Football isn’t a game that requires much nuance to play. Size, strength, and speed win every time. And evaluating the game doesn’t call for much more finesse. No less a coach than Bill Parcells often assessed the quality of his teams solely in terms of their rec-ords. So a Jets team that now stands at 7-3 is just that, a 7-3 football team.
Drawing that Parcellsian logic out a bit, when Curtis Martin gains 983 yards in 10 games, he is no less than the league’s leading rusher. And when Vinny Testaverde completes less than 60 percent of his passes, he is . . . killing the Jets’ offense.
Lost in the euphoria of the Jets’ “winnin’ ugly” march to the top of the division is offensive coordinator Paul Hackett’s West Coast offense, which ranks 26th out of the league’s 31 teams. At this rate, Gang Green might have better luck in the Meadowlands end zone finding Jimmy Hoffa than a receiver. And unlike the identity of the culprit in the Hoffa case, that of the man victimizing the Jets is clear.
Averaging a mere 150 yards passing a game, Testaverde drags a passing attack that ranks lower than all but that of two clubs, Dallas and Washington, and both have featured a carousel of signal-callers this season. The two-time Pro Bowler has yet to connect for 200 yards in a game and has thrown a mere nine touchdown passes. Those aren’t the kind of numbers Hackett was hired to produce when head coach Herman Edwards tabbed the Bill Walsh disciple to install a spread-the-ball philosophy that promised to chew up yards and time.
Hackett warned in the preseason that the club would not find a comfort level with his voluminous playbook until it had tucked three or four games under its belt. But in the six games since that supposed benchmark, Testaverde and the offense have proven adept at little more than spreading out the time before the defense takes the field.
In contrast to seasons past, there aren’t many excuses for the team’s offensive impotence. Testaverde is healthy. Edwards listened to his players and paced training camp to keep his players fresh for the season. And the emergence of receiver Laveranues Coles (who’s caught 35 passes while averaging 14.3 yards per reception) has all but closed the adjustment period to the post-Keyshawn era.
Still, the team moves down the field with all the momentum of a brick wall. In Miami, that translated into almost 10 fewer minutes of possession time than the Dolphins, an alarming deficiency for a team sporting the league’s best rushing attack.
The problem is Testaverde, whose fault doesn’t lie in what he hasn’t done; it lies in what he can’t do, which is run the West Coast offense.
The system Bill Walsh designed and brought to prominence with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s worked because of the personnel he had to run it. Jerry Rice and John Taylor ran precise routes and possessed the speed to break away from defensive backs, Roger Craig rushed effectively and could flash out toward the sideline for a pass, and, most important, Joe Montana could get the ball into the hands of his receivers. Montana wasn’t necessarily asked to do anything fancy, mind you. He simply needed to complete the often-short pass to his receiver and let the intended target take the play over.
“That’s where you’re going to have your highest percentage,” says Hackett about the need to throw short. “It’s like shooting the ball under the hoop. Shaq is going to have a great percentage because he’s going to shoot the ball under the hoop as much as he can. We want to make completions as easy as possible and make as many as we can. Then you’ve got to run with it.”
When a quarterback can hit his receivers say, oh, 63 percent of the time—as Montana did—you can win four Super Bowls. When a quarterback can do that only 55 percent of the time—as Testaverde had entering this season—your offense takes up residence in the league’s nether regions.
This isn’t to say that Testaverde has become ineffective. When you throw for 3732 yards at the age of 37, as the Jets’ QB did last year, you’ve still got plenty left in the tank. But the car Testaverde is driving this year fits him the way a sports car fits an elephant. Even with a Herculean effort by Testaverde to make the fit more comfortable—he made an off-season move to Long Island to work more closely with Hackett—he hasn’t bridged the gap between No. 16’s abilities and the West Coast’s requirements.
“I think Testaverde has the mobility and maturity to run the offense,” says Todd McShay, a pro football analyst with the gridiron think tank Football Scouts. “But ultimately, Testaverde doesn’t have the precision to run this offense. It’s like the difference between a pitcher that throws strikes and one that throws to spots within the strike zone—this scheme requires its quarterback to throw to spots. That’s why guys like [Jeff] Garcia do so well.”
While not every quarterback running the West Coast can complete the 65 percent of passes that Garcia has this season, most have at least cracked the 60 percent threshold. Hell, even Buffalo’s Rob Johnson’s 62 percent rate tops Testaverde’s.
With Curtis Martin running away from the rest of the league and the defense pitching shutouts, Testaverde and his passing attack are free to unravel underneath the final score and first-place standing. But not every team is a rebuilding one in Kansas City or fighting the mental demons of a Miami team that had lost seven straight to the Jets. And when the time of reckoning comes, the fissures in Testaverde’s melding to the West Coast may send this team to the exit. The record speaks for itself.