Following a disastrous 4-12 season in 2007, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and coach Eric Mangini went on a spending spree in hopes of avoiding a repeat. Did they do enough to ensure New York’s return to playoff contention? So far, the results are mixed.
OFFENSE (#15 total yardage, #15 rushing, #15 passing, #8 scoring):
At the beginning of training camp, the main question about the offense concerned whether or not Kellen Clemens, the team’s alleged quarterback of the future, could wrest the starting job away from Chad Pennington. That instantly changed on August 7, 2008, when Brett Favre posed for pictures with a green-and-white No. 4 jersey and told the assembled media at his coronation how excited he was about being traded to the Jets. Nice knowing you, Chad, and drop off your playbook on the way out. As for Clemens, he may lose the No. 2 job to Brett Ratliff sooner rather than later.
The first seven weeks of Favre’s stay in New York have been a roller-coaster ride. He put up a career-high six-touchdown-pass performance against the Cardinals, but has also thrown seven picks in the last three games. When a Jets beat reporter asked Trent Edwards what would happen if he matched that second set of numbers, he responded, “I don’t even know. Me, with where I’m at in my career, I’m pretty sure that would be a pretty bad thing…I’m sure the media would be all over me, I’d be trying to find excuses and I’m sure there’d be some questions as to whether or not I should continue to be playing this position.”
Yeah, 457 career touchdown passes and three league MVP awards do tend to give a guy some wiggle room. So does throwing for the winning score with 1:05 left in the game, as Favre did against Kansas City last week, several minutes after his 91-yard pick-six had allowed the woeful Chiefs to take the lead. Favre may talk about protecting the ball, and his completion percentage is the best it’s ever been, but he’ll always have that gunslinger’s heart.
The quarterback has changed, but most of the receiving corps returns intact from 2007. As Laveranues Coles closes in on his 600th career reception (he’s currently at 598 catches for 7,678 yards and 42 touchdowns), it’s hard to imagine that he was the third wideout taken from Florida State in the 2000 NFL Draft. The Bengals apparently decided that both Peter Warrick (4th overall) and Ron Dugans (third round, 66th overall) were better than Coles, taken later in the third round (78th overall). Their combined career stats: 288 catches, 3,080 yards, and 21 touchdowns.
While Pennington obviously favored Coles, Favre has looked for Jerricho Cotchery more often, especially targeting him on third down. The two have nearly identical numbers through the first seven games, with Coles (37-433, 5 TDs) barely leading Cotchery (36-430, 3 TDs) on the stat sheet. The former No. 3 receiver, Justin McCareins, returned to Tennessee. He isn’t missed; second-year player Chansi Stuckey has filled in nicely, and Brad Smith (the former Mizzou quarterback) still sees some time.
Something to keep an eye on: Coles (thigh), Cotchery (shoulder), and starting tight end Chris Baker (hip) have all been limited in practice, and Bubba Franks will probably miss another week. That leaves rookie Dustin Keller and long-snapper James Dearth as the only healthy options at tight end, and Dearth isn’t much of one, so backup lineman Robert Turner might be pressed into service at the position.
Earlier in the season, segments of the New York media were suggesting that Thomas Jones had “lost a step.” Not sure how they could tell, since he was never a track star to begin with, but his 4.4 yards-per-carry average is the highest it’s been since 2003. That still may not be enough to keep Leon Washington from assuming a greater portion of the workload, though – unlike Jones, he is a home-run threat. (Ask the Chiefs defense after Washington stunned them with a 60-yard touchdown run last week, the Jets’ longest in six years.) To back them up, the Jets added Marcus Mason from the Ravens’ practice squad to replace Jesse Chatman, who went on injured reserve.
The Jets paid for shipping the disgruntled Pete Kendall out of town before last season began. Without the veteran guard to steady them, left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold struggled, Jet quarterbacks were sacked 53 times (just two fewer than the league-worst Chiefs and 49ers), and Jones averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Tannenbaum and Mangini knew they couldn’t afford a repeat, so they paid the hefty price to sign seven-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, and also added Damien Woody to play right tackle. The two big-ticket additions give New York a remarkable four first-round picks on the line; only right guard Brandon Moore, undrafted in 2003, isn’t a member of that exclusive club.
So far, the results are mixed: they’re certainly better than last year’s unit, but Favre, who hasn’t been sacked 30 or more times in a season since 2000, is on pace for 36 takedowns this year.
DEFENSE (#12 total yardage, #4 rushing, #23 passing, #20 scoring):
For the last two years, the Jets have been trying to play a 3-4 with players ill suited for the scheme. They addressed that mismatch during the offseason, trading Jonathan Vilma and Dewayne Robertson and bringing in massive Kris Jenkins (Panthers) to play the nose. The switch has made an immediate impact; the team soared from 29th to 4th in the run-defense rankings, and held Cincinnati and Arizona under 50 rushing yards in back-to-back weeks.
Jenkins’ presence also means fewer double-teams for ends Shaun Ellis and Kenyon Coleman; Ellis has taken advantage of the increased opportunities by notching a team-high six sacks. Likewise, outside linebacker Bryan Thomas – who already has 4.5 sacks this season, after managing just 2.5 in 2007 – benefits from having free-agent pickup Calvin Pace rushing off the other edge. Behind those two, No. 6 overall pick Vernon Gholston (Ohio State) has yet to make an impact.
The Bills do catch a break this weekend, as the Jets will probably be without their leading tackler, inside linebacker David Harris. The 2007 second-round pick from Michigan, who ably assumed Vilma’s starting job midway through last season, is “week-to-week” with a pulled groin muscle. David Bowens, who spent the 2001 training camp with the Bills as a defensive end, is the likely replacement next to another veteran, Eric Barton.
Darrelle Revis, the 14th overall pick in last year’s draft, is on his way to becoming one of the better corners in the conference; opposing quarterbacks are already starting to avoid his side of the field. Of course, that may also have something to do with the Jets’ continuing struggles to find another decent starter at the position. This year, rookie Dwight “Swipe” Lowery, a two-time All-American at San Jose State, starts opposite Revis, with former starter David Barrett seeing time in nickel and dime packages. Revis leads the team with three interceptions, but the Jets haven’t had a pick in three games. Safety Eric Smith will sit out this game after suffering post-concussion symptoms, moving Abram Elam into the lineup next to Kerry Rhodes.
Mike Nugent is still out, so veteran Jay Feely will continue to handle the kicking duties this weekend. Feely has been in the league for eight years, but made his first visit to Ralph Wilson Stadium just last December, hitting one field goal and two extra points in Miami’s 38-17 loss. He’s been adequate at best for the Jets, missing two of seven attempts from inside 40 yards.
The team gave up on Aussie import Ben Graham after the loss to the Eagles, turning to free agent Reggie Hodges to fill the job. So far, there’s not much difference; if anything, Hodges’ net average is even worse. He has placed five of 12 kicks inside the 20, though.
Leon Washington is one of the most dangerous return men in the league, currently ranking third on kickoffs (27.6) and fifth on punts (13.0) despite not breaking one for a touchdown. The kickoff-coverage team is average, but the punt squad is giving up 10.1 yards per return.
The Jets are 4-3, but the last three games have been anything but impressive. Sandwiched around a road loss at Oakland, they struggled to barely get by teams quarterbacked by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyler Thigpen.
Question is, with at least three starters (Schobel, Butler, and Reed) out and McGee and Youboty likely still limited, do the Bills have enough left to win this game? Trent Edwards will certainly miss Reed, especially if the Jets try the same blitz-on-every-play gameplan that rattled, and ultimately injured, the rookie quarterback in their last meeting. Time for James Hardy to step up, and Roscoe Parrish to get the increased playing time he desires.
On the other side of the ball, the Bills have had success stopping Favre, who has never won a regular-season game at Rich/Ralph Wilson Stadium. Can he reign himself in enough to take the underneath routes the defense will give him, something Kurt Warner and Chad Pennington did with great success, or will that itch to “make a play” add more giveaways to their -6 turnover differential, already worse than every team but San Francisco and Denver? We’ll see.
Buffalo seeks to start the season at 6-2 for just the fifth time in team history, and the first since 1992. Even after factoring in the injuries, a respected colleague told me, “I don’t see the Bills letting this game get away.”
I agree. See you in Lot 1.
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