would bring the injury to Chad Pennington's shoulder that would go on to question his ability to be an effective quarterback in the NFL. Missing three games, the Jets went 2-1 without him in November.

Pennington returned at the start of December, and looked healthy enough as the Jets obliterated the Houston Texans to improve to 9-3.

But New York would win only one more game—a 37-14 beat down of the Seattle Seahawks—finishing the season with a 10-6 record and a highly criticized playoff berth.

From 5-0 to 10-6, the New York Jets were accused of backing into the postseason.

The Reality of the 2004 New York Jets

The severity of Pennington's shoulder injury was initially neglected because the 2004 Jets were—without a doubt—Curtis Martin's team.

At the age of 31, the Jets' beloved running back had his best season. He rushed for 12 touchdowns—a team record at the time—and won the NFL rushing title with 1,697 yards.

With no receiver crossing the 1,000-yard threshold, the Jets' offense only went where Martin could carry them.

But it was the defense that made the most significant impact in the Jets' improbable playoff run. First year defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson and rookie phenom Jonathan Vilma led the charge, making the Jets defense a legitimate force.

Hired to coordinate the defense after spending four seasons as the Baltimore Ravens' defensive backs coach, Henderson transformed the Jets into a top 10 defense, finishing seventh in the NFL.

The Jets were ranked 21st in the previous season.

Vilma, the Jets' first overall draft pick in 2004, earned defensive rookie of the year honors after replacing Sam Cowart at middle linebacker.

Establishing himself as a leader in the middle of Henderson's 4-3 defensive alignment, Vilma and the Jets allowed only 3.6 yards per carry, ranking fifth in the NFL against the run.

While New York's 5-0 start should have allowed them to finish better than 10-6, every single victory was earned the hard way. Martin was relied upon heavily to dictate the pace of the game while the defense stifled most attempts to gain momentum.

Every win wasn't pretty, but every win earned them the right to be a Wild Card.

Jets are Wild: Thrilling Postseason Shocks Both Ways

The Drew Brees-led San Diego Chargers were the hands-down favorite in the AFC Wild Card round. The clock was supposed to strike midnight on the Jets' Cinderella postseason.

But it didn't work out that way.

Playing all-weather football, the Jets fought toe-to-toe with the supposedly superior Chargers.

Despite San Diego scoring first, the Jets managed to grab a 17-10 lead they would hold until the final seconds when a roughing-the-passer penalty on Eric Barton gave Drew Brees the opportunity he needed to send the game into overtime. 

It would be New York's second overtime game in as many weeks.

After Nate Kaeding missed the field goal that would've won the game for his Chargers, the Jets took the field and lowered their shoulders to grind it out for tough yards.

Lamont Jordan—the underutilized complement to Martin—led the way into Chargers' territory for the field goal that would send the Jets to Heinz Field.

Even less favored than in the previous week, the Jets' tenacity turned their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers into another overtime thriller.

The offense was limited against the Steelers' defense, but the Jets had enough fight in them to grab another 17-10 lead.

Santana Moss' 75-yard punt return for a touchdown tied the game at 10. But it was Reggie Tongue's 86-yard interception for a touchdown that put the Jets over the Steelers.

And so ensued the heartbreak that makes the 2004 New York Jets one of the most difficult to remember.

Jets' kicker Doug Brien was in position to send New York to the AFC Championship game twice before time expired.

His first opportunity was from 47 yards away, but Brien didn't have enough leg to connect, hitting the crossbar.

He was quickly granted another shot after David Barrett intercepted Ben Roethlisberger one play later. With slightly more admirable field position, Brien was given the four extra yards he would have needed to get his kick through the uprights, only to send the ball wide left.

New York would go into their third straight overtime and fall to Jeff Reed's leg.

Picking Up Where They Left Off...Five Years Later

The reputation that's followed Rex Ryan from Baltimore to New York intensified the memories of what Donnie Henderson carried into the Meadowlands during his first season as the coordinator.

Under Henderson, the Jets were aggressive, tenacious, and effective. These are all things Ryan has guaranteed since his introductory press conference. 

But it's the talent on the Jets roster that makes Rex Ryan's confidence all the more believable. The 2004 New York Jets have comparable counterparts in 2009, and an identical philosophy heading into the season.

With a stronger rush attack and a defense that promises to be more aggressive than anything Henderson crafted, the confidence Ryan displays can be immediately justified.

While Thomas Jones is not Curtis Martin, he will be the same age as No. 28 at the start of the 2009 season. Jones will be a younger 31 than Curtis Martin was, not having been a feature back throughout his career.

He also has the benefit of running behind a younger, stronger offensive line than Martin had in 2004.

Most importantly, the offensive strategy is expected to make usage of the two-back system, allowing for complementary backs to share the workload. Martin never had that luxury despite Lamont Jordan sitting behind him as the perfect change of pace back.

In 2004, one of the starting receivers was Justin McCareins—the same Justin McCareins that Jerricho Cotchery replaced in 2006.

Wearing the No. 83, Chansi Stuckey inspires memories of Santana Moss with his ability to quickly get through defenders. He's sure-handed and isn't afraid to cross the middle.

What the 2004 team didn't have was Leon Washington and Dustin Keller.

Washington has established himself as the most explosive playmaker on the roster, while Keller follows closely behind. In his second season, Keller is the definition of a mismatch for opposing defenses as he's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers.

Defensively, the 2004 team didn't have Bart Scott, Kris Jenkins, Darrelle Revis, or Kerry Rhodes either. All men are among the best in the NFL in their positions and figure to be key components to Ryan's aggressive defense.

The final piece comes down to whoever is named the quarterback for 2009.

Regardless of who's selected, Mark Sanchez or Kellen Clemens, both should be more effective than an injured Pennington in the postseason.

The 2004 Jets can't be defined by their final results or how deep they went in the playoffs.

It was their fighting spirit that made them so memorable—an intangible quality that Rex Ryan can only hope to inspire in 2009.