by Tom Shane
If you’re like me, you read too much about the NFL. And if you’re like me, you’ve already read four-hundred team and NFL previews. You’ve searched the web, you’ve bought every Street and Smith’s guide you can, you’ve even gotten so desperate as to look at the Jets official website for news. Yes, if you’re like me, you’re that hungry for the season to start. So, with that in mind, here is the JetNation camp preview, but with a slight twist–we’re going to tell you everything that could go wrong with the Jets this season. Consider this our own version of Boston’s 2004 ‘reverse-the-curse’ campaign. P.S. Does anyone know where we can exhume that piano that John Riggins threw into New York Harbor when he was traded to the Skins, btw?
The Bad News: Torn Labrums Are Bad–
Chad Pennington, going into camp, lists himself at “about 85%.” This is clearly the story of training camp. If Penny is hampered throughout camp by a cranky shoulder, look for him to struggle mightily in picking up new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger’s system. Penny has been both fortunate and unfortunate to have been in Paul Hackett’s offense for the majority of his career: putting up impressive stats, but falling into the bad habit of looking to his dumpoff receiver way too quickly. Dinger’s offense is a downfield, stretch the field type O that will force Pennington to have to take more chances with the ball and will really put a ton of pressure on that shoulder, especially early on in the season. If Chad’s health or his inability to break out of his dumpoff habits are still a factor by the time camp breaks, Dinger is going to have a tough call to make on whether or not to start Jay Fiedler. One thing that Dinger does not tolerate is a quarterback who does not, or cannot, execute the gameplan–just ask Steve McNair. I’m not suggesting that Penny is fighting for his job in camp, but Dinger came here to get a head coaching gig somewhere–as soon as next season. If Penny’s shoulder is hurting the team, Dinger isn’t going to waste time pulling him.
The Good News: Torn Labrums Are Not Always Bad–
Tennessee quarterback Billy Volek had a similar injury to Pennington’s last season and was back throwing, and very effectively I might add, only four months later. For as many horror stories as there are about the dreaded torn labrum (Greg Cook), there are a number of positive stories, like Volek’s, to give us hope. The Jets have been notoriously tight-lipped about Pennington’s health this off-season, so everyone is waiting to actually see Chad throw a pass before they make any definitive statements about where he is in terms of his recovery. Until then, expect to see alot of stories about how “cagey” and “heady” back-up Jay Fiedler is. Fiedler represents the other good news about the Jets QB position, as he is a capable veteran who knows how to play in big games and won’t be afraid to start a game in New England or in Buffalo if he has to. Terry Bradway didn’t give Fiedler big dollars to sign as a free agent for nothing. In today’s NFL, especially when your QB has missed as much time as Pennington has, a guy like Fiedler just might end up being the team MVP when it’s all said and done.
The Bad News: The L-Train Has Left the Station–
Lamont Jordan finally got his release from Herm Edwards’ inexplicable doghouse and is now the #1 back on an Oakland offense that might challenge the Colts for the highest scoring average in the league. For the most part, Lamont was gracious in sitting behind Curtis Martin for three seasons, but now he’s gone and Martin, at 32 and with a ton of mileage, is now being counted on to stay healthy. No one disputes that Curtis is a physical freak and an anamoly at a position where the average running back’s career lasts 3.5 seasons, but now the Jets are hoping that Curtis doesn’t pick this year to run out of luck. If he does, the job falls to free agent signee Derrick Blaylock, who impressed alot of people running behind a dominating Chiefs offensive line last season, but who will have alot to prove this year if he’s called on to play a significant amount of snaps in place of Martin.
The Good News: Newsflash! We Have the League’s Leading Rusher On Our Roster–
Yes, he’s slow. And yes, he hasn’t gotten the big yards in the big games. But has there ever been a player in NFL history who has been as disrespected as Curtis Martin despite putting up the kind of numbers with the type of consistency he has? No, he is not LaDainian Tomlinson, and he is not going to break one for 80 yards any time soon, but CMart shows up, gets his 4.5 YPC and doesn’t fumble. The hope is that Dinger will find a way to maximize Martin’s talents–and hide his weaknesses–better than Paul Hackett was able to. It’s no mistake that coaches fall in love with Martin; the man just gets it done.
The other good news is that we will finally get to see if BJ Askew can play football. He’s a big, talented back who has been locked to the bench during his two seasons, but with Jerald Sowell’s ridiculous contract squabbles, the fullback job will be Askew’s this season. While not a dominating blocker, despite his size, Askew brings alot of athleticism to the offense, particularly in the passing game. Look for him to assume a role much like Ben Troupe had in Tennessee under Dinger–alot of motion, and alot of opportunities to catch the ball and run in the open field. Also, look for rookie Cedric Houston to get some action in the backfield. For all of Martin’s greatness, he is not powerful enough to get the job done on third-and-short situations. Houston might fill that role admirably with his physical style and impressive strength.
The Bad News: Who Are These Guys?
The return of Lavernues Coles is good, but he is not a guy that keeps defensive coordinators up at night. Ditto Justin McCareins. While both are impressive athletically, neither has the ability to stretch the field by themselves. Say what you will about the impossibly soft Santana Moss, but he at least made a free safety even think about back-pedaling at the snap. Coles, despite coming out of college as a supposed 4.1/40 guy, has never been a huge downfield threat, getting most of his yards after the catch with his strength and quickness. Wayne Chrebet and Jerricho Cotchery are strictly possession receivers. Justin McCareins was able to do some damage as the third receiver in Tennessee under Dinger two seasons ago, but that speed was nowhere to be found with the Jets last year. Certainly, the effect of Paul Hackett’s conservative offense reigned Coles and McCareins in, but there is no question that the Jets lack team speed on offense, nowhere as glaring as at WR.
The Good News: Anthony Becht is Gone–
Becht was over-rated as a blocker and was a pitiful pass receiver. I will miss his mid-season whining about not getting enough catches, but the fact that he is off the team is addition by subtraction. Doug Jolley is soft, but he can run and catch, and Chris Baker might actually get a chance to step on the field this season. Both Jolley and Baker were prolific pass-catchers in college, and Dinger’s offense highlights the TE, so look for these two to have break-out seasons.
The Bad News: Our Right Tackle is a Tight End Who Can’t Catch–
When you wrap up minicamp and the first rumors to come out afterward is that the Jets might sign the immortal Scott Gragg to play RT, you know your team has a problem. Jones was brutal last year in pre-season (granted, it was against Dwight Freeney), but the fact remains that Jones is a project with a capital ‘P’ and Chad Pennington is brittle with a capital ‘B’. Jones was a converted TE in college whose athleticism made scouts drool, but the word ‘potential’ followed him around and still does. Kept under wraps last season, one really has to wonder just how much OL coach Doug Marrone was able to do with Jones’s ability to keep Penny standing up in just one season. If Jones fails, there is no Plan B currently on the roster, unless fellow raw project Marko Cavka is your cup of tea. Scott Gragg, stay tuned.
The Good News: Kendall and Mawae Return
Thank God for Denny Green, cutting Pete Kendall when he did. Kendall’s arrival was a gift, as he combined with Kevin Mawae and the emerging Brandon Moore to form one of the toughest, most physical interior lines in the league last season. The tackles, Fabini (who is slowing down) and Jones (see above) are question marks, but the Jets know that they have a wrecking crew on the inside that they can count on.
The Bad News: The Kicker is a Rookie–
We all saw it first hand last season. Nate Kaeding, lining up for the Chargers in the playoffs, getting ready to make a kick that would send the Jets home with a crushing loss, and missing. That, right there, is why no one trusts rookie kickers. The last rookie kicker to come into the league and not flop was Jason Elam for Denver, almost a decade ago. Now, the Jets, in a playoff push, are going the rookie kicker route. By all reports, Mike Nugent is for real, but no one will know until he’s in a Nate Kaeding-type huge-kick spot. The Jets have taken a huge gamble here.
The Good News: Nugent is NOT Doug Brien–
For all of Brien’s consistency and his professionalism, he has been flaky over his entire career in big spots and he proved that again last season in the Pittsburgh loss. Brien had to go, not because he was a bad kicker, but because there was no way that he’d be able to kick in front of 60,000 screaming Jets fans again in a big spot for fear of inciting a post-miss riot. Regardless of the fact that Herm Edwards did him no favors by asking him to kick two long field goals on a bad field in the playoffs, in a stadium where kickers go to die, the pressure on Brien this season to make every kick would have been unbearable for him. Like Scott Norwood in Buffalo, Brien had to go.
The Bad News: John Abraham is Not as Tough as Allan Houston–
What do you do when you’re an injury-riddled defensive end who (allegedly) refused to dress for the playoffs last season because of concerns about your “future”? Why, you hold out for a long term contract of course, demanding that the team show you some “loyalty.” John Abraham, for all of his talent, has shown himself to be a selfish malcontent who needs to go. To not even put on a pair of shoulder pads during the playoffs was despicable considering he was able to stand on the sidelines whooping it up for four hours without ill effect. The Jets will spin this anyway they can that Abe couldn’t go (contradicting themselves, I might add), but there were alot of players in the playoffs last season playing hurt. Abe was not one of them. When Terrell Owens, as big a ‘me’ guy as there is, is playing with a broken leg and dominating, it just lends further credence to the fact that Abe is an absolute waste of life. Alas, he’s a waste of life that we have to hope will “settle” for signing the franchise tag which will put $6.7 million dollars in his pocket.
Also in the ‘bad news’ file is the loss of Jason Ferguson. Fergy was not a great player by any stretch of the imagination, but he was a bull who held up offensive linemen, allowing the undersized Johnathan Vilma to run around untouched. The role of the nose-guard in a defense is probably the least appreciated, but the most important, factor in a defense’s success. Learning the nuances of that position is not as easy as it looks (the ’02 Pats can attest to that). If Lance Legree, Sione Pouha, and Tim McGill can’t keep offensive linemen off of Vilma, it will be a long season for Donnie Henderson.
The Good News: Shaun Ellis and Dewayne Robertson Emerged–
Last season DRob and Ellis both showed tremendous improvement in the two areas that were always in question for both of them: toughness and motivation. For all of Ellis’ talent and the early promise he showed as a rookie, he had a habit of disappearing in games. DRob always showed quickness and strength, but, like Ellis, was known to be invisible at times. Down the stretch last season, particularly in the playoffs, these two emerged as leaders and, dare I say, warriors. Who can forget the way that these two battled all day against the Steelers huge front line? Ellis, at one point, dragged himself into the locker room for IV treatment and ran, not walked, RAN, back onto the field to assume his position late in the game (while John Abe was in street clothes, laughing, mind you). What did Ellis do after that? He only forced a key fumble on Jerome Bettis on the next series. If Ellis and DRob keep progressing, they will start to remind people of the Reggie White-Jerome Brown combination in Philly during the late eighties.
The Bad News: There is Only One Vilma–
Easily the strength of this Jets team, the LB corps is quick, tough, smart (Eric Barton’s late hit against Brees notwithstanding), and angry. Regardless of who mans the SSLB slot, (Victor Hobson or Mark Brown), this group has the potential to take over games defensively as they did all of last season. Vilma played out of his mind last year and continues to amaze, considering his lack of size. Barton, a key free agent signee from Oakland, came in and, with Vilma, gave the defense a swagger it had sorely been missing. Vilma proclaimed earlier this off-season that their team goal is the Super Bowl. When was the last time a Jet player had the confidence to do that? Joe Namath?
The Good News: See Above–
It’s tough to find negatives to say about this group, so all Jet LB news is good news. The sky is the limit for this bunch. Look for Mark Brown to keep the SSLB spot over Hobson, who may not even make the team. The biggest change in the Jets last season was the authority given to Donnie Henderson to play whoever he wanted to play without Herm’s interference. Hendu trusted his young players and now the futue of the Jets D looks good. The same cannot necessarily be said of the offense (See Jordan, Lamont).
The Bad News: There Are Two Starters For Four Spots–
Erik Coleman was a revelation last season at FS. He has the swagger, the speed and the skills to make plays all over the field. Still, he struggled some in coverage at times, but will only get better. David Barrett played well at corner late in the season, if you exclude the appearances he makes on Torry Holt’s personal highlight reel. Barrett is a tough, extremely physical corner who reminds me alot of former Giant Mark Collins. Collins was better in coverage than Barrett currently is, but Barrett, if he continues to improve, has a chance to be very good.
At SS there is a logjam of players who “might” be the guy, but it will have to be fought out in camp. The candidates are rookies Andre Maddox and Kerry Rhodes, second year man Rashad Washington, and mid-season pick-up Oliver Celestin. In reality, the competition is between Rhodes and Maddox, with the others best suited for special teams duty. Rhodes is a ballhawk who lacks the physical nature to fill hard in the box, while Maddox excels in defending the run game but struggles against the pass. Whichever player corrects his fatal flaw to Donnie Henderson’s liking the fastest will probably get the starting job. The early leader to win it is Rhodes, who showed good speed and playmaking ability in minicamp. Henderson will not tolerate a soft player, but he loves forcing turnovers. That may be enough to give Rhodes the edge.
At the other corner spot, it is a three-way race between Derrick Strait, rookie Justin Miller and veteran Ray Mickens. Mickens has the early lead, but no one expects that to last. Mickens has been a very tough, gritty nickel corner for the Jets for a long time, but injuries and age have robbed him of the speed and quickness it will take to hold down the starting corner gig. Strait, despite being a step slow, is the most capable of stepping up and taking the job. The former Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s best DB at Oklahoma, Strait has a natural, instinctive gift for playing corner which makes up for his supposed lack of athleticism. On the other hand, Justin Miller is an amazing athlete, but a project who will need alot of time and coaching before he can assume a regular role on the defense. Still, he could potentially step up to win the nickel job, forcing Mickens out the door.
The Good News: Ty Law to the Rescue?
Ty Law wants to be a Jet (supposedly). The Jets want Ty Law (supposedly). So what’s the holdup? Carl Poston, Law’s agent, also knows that the Jets are in desperate need of a corner and is trying to gouge teams for Law’s services. The Jets will not overpay for Law, and no one else, so far, will either. If it happens, Law immediately gives the Jets secondary, last season called “the worst in the league” by Rams coach Mike Martz, credibility. (Did I just use ‘Mike Martz’ and ‘credibility’ in the same sentence?). Law will bring even more swagger, if not a blistering 40 time, to the Jets defense and will be an excellent mentor for Strait and Miller. Here’s hoping.
The Bad News: Our Punter is Used To Kicking a Melon–
Australian Rules Football phenom Ben Graham has the lead on the punter job. He is a big-time athlete with a powerful leg and incredible toughness. The bad news? He has never kicked a football in an NFL or college game before. The Australian Rules football looks similar to a honeydew melon, but bigger. How will that translate to kicking the relatively tiny NFL football out of his own endzone in a snowstorm in Foxboro? Nobody knows. Micah Knorr is his competition. That is more bad news.
The Good News: No Toby Gowin, No Louie Aguilar–
Name the last good Jets punter since Joe Prokop. Right. The good news is that Graham can’t be worse that Gowin. Or can he?
The Bad News: ‘As The Herm Turns’ Continues–
Herm has gotten to the playoffs three out of his first four seasons (good). Herm’s players like him (good). Herm is a snappy dresser and makes for a good sound bite (good). Herm has shown no progress from Day One at his job to now: his time management is becoming historically laughable, he still will not blame himself for his own mistakes (Baltimore, anyone?), and he is still too loyal to and too soft on “his guys” (Curtis Martin/John Abraham) for his own good (bad). Marty Schottenheimer and Tony Dungy, both Herm mentors, are both good coaches who find a way to lose in the playoffs. Herm fits that mold perfectly. That is (bad).
The Good News: Herm Can “Coach” Games From the Booth This Season–
If you attend training camp, watch how far away Herm stands from Donnie Henderson and his defense. Hendu will be the guy screaming players down for not running in and out of the huddle, for taking bad angles, and for misreading linemen’s stances. Last season, Herm was able to stand with Paul Hackett as Hackett walked his players through a light practice, low on energy and enthusiasm, and especially toughness. Notice how that carried over to the regular season? Now that the tough, aggressive Mike Heimerdinger is on the payroll, Herm’s buddy system will be out the door. Herm does not call defensive plays and he apparently cannot call an offensive play (see: Baltimore), and now that he has two premier coordinators, what is Herman left to do? Nothing. And this is a very, very good thing for Jets fans everywhere.