When you go to the playoffs in your first two years as a head coach, then win four road games and get to two AFC Title Championships, expectations don’t just rise, they soar. Especially for a franchise that has struggled over the last four decades like the New York Jets.
Rex Ryan blew into New York, blubbery and mouthy, a corpulent tornado who found quick success on the strength of a havoc-wreaking defense and a fierce ground-and-pound offensive attack.
But as quickly as Rex turned into a quote machine that fans and media couldn’t get enough of, he flopped. Yes, GM Mike Tanenbaum deserved much of the blame for botching the 2008 and 2010 drafts, and absolutely butchering free agency to the point they fired him. And offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was a disaster as well. He was jettisoned, too.
Then QB Mark Sanchez, above average in those four playoff wins, never got his act together during the regular season, crumbled when Santonio Holmes chewed him out in the huddle, and never recovered.
Rex appeared to be a dead man coaching last year after he inexplicably put Sanchez back into a preseason game … only to have Sanchez suffer a shoulder injury and miss the entire season. His career with the Jets was over. Was Rex’s too?
Ryan survived, though a pessimist could call it a stay of execution. He beat the Falcons (fresh off an NFC Championship game appearance), the Patriots and the Saints, and the Jets won three of four to finish the season with not only a modicum of dignity – but in the playoff mix.
But make no mistake – this team now belongs to John Idzik, the GM who says all the right things about Rex Ryan in public, but is battling him behind closed doors while struggling mightily in his first run as an NFL Decision Maker.
Sheldon Richardson was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013. Who can take credit for that, Idzik, or defensive mastermind Ryan? Geno Smith was a bust in his rookie year, arguably the worst QB in the NFL. Who takes credit for that? And on, and on, and on. Ultimately, Ryan’s going to have to get to the playoffs this year, or he’s almost certainly going to get canned.
Finally, for the first time in the Rex Ryan era, the Jets added significant offensive weapons. Of course, there’s concern over both of them. First: Eric Decker. With over 2,300 yards and 24 touchdowns over the last two years, he’s been one of the most prolific receivers in the NFL. But was he a Peyton Manning creation? Can he make the leap from being a productive No. 2 receiver to a stand-out No. 1? It’s impossible for Jets fans not to think back to the Super Bowl, and what happened when Decker went up against an elite cornerback, like he will all season: 1 catch, six yards, targeted just five times. Denver clearly didn’t think that highly of Decker – they let him walk without even making an offer and then signed Emmanuel Sanders from Pittsburgh.
Then there’s running back Chris Johnson, who only turns 29 this month, and has had over 1,000 yards in his last six seasons in the NFL, but lacks … something. Sure, he still has game-breaking speed, but if he were still an elite runner, wouldn’t the NFL have been lining up for his services? Let’s face it – in the last couple years, he’s turned into a back who will break a huge run, do nothing for 14 more carries, then peel off a 20-yarder and he’s hit the 100-yard mark, as if that means something. Last year, CJ hit rock bottom – a career-low 3.9 yards per carry. The reason to be optimistic? The last couple years, he’s been the No. 1 guy in Tennessee, and now, he’ll likely split carries with thumper Chris Ivory.
If all that sounded negative, here’s why I’m optimistic: Ground-and-Pound could return – the offensive line, with the addition of Breno Giacomini from Seattle, can return to its halcyon days of 2009 and 2010 – with CJ/Ivory/Bilal Powell, and the Jets could keep Geno Smith’s passes nice and easy with sure-handed Decker and rookie tight end Jace Amaro. Smith can’t play any worse (21 interceptions, 55 percent completions) and if he’s terrible, they finally have a capable backup for the first time in the Rex Ryan era (Mike Vick).