New York Jets Pushing Boulders as Cranes Carry NFL Rivals to New Heights

Geno Smith wasn’t a first-round quarterback, but someone else could be next year for the New York Jets. Image courtesy of Sports Illustrated.

Have you ever say down with a grandparent or anyone overthe age of 60 and heard a sentence that started “Back in my day…”? You know the ones, the ‘back in my day we had to wait six months to go to the cinema and there was only one film showing’. The ‘back in my day we had to do all our sums on pen or paper, we had no calculators’.

Of course, there is some semblance of truth to the notion that more recent generations have much easier lives than those of the past, but there is no question that the things available to the youth of today have made them more efficient in their day-to-day lives. Has it made them lazy? Maybe. But when exclusively considering results, the person with the calculator is almost always going to be better than the person figuring out the sums in his or her head.

Right now, it’s easy to see the NFL in this light. The league has changed in recent years. Since the league’s inception, players such as Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and  Emmitt Smith were the leading stars. Each was a running-back, the position that offenses were built around and defenses were built to stop. Yet, with the turn of the century, things started to change.

Instead of following their star running-back, franchises started to build their offenses around the quarterback position. Johnny Unitas and Fran Tarkenton were ahead of their time in the 50s and 60s, but the movement really began once Joe Montana, Steve Young, Dan Marino and John Elway took over the league. From there, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Drew Bledsoe, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb helped usher in the era of the pass-first offense.

Successful teams stopped putting a premium on running-back talent, instead looking to find the right quarterback before building the strongest supporting cast around him that was possible. For more than a decade now the most successful teams have been guided by pass-first offenses, yet some are still too stubborn to adapt to the obvious.

More specifically, Rex Ryan’s New York Jets are trapped in the past with the way the franchise has been run since Ryan took over.

Ryan deservedly kept his job after getting the most out of limited talent last season, however it’s clear now that former general manager Mike Tannenbaum wasn’t the only one to blame for the franchise’s failings in recent years. John Idzik was brought in to replace Tannenbaum by rebuilding the roster and fixing the failings that had seen them stumble so far since those consecutive AFC Championship appearances.

Idzik was an exciting addition initially, because he is coming from one of the most innovative and exciting front offices in the NFL in Seattle. However, since arriving in New York, there has been less innovation and more of the same.

The Jets appear intent on running a ground-and-pound offense to complement their strong defense, while their moves this year have pointed to a lack of an overall identity.

Of course, the defense will be built even more in the image of Rex Ryan this year after the departure of Mike Pettine, but a decent defense can only carry you so far in today’s passing league. A defense that isn’t expertly constructed to contain opposing passing attacks has even less impact. Darrelle Revis had to go, his contract demands were much too high for any non-quarterback. Bart Scott’s release was a good follow-up move, because Scott was too great a liability in coverage to still start at this level. Yet, when the draft came, another move was made that suggests the Jets don’t understand how to win in today’s NFL.

Selecting Dee Milliner to replace Revis isn’t a problem, the team needed a cornerback and good, young cornerbacks are valuable commodities. However, by selecting defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson over other prospects such as safety Kenny Vaccaro, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, safety Eric Reid, tight end Tyler Eifert, defensive end Bjoern Werner, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and safety Matt Elam, the Jets passed up both athleticism upgrades on defense and playmakers on offense.

The Jets came away from the first round of the draft with a new cornerback and another big defensive lineman. It was the third year in a row that Ryan’s franchise took a large defensive lineman in the first round. The 2012 edition, Quinton Coples, would move from defensive end to outside linebacker because of Richardson’s arrival, meaning that the Jets now had a bigger, but slower overall front seven despite replacing Bart Scott with Demorrio Davis.

Don’t get me wrong, Muhammed Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and Sheldon Richardson are all excellent talents, Wilkerson in particular, but their value in today’s league is not as high as it would have been during the days of the prominent running-backs listed previously. There is a reason that prospects such as Aldon Smith, Bruce Irvin, Dion Jordan and Ezekial Ansah have all gone in the first round of the draft as specialist athletes/pass-rushers when they wouldn’t have during previous generations.

An interior rush is very important, but it’s something that doesn’t counter a quick-passing game, something that both the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills have used a lot in recent years within the Jets’ division.

Of course, you can’t judge a draft by just the first round. The Jets still had opportunities to add athleticism to their defense and playmakers to their offense surpassed the first round. Let’s skip the second round for the moment and get back to it later.

In the third round, the Jets selected offensive guard Brian Winters. A versatile player who helps fill offensive line needs. Okay.

The Jets traded their fourth round pick to the New Orleans Saints for running-back Chris Ivory. Ivory is a very good player who has the potential to be a dominant feature back, but he is very injury-prone and hasn’t proven himself capable of carrying the load. At best, Ivory turns into Adrian Peterson. But even in that incredibly unlikely scenario, how much better is the Jets’ roster than the Minnesota Vikings? What would allow them to get out of the first round of the playoffs?

Oday Aboushi, an offensive tackle, William Campbell, a guard, and Tommy Bohanon, a fullback, followed in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. The Jets completely ignored the skill-positions in the draft outside of trading for Chris Ivory(and maybe an argument can be made for a seventh-round fullback) and slowed down their defense.

The Jets made moves that any team playing football in the 1950s would have been proud of. They could dominate the opposition with their fearsome rushing attack and control the line of scrimmage on defense with their big bodies, except for the minor issue of this being the year 2013.

Running the ball still has a place in the NFL. Here are the top 12 regular season rushing teams from last year.

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Here are the 12 playoff teams from last year.

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Seven playoff teams ranked amongst the top 12 rushing teams from the regular season. However, the teams who ran the ball well without having extra dimensions to their offense were ultimately caught out. When it came down to it, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Colin Kaepernick and the offenses built around them were the primary reasons their teams advanced to the championship games.

None of those teams are overly reliant on their running-games. The 49ers and Ravens base their offenses off of a strong running-game, but the Ravens only won because Flacco went on a historic run of production and Kaepernick added a dimension to the NFL that hasn’t been seen before. At least, not at that level.

When teams stack the box to shut down Chris Ivory against the Jets, it won’t matter how much they’ve done to upgrade their offensive line. At some point, they will need to throw the ball to win games. It may be during the regular season, it may be during the playoffs. But when your offensive arsenal consists of Santonio Holmes(who may not be 100 percent physically or mentally), Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley, Jeff Cumberland and a bunch of misfits who wouldn’t see the field with other rosters, you have next to no chance of being an effective passing offense.

It wasn’t just the draft that perpetuated the Jets’ new front office as much like the old one. They invested in Mike Goodson, a running-back, Willie Colon, an oft-injured guard/tackle who is a specialist run-blocker, and Stephen Peterman, another guard. The Jets stocked up on offensive lineman in a league that is devaluing them in favor of open-field playmakers.

You don’t need to have Tavon Austin to upgarde your offense. This year’s class of wide receivers was so deep that the St. Louis Rams drafted two in the first three rounds to diversify their offense. Two of 11 that went in the first three rounds. Twenty-Eight wide receivers went in the draft, many more signed with new teams in free agency, yet the team with one of the most rigid, blunt offenses in the league couldn’t find the money or draft capital to invest in their passing attack?

Not even a tight-end or receiving back was brought in to help whoever starts at quarterback.

Which brings us to that most important of positions. What are the Jets doing at quarterback? Mark Sanchez was bad last year, but the reality is that his supporting cast dragged him down somewhat. Nobody can argue that Sanchez didn’t create a lot of problems for himself with his play, but the circus surrounding the franchise would take it’s toll on any quarterback and nobody could carry that supporting cast to the playoffs.

Rightfully, Sanchez won’t walk into a starting job this year. However, his competition makes little sense. Tebow is finally gone, but so is David Garrard, a veteran addition who was forced to retire because of a long-standing knee issue. Without them, Sanchez is left to compete with Greg McElroy and Geno Smith for the starting job.

Geno Smith. The 2013 second round pick of the New York Jets.

Smith wasn’t an elite prospect coming out of college. If he is to turn into one on the professional level it will surprise most analysts. His character has repeatedly been questioned and despite the work of Russell Wilson last year, players who slide like he did typically don’t prove their doubters wrong. Wilson had one clear issue, his height, which was the only reason anyone didn’t pull the trigger on him before the Seahawks. Nobody was that surprised that Wilson proved his doubters wrong, because he landed in a good situation and had only one real flaw.

Geno Smith has a lot of developing to do in terms of being a starting quarterback, which is why he hasn’t been named the starter yet. The quarterbacks who came out at similar points of the draft to Smith in recent years, Andy Dalton and Kaepernick, landed in much better situations to start. Smith likely won’t start straight away, but Rex Ryan can’t wait around for him because his job is on the line this year.

The Jets taking Geno Smith was very similar to the Jaguars selection of Blaine Gabbert a few years ago. At that time, Jaguars’ GM Gene Smith selected Gabbert, despite the fact that Jack Del Rio needed to win games to keep his job. Gabbert needed to develop behind expected starter David Garrard, but Garrard was released during the pre-season and the Jaguars came away from the off-season with worse offense than they had the previous season.

Swapping Geno Smith for Mark Sanchez won’t change much for the Jets. Had they surrounded Sanchez with weapons who could make him look better than he is, much like the Bengals and 49ers did with Dalton and Kaepernick, then they could have at least progressed towards being a competitive team. That just doesn’t seem likely with the direction the team has taken this off-season however.

When you juxtapose the Jets’ off-season moves with those of their division rivals, it’s easy to see how there is a clear divide in the philosophical approaches.

The New England Patriots spent the off-season adding pass-rushers and secondary additions to their defense, while trying to find that added speed dimension for Brady on the edges of the offense. The Miami Dolphins traded up to take a star edge-rusher in the first round of the draft, only after signing Mike Wallace to a huge contract and adding other offensive weapons and defenders who could play the pass. With Doug Marrone, the Bills are building an offensive identity. The Bills took EJ Manuel in the first round of the draft, but unlike the Jets, they added weapons around him even though they already had significantly more play-makers on the roster entering the off-season.

In a league that is speeding up, the Jets are slowing down. At some point someone will counter the speed with power to alter the direction of the league again, but the 2013 New York Jets are unlikely to be that team.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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