Shhh. Do you hear that? Quiet, isn’t it? It’s the hush that accompanies the end of another sports season. It’s a sound—or rather, lack of sound—that Jet fans haven’t been too accustomed to in recent years. Gone is the circus Bill Parcells reveled in, complete with three resignations, a blockbuster trade, and a near insurrection by the players. In its place is a stable regime that steered a severely misaligned Gang Green back to the playoffs and now enters the off-season needing only to tweak a bolt here and replace a fender there to return to the playoffs next season.
What makes that task easier is what made the 2001 season so difficult. While most teams must balance a defensive unit and an offensive unit operating at different levels of efficiency, coach Herman Edwards has a more complex task. A defensive backfield that ranked third in the American Football Conference was forced to support a defensive line and linebacker corps that gave up more yards on the ground than any team in the conference not located in Cleveland. The situation on offense was even worse: Curtis Martin rushed for more yards than all but one man in the NFL, while the passing attack was the worst seen by Jet fans since Browning Nagle stepped under center in 1992. Browning Nagle!
Unlike Nagle, current—and we mean that in the most immediate sense —quarterback Vinny Testaverde and his teammates forged a successful season. What went right in their 10 victories? What went wrong in those seven losses? Consider the following:
Next Stop, Canton
Without question the best move Parcells made in his four years at the Jets’ helm was signing running back Martin as a free agent in 1998. Since then, No. 28 has averaged almost 1400 yards a season, including a league second-best 1513 this year. In fact there isn’t a season in which Martin hasn’t run for 1000, a performance that only two other backs in league history have accomplished, and their names are Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson. Even more impressive is that in seven seasons of constant use, the 28-year-old former Pitt Panther has missed only four games—none in the past three years. Martin accounts for 38 percent of the Jet offense, numbers that Gang Green’s front office should keep in mind should Parcells call offering Tampa Bay’s draft picks for the next three years.
Gimme an O
Why offensive-line coach Bill Muir doesn’t get more press in this town is almost as big a mystery as why Testaverde thinks money would be the only thing stopping the Jets from bringing him back. Not only did Muir’s unit spring Martin for 4.5 yards a carry, it protected Testaverde better than all but one team (Chicago) in the league protected its quarterbacks. Over the past two campaigns, Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae has anchored a veritable stone wall, a line that has surrendered a mere 40 sacks—14 other teams gave up that many just this season alone.
In the past few days, though, some cracks have appeared in the Jets’ fortifications. Free of his contract because of an escape clause, Muir was reportedly packing his bags to join Parcells’s traveling circus in Tampa. Finding a new stonemason wouldn’t be easy.
V Isn’t for Victory
“You don’t install something like [the West Coast offense] so you can ease a 38-year-old into his forties,” said CBS analyst Randy Cross before the season.
How right he was.
Testaverde threw all but 23 passes in an aerial attack that rated ahead of only the Tony Banks-led Washington Redskins and the QB carousel used in Dallas. Handed an offense by coordinator Paul Hackett that emphasized short-range passes, Testaverde seemed preoccupied with deeper routes.
Neither was right.
Hackett’s offense produced one touchdown a game, while Testaverde’s throws were intercepted almost as often (14 times). None of it adds up to the $9.5 million the Jets’ QB is owed should he still be on the roster by early June. While in all likelihood Testaverde’s deal will be renegotiated to a more salary-cap-friendly figure, former first-round draftee Chad Pennington will get a long look at training camp. After a collegiate career of completing passes at a 63 percent clip, the Marshall grad might be what Hackett needs to warm up New York’s dormant West Coast attack.
The Barn Door’s Open
The Jets’ defensive line looked a lot like a turnstile. Too bad the unit didn’t ask for tokens; that might have slowed down the parade of running backs who charged through for 135 yards a game. While the loss of nose tackle Jason Ferguson to injury didn’t help, the line still boasted the services of second-year phenoms John Abraham and Shaun Ellis. Both seemed more interested in chasing down quarterbacks than stuffing runners at the line of scrimmage. Edwards’s early-season experimentation with their positions may have made both of them too tentative. If he doesn’t do any tinkering this time, Abraham and Ellis should improve. As for the rest of the line, well, there is this player draft in April.
You Can’t Hide on Third Down
It’s time to admit that the gnawing pain in Jets’ fans stomachs wasn’t in anticipation of the next Testaverde interception. It was the creeping notion that New York’s highly paid (due a total of $26 million in 2002, more than one-third of the team’s projected salary cap), highly hyped pass defenders were overrated.
With each backbreaking pass into Jet territory, fans and media alike quickly laid the blame at the feet of a defensive line that generated little pass rush outside of Abraham. They were looking in the wrong direction.
This wasn’t readily apparent from the numbers, which indicate that Aaron Glenn, Marcus Coleman, Victor Green, and Damien Robinson surrendered the seventh fewest yards in the NFL and picked off 20 passes. But an effective defense stops an opponent at the right moment, when possession is on the line. And to that end the Jets were anything but timely.
Opposing teams converted almost 45 percent of their third-down opportunities against Edwards’s crew, a dismal figure exceeded only by the (7-9) Atlanta Falcons. Of those successful conversions, two-thirds of them came via the pass. To put it in non-statistical terms, when push came to shove on defense, New York’s money men were more concerned with cashing their paychecks than earning them.
All that said, Gang Green still figures to be a playoff contender next season.
Assuming the front office can fend off most of the advances Parcells is reportedly making on them to fill a potential staff in Tampa, the Jets have most of the large pieces of the puzzle in place. With a little peace and quiet, General Manager Terry Bradway and Edwards should be able to fill in the holes.