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The Jets' rise from early-season joke to mid-season juggernaut has been fueled by an offense as versatile as it is surprising. Career scapegoat Vinny Testaverde has become the top-rated quarterback in the AFC, while running back Curtis Martin has already posted more 100-yard games (four) than any Jet last season. But after three lackluster years, none has a more renewed lease on his football life than tight end Kyle Brady, who has quietly emerged as one of Gang Green's go-to men.
Through nine games, Brady has pulled in 18 catches and found the end zone four times, a career high. More tellingly, the Jets are 6-1 in games in which Brady has caught a pass. On a team featuring a hardworking fan favorite from Hofstra (Wayne Chrebet) and a flashy wideout who runs almost as fast as he talks (Keyshawn Johnson), Brady may be the key to the Jets offense.
Tony Marciano, the tight-ends coach for this weekend's Gang Green foe, Indianapolis, believes an effective tight end one that not only blocks well but catches balls in the middle of the defense affords an offense unusual freedom in its passing attack. "You have to defend the run," says Marciano. "But when your linebackers can't drop back into coverage and have to step up on the tight end, that opens up the intermediate routes for the wide receivers."
Indeed, Testaverde's ability to use the entire field has made Parcells's traditional run-first offense unpredictable. Eleven different players have caught passes for the Jets this season, and in the process the Jets have improved their offensive rank from 22nd last year to fifth after nine games this season.
Offensive diversity is nothing new for Parcells. For all his bluster about establishing a smash-mouth running attack, the Tuna has always provided his quarterbacks with a reliable tight end. With the Giants in the 1980s, Mark Bavaro would invariably bail out quarterback Phil Simms with a key third-down catch. In New England, Ben Coates became a 1,000-yard receiver and led the Patriots in receptions for three straight seasons. And now Brady has become an impressive alternative for the Jets, the kind of option an NFL signal caller can find quite endearing. "[The tight end's] really a quarterback's best friend," says Carl Smith, tight-ends coach for the Pats. "If your tight end is reliable, he's worth his weight in gold."
Prior to this year, Brady was barely pulling his own weight (268 pounds) after the All-American was drafted ninth overall by the Jets in 1995. His poor per-game receptions average left Brady in an open competition for the starting position during this year's training camp. Managing to hold onto his job, Brady has been subtly molded into an effective option step-by-step.
First, Parcells told Brady to relax to maintain his physical intensity, but to keep his emotions in check. Coaches had noticed that Brady was expending too much energy gearing himself up to play each down. The Penn State product said he even had trouble catching his breath in the huddle. "I'm trying to concentrate [on relaxing] because I was always way too high," says Brady. "That [means] going into the huddle and taking a couple of deep breaths."
Second, the Jets have been effective in camouflaging Brady from opposing defenses, moving him from side to side along the line of scrimmage. Marciano noticed that in beating New England three weeks ago, the Jets "did a good job adjusting their formations, moving Brady around." This kept the Patriots defense off balance all evening. And against the Dolphins in early October, Parcells and his staff moved Brady into a position between wide receivers, diverting the attention of Miami's defensive backs from New York's receivers.
The final piece to the puzzle is perhaps the simplest keeping Brady in the game. "Being in there every play makes a big difference," Brady says. "This offense was not, in any way, tailored toward the tight end. In previous years, on second-and-long and third-and-mid-to-long range situations, [the tight ends] were out every time; third and fourth receivers were being substituted." Brady illustrated his point Sunday by hauling in an eight-yard pass on second-and-long to set up a touchdown strike to Keyshawn Johnson, the Jets' first score in their 34-12 pasting of Buffalo.
Although Johnson's scoring proclivity and Chrebet's catching reliability garner most of the media attention, it is Brady's renewed productivity that has opened up the Jets offense. "You've got to understand who can beat you and who can beat you quick," says Marciano about the decisions a defense must make. "Do you want to die slow [with the tight ends and running backs making catches] or do you want to die quick [by giving up big plays to wide receivers]." With Kyle Brady erasing the "potential" label that has dogged him for the past three seasons, the Jets now can kill teams any way they choose.