Saturday, November 26, 2011

Week 12-Sad Sack

The picture on the left looks familiar, doesn't it?

Like any other Jets fan, I'm sick of the hangdog look that follows every crushing mistake. I fully understand that mistakes are unavoidable, I expect the quarterback to turn it over on occasion. I also expect him to make plays occasionally. Watching a quarterback make mistakes while failing to move the ball makes you feel like you're watching a rookie. This isn't what we were expecting as Jets fans when we took Mark Sanchez 5th overall in 2009. He is so tentative in the pocket, so absolutely flustered by the slightest bit of pressure, I've given up trying to defend him.

The whole offense is struggling. We're having problems maintaining a running game, keeping Sanchez from taking big hits, and getting separation on the outside. We're clearly worse on offense then we were last season. Always trying to bring in new skill people and thinking that everyone is going to coalesce and turn into the greatest show on turf is clearly folly. I used to believe that offensive line continuity was the most important part of offensive success, but, with the modern passing game relying mostly on a series of pre-snap adjustments, having receivers who are always on the same page with your QB is a big deal.

Just look at Green Bay. Watching the Packers school everyone they face speaks volumes about maintaining continuity with your offensive personnel. Aaron Rodgers is outstanding and crazy accurate with the football, but, their whole team is so crisp offensively, it's obvious that keeping the same core of skill people and developing them together is still the best way to succeed at the NFL level.

Anyway, the Jets limp back to MetLife at 5-5 after blowing the Broncos game, where they will face the also-collapsing Buffalo Bills, who are at 5-5 after being crushed the last 2 weeks by a combined score of 79-15. The Bills are facing a myriad of injuries to key people, including Fred Jackson, who was their most consistent offensive threat for most of the season. New York will need to finish at 5-1 in their last 6 to have a prayer at a postseason berth. The schedule over the last 6 games is not too difficult, but, when you're not playing well, every opponent is a tough game.

In the very least, we will know as a fanbase just how low we've sunk if we can not beat the Bills tomorrow. We've been able to control the line of scrimmage against Buffalo over the last few seasons. Having the ability to repeat this formula will be the key to the game. If the last few games are any indication, we won't be able to rely on Sanchez to fling it around the field. We must run the ball and stay in manageable distances for Sanchez, leaving him with easier throws to make. At this stage, I would be willing to accept any type of victory we can muster.

Kickoff tomorrow is at 1 pm.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Week 11-Not The Guy

Developing a young quarterback is not unlike raising a child. After a few years, you may not know what he or she is going to be when they get older, but you probably know what they're not going to be. Your child could attain any level of personal or professional success in life, of course, but you probably know, or at least have a feeling, as to whether or not they are gifted. If they have a chance to be Stephen Hawking, you probably have some idea already that they are capable of achieving great things academically.

We are on our third year of the Mark Sanchez experience, and, though he has a chance to be a solid QB in the league, everyone should know by now that we didn't draft Joe Montana or Otto Graham. Sanchez seems unable to see portions of the field at key times during the game, he seems to lock on to his primary receiver from the snap (think about the Buffalo interception on the first drive, among others), and the Jets offense goes through stretches of the game when they can't get first downs, can't take advantage of field position given to them by the defense thanks to stops and turnovers, and can't score. And it's mostly on Sanchez.

The Jets have been so concerned with Sanchez making a crushing mistake that they almost always take the most conservative approach. End of the half from your own 35 and less than 30 seconds? Sure, we'll take a knee. Third and 14 from our own end? We're running a screen or a draw and hoping LT can pick it up. If we don't get it, we'll punt.

This frustrating way of playing is necessitated far more because of Sanchez' inconsistency then because of trying to protect the defense, or trying to keep the game close and play the field position game, or whatever excuse we're coming up with this week. The owners and their benefactors at the networks have decided that they want the NFL to look more and more like a 7-on-7 drill, like an Arena league game. They want a ton of points, quarterbacks who never get hit as they fling it around the field 40 times a game, with fear and courage removed from the equation (at least, as much as possible). The NFL under Roger Goodell takes me for granted. Instead, he'd like to win over people who think football is far too dangerous. I really wish Goodell would stop trying to sanitize my violence. Or resign. One of the two.

As I watched some old NFL films on Hulu the other night as I fell asleep, taking in the highlights of the Super Bowl I Champion 1966 Green Bay Packers season, I began to realize just how much the game has changed. Imagine using a two-back set, but actually using both backs to handle the ball (and keeping the other on the field to block...which you almost never see today). Imagine seeing a receiver on a crossing route or a wheel route actually having to find the safety, or being genuinely concerned about getting his head taken off. I miss that game. A lot of other fans I talk to miss it as well. Points and yards that are easy to come by are of lesser value, just like anything else that gets handed to you easily. I believe that game is gone forever, as the modern NFL will continue to look more and more like flag football and less like the game where courage can be the great equalizer over talent.

In this modern game, you better have a guy in the pocket (or on the edge) who can test the perimeter of the defense with accuracy, or you will be far too easy to defend, with points always coming at a premium. Sanchez is not that guy now, and he most likely will never be that guy. Luckily, this week the Jets face another guy who will never be that guy in Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. Denver is 3-1 with Tebow starting, as Head Coach John Fox is trying just about anything to string first downs together with a QB who completes 45% of his throws. All signs point to a low scoring struggle that will test the Jets mettle as much as any on the schedule.

The Jets are playing on 3 days rest, flying halfway across the country to play at altitude against a spirited home crowd and a team playing their best football of the season. They would be well advised to come prepared, or they will find themselves at 5-5, and effectively out of the playoff race. If the Jets can string together a few wins, they can put themselves in solid position for a franchise-+record third consecutive playoff appearance. But, if they lose to Denver, the season will most likely end in the disappointment of failed expectations.

New York will be without Tomlinson and Kerley against Denver, so they will have to get contributions from unexpected sources, and the defense must wrap up and bring hats to the ball. If they lose contact, they will not be able to get off of the field. If I were Rex Ryan, I would hope to take the ball to start the game, move it down the field and get points, and put the pressure on Tebow to have to throw it. If they execute that plan, they should be able to get back on the winning track.

Kickoff tomorrow night from Mile High is at 8:20 pm.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Week 10-The Pats Come Calling

The Jets handled the first half of their division showdown last Sunday, soundly beating the Buffalo Bills, 27-11. The Giants managed to travel to Foxborough and hand New England a defeat, meaning that Buffalo, New England, and the Jets are all tied at 5-3 on top of the AFC East. The second half of the showdown happens tonight, as the Jets host New England for a shot at sole possession of the lead in the division. The Jets won the ground game battle for the second consecutive week, outgaining the Bills on the ground 126-96, and QB Mark Sanchez completed 71.4% of his passes while playing one of his more efficient games throwing the football. Despite Sanchez' accuracy, he still managed to commit 2 costly turnovers, which contributed to the game remaining competitive during the first half. It's easy to forget that Sanchez is still a young quarterback (he turned 25 years old on Friday) who still has a lot to learn. He is on pace for a career high for TD passes, completion percentage, and QB rating, so, even though he may not be the player we all want him to be, there is evidence that he's moving in the right direction.

One of the keys to the Jets recent turnaround has been the play of our offensive line. All-Pro C Nick Mangold appears to be close to full strength, and the Jets have begun to take control of the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. New York is playing their best football of the season, just in time for New England to come for a nationally-televised visit.

Much has been made of the Pats recent struggles by the talking heads on TV. New England got off to a 5-1 start as everyone struggled to slow down Brady and his outstanding offense. The last 2 weeks have been a different story, as Brady has been unable to free his receivers down the field. The Patriots have lacked a true deep threat since Randy Moss left last season, which enables the defense to defend less territory, and contributes greatly to the defense being able to get off the field.

New England's defense is ranked dead last in the league, giving up 416 yards per game, including 314 yards through the air. With this track record, you would expect their opponents to throw the ball until the Pats prove they can make stops, but I would imagine that you're going to see more of the double teams at the point of attack and power running that has led the Jets to 3 consecutive victories.

It took 6 games, but the Jets have slowly regained the identity that helped them reach consecutive AFC Championship games over the last 2 seasons. New England is always dangerous even when they're not playing their best, but the Jets have been the better team recently, and should be able to beat the Pats at home as long as they can control the Patriots run game better than they did in Foxborough, and as long as Mark Sanchez avoids mistakes. The Jets have a chance to take control of the AFC East, as long as they play smart and play clean.

Kickoff from MetLife Stadium is at 8:30 tonight.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Week 9-Third Time's A Charm

The bye week has not been friendly to the Jets since the Rex Ryan era began. In each of his first two seasons as head coach of the New York Jets, his team has come out of the bye week completely flat. In 2009, the Jets followed the bye week with a home game against Jacksonville. Sitting at 4-4, they had every reason to be prepared to make a second half move for a playoff run. Instead, they gave up 123 yards on the ground to Maurice Jones-Drew and an efficient afternoon to David Garrard on their way to a 24-22 home loss, the famous game where MJD took a knee rather than score a TD, leaving the Jets without no time to respond. The Jets would lose the next week to the Pats at Foxborough before finishing the season with five wins out of six and a whole lot of help to get into the playoffs as a wild card.

In 2010, the Jets were riding high on a five-game winning streak and sitting tied atop the AFC East with the Pats at 5-1 when the eventual champion Green Bay Packers came to town. Despite outgaining the Packers 375-251, the offense turned it over three times and failed to score a point, losing 9-0. You may remember this game for the fake punt by current Giant Steve Weatherford, who decided to take off from deep in Jets territory on a 4th and 18. Great decision, Steve.

In both cases, the team seemed to sleep through the game the way many of us do on the Monday after a vacation. The tackling left something to be desired, and the Jets' offensive and defensive lines were unable to control the line of scrimmage. Now, in year three of Ryan's tenure, the Jets face the two game stretch that will determine whether or not they are really contenders for an AFC East title and that elusive home playoff game.

This Sunday, the Jets make the trip to Buffalo to face a fast improving Bills team that is off to a 5-2 start in 2011. The Bills have used the vastly underrated Fred Jackson, the accuracy of Ryan Fitzpatrick, and an opportunistic defense to get off to their best start in three years. The current Bills team doesn't seem like it will wilt like the 2008 version that collapsed to 7-9. They are 5th in the NFL in point differential. Fitzpatrick is on pace to throw for almost 4,000 yards and 28 TD. At his current pace of a little more than 153 yards a game from scrimmage, Fred Jackson would finish with the second-highest total from scrimmage in the history of the league.

Of course, the defense still gives up a ton of yards, ranking 26th in the league. The difference has been turnovers, where the defense has forced a league-leading 18 turnovers, with the team sitting at a +9 for the season. There is an element of fortune in the turnover game, and surviving through a whole season relying on turnovers can be difficult, it can be done. The 2009 Saints come to mind as a team that was able to get turnovers throughout the season, all the way to a championship.

I feel like there can (and quite possibly will) be a 10-win team that doesn't make the playoffs in the AFC in 2011. The Jets have a chance to position themselves nicely with a win on Sunday. If the team that showed up in the second half against the Chargers two weeks ago makes the trip upstate, the Jets should be able to handle their business in Buffalo.

Shonn Greene ran with a purpose against San Diego, cracking 100 yards for the the first time in 2011. Plaxico Burress made good in the red zone, rescuing yet another uneven performance from Mark Sanchez. I feel like the way Sanchez handles these next nine games will go a long way in determining his development and future with the franchise. Either he can develop in to the kind of accurate thrower that every team seeks, or we are looking at a 56 percent passer who will always hold the offense back. There are still times in the game where he struggles to see the whole field, and I don't know what else has to happen for this to improve. We are about 40 games into the Mark Sanchez experience, and at some point soon he will be close to a finished product. I like the 12 TD to 6 INT ratio, but his accuracy still keeps the Jets from being more efficient offensively.

Are we prepared, as Jets fans, to look back at this era feeling like we had a team that could have won championships if they had a better player at the QB position? Hopefully, Sanchez can develop to the point where we can truly use him as an asset, but he's not there yet. For now, we will all settle for someone who is judicious with the ball and gives his skill people a chance to excel. There will be plenty of opportunities this week against Buffalo (and next week against the Pats) for Sanchez to step forward and lead his team to lots of yards and points. Neither of those defenses are going to be mistaken for the Ravens anytime soon.

If both New York City teams win this weekend, we will have a three-way tie for first in the AFC East, which seemed impossible after the three-game losing streak a few weeks back. The team recognizes how important a win would be, not just for the standings, but for their confidence, as a team that hasn't won on the road yet in 2011, despite being one of the best road teams in the NFL over the last few years. If the defense can control Fred Jackson and continue to run the ball efficiently, they should be able to get a victory over the Bills.

Kickoff in Orchard Park is at 1 pm on Sunday.