AFC East Preview: Team Unity is the Key to Jets season

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Note: (All offensive/defensive ranking statistics use the footballoutsiders.com excellent DVOA rating formula.)

Earlier this week I began previews of the AFC East Division with looks at the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills, today we move on to the New York Jets (Look for the New England Patriots preview tomorrow).

Back in 2008, the Baltimore Ravens hired Eagles’ assistant coach John Harbaugh to be their new head coach after a nine-year run by former head coach, Brian Billick   Stay with me, Jets’ fans, I’ll get to the J-E-T-S in a minute).  Billick was the coach who led the Ravens to their only Super Bowl in 2000, but he was also the coach who oversaw the offensive degeneration of the Ravens, culminating in the 25th-ranked offense by DVOA in his final season.  The move to hire Harbaugh was quite a surprise at the time considering he was a career Special Teams coach, with only one year of coaching defensive backs.  Other candidates were rumored to be the front-runners for the job (including current Cowboys head coach, Jason Garret), and outside of these hot candidates the Ravens already had a strong candidate on their current staff – Rex Ryan.  Ryan had been the defensive coordinator of the Ravens for three years at the time he was looked-over for their head job.  It was viewed by many on the outside that Ryan was ready for a head coaching job and the choice seemed logical since he was the one running the Ravens dominant defense.

Since hiring Harbaugh, however, the Ravens have gone to the post-season four straight times, and the offense has seen its biggest improvement under him.  The 25th-ranked unit he inherited has one top-10 finish, have never ranked lower than 20th in four seasons, and finished a respectable 13th in 2011.  It should be mentioned that the hiring of Harbaugh also coincided with the drafting of quarterback Joe Flacco, and that he has had as much to do with the offensive turnaround as anybody. But it isn’t so much the improvement in the offense alone that I want to give Harbaugh credit for, but the way the Ravens play and act like a team that is one unit instead of a divided team.

Team leader Ray Lewis has echoed this unity by repeatedly saying in interviews that he believes in Joe Flacco and the offense.  When the Ravens failed to score a TD at the end of regulation in their playoff loss to the Patriots last season, and subsequently missed a game tying field goal to force overtime, there were no sound bites from a bitter Ravens defense blaming the offense or the special teams for failing to get the job done.  John Harbaugh has been a true head coach to his entire team and they have benefited from it.  The Ravens clearly made a strong choice when selecting Harbaugh as their coach.

On the flip-side, the New York Jets are left trying to pick up the pieces from a lost season in 2011 that saw an 8-5 record crumble into 8-8 and the first non-playoff season of Rex Ryan’s tenure as HC.  The season has been defined by their late season collapse and the rash of reports (mostly generated from comments from Jets players who were there) that have painted a picture of the Jets as a team divided.  Third string QB, Greg McElroy, even went as far as to say the Jets locker room was full of selfish individuals who were not concerned with team performance.  When reports like this show up, and the team is impacted in the win column, it must fall on the head coach.  Rex Ryan has already taken the blame for this, whether he realized he was doing so or not.

In early January, shortly after the Jets season had concluded, Rex Ryan gave an interview on “The Micheal Kay Show” on ESPN New York Radio.  In the interview he admitted the need for him to take a bigger role in the offense.  “I will definitely be around the offense more, there’s no doubt, for no other reason just so I have a better idea of our team,” Ryan said.  It is great that Ryan wants to take responsibility for the situation, but does he realize he is the head coach and not a glorified defensive coordinator who also decides when to punt and go for it?  Ryan has to be totally involved in every facet of the team; offense, defense, special teams, that is what a head coach does.  For him to concede he should be spending more time with the offense shows that he didn’t truly understand what his position should have been.   If he fails to act on his claim then we could see another divided team in New York this upcoming season, especially considering some of the head-line grabbing moves they have made this offseason.

In typical Jets fashion they haven’t shied away from any of the bad press or tried to deal the “trouble” players who may have caused more turmoil than others (i.e. Santonio Holmes).  Instead they have upped the ante again for 2012, just the way Rex Ryan likes to do it.  Peyton Manning changing teams was the biggest player move of the offseason, but after that no trade has grabbed more headlines or created more speculation than the Tim Tebow acquisition (hold that thought for a minute).  The Jets also made another big off-season splash by acquiring former Miami Dolphins head coach, Tony Sparano, to run the offense.  Sparano is known for being a hard-nosed coach (former O-line coach) with a brash personality.  These two moves together could have potentially disastrous consequences for the Jets.

The player the Jets most need to improve and play with confidence is incumbent quarterback Mark Sanchez.  Acquiring such a notable player with a huge following that will be calling for him to start from day one puts even more pressure on Sanchez to perform.  Teaming this player with the coach who brought the wildcat back to the NFL on a limited basis, and letting the offseason speculation about how Tebow will be utilized run rampant, only adds another layer of uncertainty and pressure.  Again, I am sure this is just how Rex Ryan wants it.

In my opinion Sparano is a great coach. He has helped to develop successful running games in Dallas and Miami and I never felt Dallas played with the same edge after he left (although they were a Wade Phillips team from that point on, so maybe there is more to it).  Tebow has proved he belongs in the NFL with his play last season.  Adding good people and good talent to your team is never a bad thing.  I am all for putting the pressure on Sanchez prior to the season, also.  But the reason these moves could be potentially disastrous is that they add more pressure and expectation to the combustion chamber that is the New York Jets.  If Sanchez struggles out of the gate then the media will be calling for Tebow in an instant, just as it happens, and there may even be some in the Jets locker room who feel the same way.  This is why Ryan has to make sure that in 2012 he is the head coach of the entire team, he cannot just hand the keys to Sparano and worry about the defense.  If he can do this and the Jets can build a unified team that can fight together through the inevitable struggles that will come in any season, and work together to win as they did early in Ryan’s tenure.  In the end we know that winning cures all ills.

I don’t know how Tebow is going to be used and I am not going to speculate as there are numerous reports from analysts on this.  I will say that I believe Sparano is a great hire because he will help the running game and his brash personality will fit right in with the head coach.  Ryan wants to have a run-first offense that can limit turnovers and Sparano can help him get that.  On the other side of the ball there is little reason to worry – the Jets have the talent on defense to be a Superbowl contender.  They proved this in 2009 and 2010 by making back to back AFC Championship games.  They also proved this in 2011 by grabbing their third straight top-five defensive DVOA rating.  They had added pieces to the defense again this year through the draft, and after three years of near dominance, it would be foolish to underestimate Rex Ryan and his defense.  What needs to improve is the play on the offensive side of the ball, but more than that the Jets need to prove they are a united team.  If they can do this then they have all the talent to challenge the Patriots for the division title.

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