The Jets have spent this season violating the axioms of the NFL:
Vinny Testaverde will never live up to his Heisman Trophy potential.
Bryan Cox is out of gas.
The Jets will never win a division title.
But if the Jets hope to continue their starring role in the playoffs past the AFC Championship in Denver, they will have to break the most revered rule of all— defense wins championships.
Moving 70 yards on only seven plays to begin last Sunday’s 3424 playoff win over Jacksonville illustrated that the Jets’ most reliable strength lies in the team’s ability to score points— and score them quickly.
Take a peek at the teams remaining in the playoffs. The Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos, and New York Jets were ranked second, third,and fourth, respectively, in total offense this season. (Atlanta ranked seventh.) What truly makes these offenses lethal, though, is the speed with which they can attack. In Minnesota, quarterback Randall Cunningham seems to have perfected the 60-yard jump ball to receiver Randy Moss. John Elway of the Broncos need only hand off to Terrell Davis or find Shannon Sharpe for a quick six. And in New York, Testaverde has Keyshawn Johnson, Dedric Ward, and Wayne Chrebet to help spin the numbers on the scoreboard.
“The only way to score points in the NFL is hitting big plays and creating big opportunities,” says ESPN football analyst and former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. “Coaches talk about ‘We want to run the football.’ They want to run the football at the end of a game to protect a lead. They want to run the ball effectively on first-and-10 so that you have manageable second downs. That’s what coaches mean.”
While it may appear that quarterbacks such as Cunningham and Testaverde are merely lofting passes in the air that their receivers chase down, the match to these football powder kegs lies in play-calling. By altering the formations out of which their offensive plays are run, the Jets, like the Broncos and Vikings, create mismatches that leave opposing defenses on their heels.
“If the Jets line the [full]back outside the wide receiver and he’s Keith Byars, he’s just as dangerous in a short passing situation as Wayne Chrebet on the inside, so [a defense] is not going to shift personnel,” says fellow ESPN football analyst Tom Jackson. “They’re going to leave the cornerback outside, the linebacker inside, and give safety help to the guy inside. Then the back on the outside comes inside, the wide receiver runs that little shoot-and-go down the sideline, and all of a sudden the [cornerback] is getting safety help on Keith Byars and you’ve got Wayne Chrebet going down the sideline on a linebacker.”
By leaving an opponent guessing as to where it should line up, a creative offense can make a defense hesitate, an especially effective tactic in the postseason. Teams feel the need to pressure opposing quarterbacks in the playoffs, according to Jackson, a desire that manifests itself in a commitment to the blitz. A change of lineup may buy an offense just enough time to spring a fleet-footed receiver past an over-aggressive defense.
“When you show a defense a different formation, they have to go to really a base coverage,” notes Theismann. “[The defense] has to go to a zone or some simple form of man-to-man. They’re afraid to throw a zone blitz at you because they could get gashed. By being creative in your formations, you create some doubt, you create some simplicity, and it gives you an advantage.”
The Jets are not alone in attempting this brand of trickery, but they are among the few teams with enough potential threats to be capable of pulling off the bait-and-switch.
“The key to moving the ball quickly is having guys who can do that,” says Jets tight end Kyle Brady. “There are some guys on this team who can— Keyshawn, Dedric, Wayne, Curtis [Martin], and a bunch of others.”
For New York, few have moved faster than Johnson, who posted his first NFL 1000-yard receiving season and was elected to the Pro Bowl. “The thing I’ve been so impressed with about Keyshawn,” says Theismann, “has been his growth as a receiver, his understanding of the position.”
Indeed, Johnson has become a complete player. Against Jacksonville, he did everything but sweep out the stands: nine catches for 121 yards and a touchdown; 28 yards rushing, including a reverse for a touchdown; and a game-sealing interception. Standing six feet three inches tall, Johnson has abused countless smaller defensive backs, routinely outleaping them for Testaverde’s passes. But what truly has made the author of Just Give Me the Damn Ball! as dangerous as a Moss or a Sharpe has been his ability to marry his physical talent with a newly developed sense of toughness; a bond evident in Johnson’s willingness to catch passes in the middle of a defense.
“What I’ve noticed in Keyshawn,” says Theismann, “is when he has to catch a ball over the middle, he has the ability to keep his body under control while he’s running and still reach up and snatch it. That’s why he’s going to the Pro Bowl.”
Of course, Johnson wouldn’t be going to Hawaii if it wasn’t for his Pro Bowl teammate this year, Testaverde, who, in his 12th season, also did a little growing up. With an offensive philosophy already set before he stepped in to replace Glenn Foley early this season, Testaverde played caretaker to the offense, a role that allowed the former Buccaneer, Brown, and Raven to become the AFC’s top-rated passer. It’s Testaverde’s willingness to let other players on the field work for him that Theismann credits for the difference: “If it’s third down and eight, you can throw a five-yard pass, let the back go get the next three [yards]. If it’s third down and 10, you can hit Keyshawn on a six-yard crossing pattern, let him go get the next four or five.”
Testaverde must have been listening Sunday when he found Johnson over the middle for a 20-yard completion on a third-down-and-14 in the fourth quarter. The catch for a first down helped the Jets regain the momentum they lost after the Jaguars had closed their deficit to seven points and sacked Testaverde on the previous play.
Against Denver, though, the Jets will be trying to reverse two seasons’ worth of Bronco momentum. The defending Super Bowl champions looked nigh invincible against Miami last Sunday, as Davis rumbled for almost 200 yards. Like every team remaining in these playoffs, though, Denver’s weakness could play into the Jets’ strength.
“Denver’s not a great defense,” observes Jackson. “However, when their offense is clicking and they go up 10 to 14 points, defensive coordinator Greg Robinson can commit to the blitz packages he needs. Then you don’t see the weaknesses in coverage that you saw à la the Giants and Miami [Denver’s only two losses]. But with a team that plays them even and sticks with them for a quarter or two, I think you see a different dynamic on defense.”
So can the Jets stick with the Broncos in Denver? If the Jets offense remains as dynamic as it’s been, it shouldn’t take long to find out.