Archive for September, 2010

Week Two Game Story: Jets 28 Patriots 14

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Mark Sanchez faked the handoff and dropped backward into the pocket with quick, balletic steps. He shifted himself clear of an onrushing, sack seeking Patriots defensive-line, all the while scanning for an open receiver in the end-zone, head darting to and fro. Here was the Jets’ second-year quarterback, quite rightly questioned in the days leading up to a pivotal divisional contest, displaying all the attributes which made him such a heralded talent. His athleticism, most impressive in close quarters, allowed for an intricate play design capable of rendering the opposing secondary totally defenseless. Sanchez’s physical gifts are rarely questioned. But his prowess executing finer points of quarterbacking, elements including sound decision-making, touch passing, and other less definable intangible skills, have often been under fire.

So, when the highly scrutinized sophomore waited patiently before floating a perfectly thrown toss toward Dustin Keller, who corralled the pass for a touchdown, the roar emanating from a frenzied New Meadowlands crowd not only indicated a single game being won, but perhaps more dizzying possibilities being blown open. If Sanchez could be this precise, firing lasers on intermediate routes and lofting easy jumpers for the likes of Braylon Edwards, the Jets would be suddenly light-years from the disappointment of week one, returned into the ranks of championship contenders, heavy talent playing big games, deserving of the advanced acclaim. “We didn’t pay much attention to the criticism,” said Sanchez following the win. “This team has some great leaders and a lot of experience to lean on.”

This particular play, a touchdown eventually giving the Jets a 28-14 advantage in the fourth quarter, may not have been a total nail in the coffin, but it certainly stacked a near insurmountable deck against Count Brady and his Patriots. After a lopsided first quarter absolutely owned by New England, it appeared this contest would serve as another exhibition of a legendary Quarterback’s skill, as Brady surgically skewered the Jets, his impeccable feel for the game on full display. A booted thirty seven yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, after a costly delay of game, didn’t seem likely to be a factor.

Ultimately, however, the late afternoon belonged to Sanchez. As premier teammates fell to injury, Sanchez stood and delivered, proving, without a doubt, that his postseason success had not been a mirage. “I don’t even feel like it’s a rebound,” Sanchez claimed. “It just felt like we played smarter.”

The SanSchott Redemption

Sanchez hardly had an opportunity to find his rhythm in the initial quarter, the Jets’ offense running a mere three plays, forced to watch from the sidelines as Brady collected first downs seemingly at will. “It was the fastest quarter of my life,” Sanchez said. “It was weird. We didn’t convert on the first down and it was important to pick everybody up and say, ‘Hey, we’re fine. Don’t worry about.’”

It may have been an unexpected development, considering how the extremely early season had developed, but the green and white would suddenly strike in the second quarter, answering a Brady to Welker touchdown connection that had all the routine trappings of a standard pizza delivery.

It began on third down, where the Jets had met abject failure against the Ravens, an offensive deficiency that probably cost them a win. This time, though, Sanchez hit Braylon Edwards on a thirteen yard completion; and a dysfunctional group, highly touted entering the campaign, met with sudden transformation. Here was a Jets offense out of a die-hard’s wildest dream. And Sanchez didn’t merely guide the orchestra, in the first half; he was practically one man jam. Driving the Jets downfield and aided by an unnecessary roughness rap against Tully Banta Cain after a short completion to Jerricho Cotchery, Sanchez exhibited commendable poise and an occasional flash of improvisational brilliance, the latter best displayed on a whirling shovel toss to LaDainian Tomlinson for nine yards. Sanchez’s momentum manufacturing jaunt concluded with a gorgeous ten yard lead for Braylon Edwards in the left corner of the end-zone. The game was now tied, and Sanchez was far from finished. He’d steal three points before the half, setting up a clutch forty nine yard Nick Folk field goal with two long completions to Tight-End Dustin Keller, followed by a couple of short dishes to Tomlinson and Edwards. And buoyed by a rejuvenated running game in the second half, Sanchez went about the impressive task of completing outplaying the maestro himself, Tom Brady, who saw his stat-line marred by two interceptions and a lost fumble. After being shaken up by a vicious sack from Gerard Warren on the half’s first possession, Sanchez rallied the Jets for eighteen unanswered points. “Woah,” said Sanchez with a laugh, as he recalled the Warren hit, “He readjusted my back. That was terrible. He made a pretty good hit on me. That was a big boy.” Expert route runner Jerricho Cotchery, conspicuously quiet through the season’s first six quarters, nabbed two catches, including a two yard touchdown, on the Jets’ go-ahead drive. Trailing by one point after a Nick Folk’s second field goal, this one from thirty six, Cotchery’s catch capped a minor comeback, and propelled the home crowd into satisfied madness. New York now led 19-14, and Braylon Edwards, responding to the slings of Joe Namath, leapt over Darius Butler on the successive two-point conversion to give gang green an edge of seven on the ledger.

No, Sanchez didn’t flourish alone. Week one had already shown this to be an impossibility. The Jets’ offense couldn’t carry this day without the efforts of Edwards, Keller, and Tomlinson. “Both Dustin and Braylon, you can’t find those guys without having somebody occupying Jerricho because he runs such good routes, such good, crisp routes,” said Sanchez, praising his receivers. “Dustin had a heck of a game and there are still a couple of ones I want back to him because we weren’t on the same page, believe it or not.”

Edwards had a huge first half while the New York struggled with the run, finishing with five catches and a touchdown. Keller, meanwhile, was a monster all day long, terrorizing the Patriots’ safeties and linebackers with seven catches and one hundred fifteen yards receiving. The affable tight-end rebounded resoundingly after playing a pivotal role in the Monday Night debacle, stepping out of bounds one yard short of the marker on a desperation fourth down, mercifully ending a bumbling offense’s evening of ineptitude. Flip the script. Keller consistently ran free, like a glitch in master schemer Bill Belichick’s defensive programming. “It’s hard to mentally beat a New England team,” said Keller. “They just seem so mentally tough. No matter what the score is, you never play like you have the game won until the buzzer goes off, until the game is over because they have Tom Brady back there and he can do anything at any moment.” Time and again Keller broke off his routes behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties, an overruled interception on a tip in the first quarter his sole mistake while shouldering a heavy burden. How much did the Jets rely on Keller? He was targeted nine times. And he quite fittingly sealed the game. “I have to talk to [Brian Schottenheimer] about what the progression is, but I don’t think I’m the first one,” Keller said of his touchdown grab. “But I’m glad it came my way.”

Tomlinson, penciled in as a Hall of Fame scat-back, resembled the every down force of sunny San Diego afternoons long past, especially in the second-half, where he asserted himself with several big runs. The veteran finished with seventy six yards rushing on eleven attempts, for an eye-popping 6.9 average. Supported by an offense finding their comfort zone, the Jets defense dug in during the second half and pitched a shutout. They seemed ill-equipped to stop the plentiful weapons at Brady’s disposal, hitting nadir before halftime as Randy Moss burnt Darrelle Revis with an incredible one-handed touchdown. Moss caught the football as if it were a loaf of bread, not even bothering to use his other available hand for support. Revis injured his hamstring on the play, missing the second-half. “I have no idea,” said Revis, when asked how long he would be out. “We are just going to go about it day-by-day. I’m just going to keep getting treatment and go from there.”

Instead of the beginning of a demise, the Jets’ defense rose to the occasion, pivotal interceptions by Antonio Cromartie and Brodney Pool turning the tide. Cromartie collected his pick in the third quarter while covering Moss down the right sideline. The Jets’ would cash in his efforts with three points. “There was a two-man coverage, and basically, I played inside leverage,” said Cromartie. “I figured he wasn’t doing an out-route, so I manned him [up] and just turned up for the ball. We got pressure on him [Brady] and he just threw the ball up. I just tried to make a play on it.’

Even bigger may have Pool’s, arriving after the Jets had gone up by seven. Brady again dialed up Moss against Cromartie, the ball deflected into the arms of the safety Pool, appearing in his first Jets game. Pool was originally ruled out of bounds, but the play was challenged, revealing Pool had utilized world class dexterity, sliding his two toes across the turf before careening off the field of play.

Jason Taylor shook off an elbow injury and drilled Tom Brady for the coup de grace, his strip sack retrieved by Bryan Thomas. Unfortunately for the Jets, Taylor was again shaken after the play. Injuries were the sole blight for New York, as the aforementioned Revis aggravated his hamstring, Brad Smith hurt his jaw, and Nick Mangold banged up his left shoulder. “I don’t have any [updates],” said Head Coach Rex Ryan regarding the injuries. “I’m not sure of the injury situations. I know we had a few.” Mangold returned and was available for the press after the game.

Wes Welker took a late, nasty hit from Eric Smith early, answering the aggression with a touchdown catch. Braylon Edwards was charged with an unsportsmanlike penalty after his touchdown catch. Patriots rookie Tight-End Aaron Hernandez was ultimately overshadowed by Keller, but he had a commendable day in his own right, with six receptions for one hundred one yards. “It didn’t feel too good,” Hernandez said of his game, “because we didn’t come out with the victory.”

Friday Insider Report: Check Down Blues. And a few thoughts from Rex

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Football, like any other legitimate artistic or athletic pursuit, possesses the potential to be endlessly assessed. The depth of analysis is a perpetual wave, everyone involved tumbling further down an infinite slope of information. Pre-game hypothesizes comfortably cross the line of excessiveness. There’s gambling lines, plain old competitive analysis, predictions, reactions to the predictions, reactions to the reactions of the predictions, bi-polar fan base temperatures taken on a weekly basis. It’s enough to make a man consider life without modern amenities… or at least question certain viewing or reading habits. Because, for a punch-line, most of this stuff is totally nullified once the game begins. And the game, of course, is the entree. [I love writing. I love sports. I consider writing about the Jets a great opportunity; and near-perfect fit for me. But I recognize my limits diagnosing the grand scheme. Take a look at my preview for the Jets-Ravens game, especially my thoughts on the Ravens’ secondary. I’d love to do a redaction or two]

Yes, in this ludicrous era of twenty four hour news-cycles, the sheer madness of hype is rendered a mere appetizer. Because the game gives us statistics, trends, fantasy points, offensive and defensive lines grappling at the point of attack, duel running backs, quarterback controversies, and everything else left eternally unsettled after sixty minutes. This saturation, though, is legitimate, not manufactured by changing times and technologies. Football is that complex, requiring an expanded attention span to truly diagnose quite chaotic events. And despite the stereotypical image of a drunken sports fan lout, wearing beer stained team apparel and consequently abandoning any remnant of self-awareness; it’s a practical guarantee that an open, sober mind appreciates all the unfolding complications far more.

For instance, there are plenty of ways to determine which team is dominating a contest. Time of possession certainly grants a good hint. The turnover battle surely shelters revelations. Yards gained on the ground can be an ultimate indicator. But these are all just numbers, cold, hard, downright necessary data; yet dry digits all the same. The hardcore fan, the historian, the veteran Sunday couch sitter, he or she may possess a more intuitive feel. The game may flow in a certain direction, the outcome becoming easy to identify just by observing which team displays a crisper rhythm.

Sports and music seem melded, one perfectly complimenting the other. But how to tell whether the home team is operating like a symphony, or an amateur garage band? Those aforementioned team-wide statistics, and the sequences bearing them out, are definitely valid after the fact. But in the moment, play by play, motifs may emerge, telling a story, instead of presenting an equation.

Exhibit A: The check-down. Teams like the 60’s Packers and the 70’s Steelers played hard rock, executing strategies carved into granite. Pound the run. Dominate the point of attack. Throw deep. It was an entirely different style of play. They were like Muddy Waters belting out a particularly ferocious version of “Mannish Boy.” Then the late Bill Walsh, and his 80’s 49’ers, came along and changed everything. Featuring a nimble, accurate quarterback, and espousing radical philosophies, their west-coast offense altered the landscape. Suddenly, football proved beautifully flexible, capable of being played like chess or rugby. What could be better than games which pitted not only players against each other, but different points of view? Even within teams there could be divisions, frenetic offenses supported by brute defenses, and vice versa.

With multiple faceted backs like Tom Rathman, Roger Craig, and much later, Rickey Watters, San Francisco consistently exhibited that the pass could set an incredible tempo. They represented a far more cerebral outlook. Here’s Bob Dylan weaving his way through “Visions of Johanna.”

As the years went by, special backs came and went who could play multiple roles. The outlet pass, also known as the dump-off or check-down, became common place. “It’s actually evolved,” said veteran Jets fullback Tony Richardson, “Larry Centers, Richie Anderson used to catch 70 or 80 balls. Now it’s [the checkdown] a safe bet.” Even offenses priding themselves on brutishness embraced this opportunistic tact. New York strives for blunt efficiency on the ground and big plays through the air, as evidenced by their current personnel. Acquisitions such as Santonio Holmes, and second year Jet Braylon Edwards, were meant to facilitate instant points. But Richardson explains why the high percentage check-down is so useful. “If a team comes out in a different defensive look and you don’t adjust, it’s like beating your head up against the wall,” he said. “You have to be flexible and adjust.” As the Jets’ searched in vain for their flow, it would have been counter-productive to pass up whatever scraps’ Baltimore’s tenacious defense offered. “They were playing a low zone, the ends dropped deep,” said second-year runner Shonn Greene of the Ravens’ defense. “When they were there,” said Greene of an opening for a check down, “We hit them.” Added Tony Richardson, “We want to be there for Mark.” In this case, these particular plays, while effective as a last resort, were clearly not a first option. Or fun to watch.

What could check down passes, including two grabs by Tony Richardson, reveal about an offense?

A definite difference exists between successful short throws and desperate, borderline pointless dump-offs. Nearly identical in theory, there are times when completions to ‘backs betray an offense bubbling with confidence, totally confounding an overwhelmed defense. They begin appearing invincible, carving up the opposition, seemingly at will. Take away my wide receivers and tight-ends, will you? Well, how do you like that twelve yard gain by Richie Anderson? How does it feel stopping Jerry Rice, only to see Rickey Watters juking a safety and scoring a touchdown? Here are occasions where the offense is in total control.

But stout defenses are capable of flipping the script. Educated football viewers witnessed a Jets defense spinning their wheels against the Ravens, and all those benign check-downs certainly could have been construed as clue number one. In this instance, the Jets were on their heels, reacting to a specific Ravens defensive look, and possibly playing directly into their hands. Despite completions to multiple backs, including surprising grabs by Tony Richardson, the Jets were nowhere near being in control. Because Baltimore’s defense had taken over, embarrassing the Jets on third down and effectively curtailing their vaunted running attack, New York was reduced to snatching and running, and not very far, at that. Check-downs telling a tale… and just guessing, upon the mass sacrifice of countless flung television remotes, Jets fans did not appreciate this particular musical. The Ravens’ heavy metal ruled the New Jersey night.

This week against New England, an extraordinarily analyzed Jets team will be placed under the microscope once more. Should LaDanian Tomlinson or Shonn Greene resemble the likes of Thurman Thomas slipping from the backfield and into empty terrain, not victims of another broken play, the signs could point toward a much needed win. We’ll be watching.

…………………………………………..

   Two days from game-day Rex Ryan shared a few pearls of information.

The Head Coach has assumed a role similar to the latter part of last season, as it concerns offensive game-calling. “I do the same thing I did {last season} I don’t know how active it is. This week, what I did is I had the offensive scripts and if I liked a play then I highlighted it. That way, I just give it to Schotty {Brian Schottenheimer} ‘Well I liked this one.’ All that verbiage is a little too tough for me.”

Ryan was very impressed by Patriots rookie cornerback Devin McCourty before the draft, and is not surprised that he is starting at this early juncture of his career. “We loved him too,” said the second-year Head Coach. “He’s really an outstanding young man and the guy really loves to play. I’m not talking about the kind of player, but just the kind of passion he has reminds you of Darrelle, a guy that just eats it up and loves playing.”

Rex also updated the injury status of his banged up top corner, the aforementioned Revis. “[Revis] did pretty good,” said Ryan. “He was still limited a little at practice, but he will be listed as probable for the game.” Also, of Brodney Pool, Ryan said, “Pool is still questionable for the game, but I feel good about him.” Revis is fighting hamstring tightness, Pool an injured ankle. It will be heartening for Jets’ fans to hear Ryan’s clean cut diagnoses of Revis. “Yes, [he’s] probable, [but] a definite [that] he’ll play.”

Ryan has seen some improvement out of already embattled quarterback Mark Sanchez this week. “I was confident going in [to the Ravens game] I loved our running attack, our game plan, but just something seemed to be missing a little bit in the passing attack. I feel good about our passing attack this week… [Sanchez] lliks great. [He’s] throwing the ball super [with] great command of the offense. We were flying around today.”

Interestingly, it seems Rex feels the team focuses a bit more while practicing indoors. “It wasn’t necessarily all that rain that we had last night, although I thought about it. I just thought I wanted to get it indoors, where the focus always seems to be a little better in there. For whatever reason, I just thought that it would be better that way.”

Insider Friday Report: The Cheese Stands Alone

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Whenever organized sports are played, the rules and regulations governing the games usually beget certain expectations in those both participating and observing. For instance, football is almost defined by designations, along with the assumptions accompanying them. Numbers are a great example. Those holding down the trenches are identified differently than their teammates at skill positions. The divergent approaches, body types, and usually, personalities, separating these individuals should be enough, but numbers punctuate the dividing line. Number 99, at the professional level, is never a receiver. Don’t expect a center rocking number seven anytime soon.

Indeed, attributes can be suggested by the bestowment of jersey digits. And if positions were also thrown into the analytical mix, well, opinions can be formed.  Number 15, slot receiver? The guy must be a straight-line burner, perhaps a punt returner…

Of course, the entire exercise would be rendered a bore without exceptions. And though numbers can be revealing, they are just a cosmetic detail, positions telling a far more solidified tale. There are certain areas where tight ends are supposed to excel, and specific deficiencies to be acknowledged. Quarterbacks face the most complicated task, lineman the toughest. A coaches’ primary duty is in discovering and accepting specific impossibilities for certain players, and to never ask for miracles. Yes, it takes a talented individual to fit a mold.  But it takes someone special to shatter the clay.

Playing Madden is practically an American pastime. The long running video game series has become a cultural staple, friends and siblings opposing each other annually, always a new edition to test. My brother and his friends used to have basement tournaments back in the day, serious business over beers. Just like in football, and life, there just had to be certain expectations. Facing fourth and long in the first quarter? The player punted, lest he quite unrealistically converted, whereupon his tactics would be labeled “cheese.” Ah, cheese. It was an equalizer. An organized movement contained between a group of friends in Queens, and probably practiced by countless others nationwide.  Biggie Smalls made a song called “What’s Beef?” These guys could have made a cover version entitled “What’s Cheese?” Cheese is affecting a ground and pound, clock killing strategy in a videogame. Cheese is picking an unstoppable outfit when pitted against a foe utilizing lesser forces. [Back in the halcyon days of 2002, the quintessential mismatch would have definitely been Rams-Bengals.] Cheese is throwing bombs on every play after picking said unstoppable outfit. [Warner goes deep] Cheese is recovering a fumble late in the fourth quarter and taking a circuitous route to the end zone as the seconds ticked away. In that vein, Cheese is also running backwards with the tail back for fifty seconds in order to secure a win. There were plenty more. And it may be 2010, but these simple guidelines still apply.

Yet, there was also cheese that presented a philosophical conundrum. Nothing quite best illustrated a cheese paradox like virtual scrambling quarterbacks. Surely it was cheese to scramble with Michael Vick on every passing down, as a polygonal Peerless Price got jammed at the line. But wasn’t this example of cheese kind of… real? In effect, by carrying the Falcons to the playoffs a few times while scrambling like a madman, wasn’t the real-life Michael Vick being straight-up cheesy? And for Daunte Culpepper to have a rocket arm and killer wheels pre-knee surgery; didn’t that reek distinctly of cheese? It brings forth a personal epiphany. Greatness is cheese. Is there any doubt that the Jets wanted to hit reset on the AFC Championship game as Peyton Manning aerially assaulted their defense? Greatness, no matter how consistent, or fleeting, makes your jaw drop with a mutter, “That’s not fair.”

Should halfbacks even be eligible receivers? It’s an accepted aspect of the modern game, but leatherheads may have definitely taken issue. Doesn’t seem proper, for a player to possess that many dimensions, to be so dangerous. But then again, that is the inert greatness of the halfback position. It’s a fundamentally cheesy position, confounding expectations. Combines running, blocking, pass receiving, pass catching. Backs possess the most potential for displaying total football skill, why, some of them even can throw when called upon. They may be issued numbers, like all the other players, but their strengths and weaknesses are never so immediately perceptible, according to position or appearance. Some are above average receivers and speedsters, but struggle between the tackles. Some are superb blockers, but lack burst. Some can do it all carrying that rock, but just can’t catch it. The possibilities are endless. For someone to reach a level where they can do nearly everything? Ridiculous. Ray Rice.

Multiple threat halfbacks have shined throughout the League’s history. When Bill Belichick and his staff tried finding a way to stop the Rams’ greatest show on turf at Super Bowl XXVI, they discovered that Marshall Faulk, a brilliant runner and pass catcher, was the primary tempo setter, the protagonist within their entire theatrical operation. Guys like that are invaluable. And Rice appears to be jetting straight up, toward those elevated grounds. The Rutgers product snatched seventy-eight catches while also rushing for 1,339 yards in 2009, these fantastic statistics garnered at the tender age of 22. When the aforementioned Faulk was 22 and playing for the Colts, he notched 1,078 yards and 56 catches. It’s true; the Ravens possess an outlandishly talented offensive line. But Rice’s sheer production is impossible to ignore. Here is a tenacious downhill runner with blistering speed who can collect catches like a true scat-back. A player worthy of the highest compliment: Cheese. And just how do the Jets go about stopping him?

Bart Scott may be smiling here, but he and his teammates know that dealing with Ray Rice will be no laughing matter.

Bryan Thomas imitated a slight of hand throwing motion, as if a magician conjuring body English for a trick. “You see Flacco… just…” said Thomas, trailing off with a sigh, a man who had seen one too many films of infuriatingly successful little dump-off passes. Thomas and the Jets are well aware of the challenge awaiting them in Rice. Capable of turning broken, nothing plays into goldmine offensive strikes, Rice is the type of threat who can mess with even a veteran’s approach. But Thomas was resolute. “You have to study those things out there,” he said when asked if the unpredictability of Rice’s touches would affect his usual playing style. “You can’t let that offense dictate. You can’t let any team dictate what you’re doing out there,” though moments before, he had conceded, “It’s difficult, [those types of backs] create plays for themselves.”

Bart Scott seconded that motion. “He’s a complete back,” said Scott, referring to Rice. “His ability to hit the corner… he’s like a Jones-Drew. He can take a dump-off pass 20-30 yards. He’s Flacco’s outlet.” Head Coach Rex Ryan also echoed those sentiments. “He’s tough,” said Ryan of Rice. “He’s tremendous… Double R, as we call him, really is a target. He’s effective. He’s also effective in the screen game. He’s effective in running draws. The kid at Jacksonville is similar. He’s that kind of guy. And Maurice-Jones Drew carved us up last year.” Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine thought his unit’s core Defensive values and style made them less susceptible to deadly dinks. “That’s something we’re going to have to pay attention to,” Pettine said, regarding the Ravens’ propensity to utilize Rice and other tailbacks in the passing game. ‘We’re not a big zone drop team anyways, so I think a lot of those yards occur when the undercoverage gets too deep and that creates some separation,” he added optimistically, saying the aim of Jets’ defenders, playing mostly man, is to “hug up” potential receiving threats with tight coverage.

Notes:

Special Teams Coach Mike Westhoff seemed genuinely excited about rookie cornerback Kyle Wilson’s punt returning potential. “He’s explosive… an incredible athlete… he’s wanted to do this the whole time.” Despite the holdout of Darrelle Revis, which forced Wilson to line up with the starting unit throughout much of Camp, Westhoff made sure that the rookie was getting in his special teams reps. “Every single day, since the day he’s arrived, he’s returned punts.”

Head Coach Rex Ryan revealed that Brodney Pool was limited in practice. Pool is fighting an ankle issue.

Jets-Ravens Week One Preview: Full Circle

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

It had been a complicated campaign, right from jump, a talented team ready to win immediately, forced to endure the growing pains of a charismatic young quarterback. As the 2009 season rolled along, statistics accumulated and standings tabulated in the quick vanishing, frenetic rush typifying a League powered by total desperation, it became clear that the Jets merely required competency from Mark Sanchez to perform at a Championship caliber level.

That minimum requirement often proves elusive, even for the highest touted of draft-picks. Rookie quarterbacks make mistakes. The accidents are bound to happen, equal parts inevitable and unpredictable, seemingly arriving at random junctures of games degenerating into chaotic turnover festivals, no matter how conservative the game-plan. Five interceptions against the Bills, four on the road versus New England, three merrily hosting the Falcons, these contests did not represent Mark Sanchez at his best.

Then, suddenly, magic. Fate was kind to the Jets, and they took advantage of the mystical currency, clinching a postseason spot, becoming the underdog darlings of January, their quarterback collecting experiences which could prove absolutely invaluable to his continuing professional maturation.  For any follower of football, one simple indisputable truth emerged, accompanied by a dizzying possibility. The Jets played great where their quarterback was good. And if he were ever to become great, well… the sky was the limit.

And here we are. After a tumultuous training camp, preceded by a proactive offseason, the Jets are prepared to burst into the new realm of 2010, accompanied by high expectations. What do those two words really mean, high expectations? They represent an opportunity to become, inarguably, the best football team in New York, to own a shared stadium. They provide an occasion to backup the boisterousness Rex Ryan, whereupon the mainstream may realize that the second year Head Coach is more than a manufacturer of controversial sound bites, but an impressive football mind, complimenting his big dreams with masterful schemes. Those high expectations, if cashed in, could make Ryan the face of coaching in football, a welcome antidote to a headset era typified by forced, autocratic dullness.  Another thing about those high expectations: Should they be answered with ultimate success, the best player, Darrelle Revis, begins walking on a road toward Canton. The offensive line gets a nickname. The cavernously deep secondary is measured against historical, not contemporary, competition.  And a Jets fan that hasn’t missed a game since Richard Todd was the quarterback, who suffered through the agony of Mark Gastineau roughing the passer, of Leon Johnson rolling out and looking downfield, of glory disappearing into thin Denver air, of Chad Pennington’s shredded shoulder, will get to watch a dominant team every Sunday, a highly publicized collection of talent answering, yes, high expectations. And that’s what those words mean. It’s an ideal vision of how every season should start.

Doesn’t come around but every so often…

Accompanied now by a third down halfback receiving threat in LaDainian Tomlinson and, eventually, currently suspended receiver Santonio Holmes, Sanchez is hardly exempt from the cauldron. Quite the contrary, he’s amid the blue flames, about to be judged against fantastical hopes.

Some are forgetting that New York nearly found the ultimate bounty while Sanchez managed games, instead of being tasked with winning them. In effect, by expecting Sanchez to make a leap, Jets management and fans could be setting themselves up for a fall. And make no mistake: with the new weapons in tow, more risks will be taken, and a greater responsibility placed on the quarterback. Should Sanchez struggle with inconsistency, the maturity and patience of big-play, theatrical talents like Holmes and Braylon Edwards will be tested. It is not inconceivable that the Jets return to ground and pound zealotry if faced with downed chips. But balance is the supreme recipe. By the AFC Championship game, Thomas Jones was totally burnt, worn down by carrying a team obsessed with one offensive phase. Considering Shonn Greene’s issues with reoccurring maladies of the minor variety throughout his freshman tenure, [he went down with a rib injury in the Championship game] and Tomlinson’s rapidly decreasing yards per rush number, the Jets will be best served effectively mixing run and pass. That certainly is the plan. Sanchez has many worried after a preseason of reversion, instead of continuing elevation.

A new season. The same question.

Where it concerns the Jets, Sanchez, and the passing game, the opponent for week number one couldn’t have been scripted any better. The matchup, considering the aforementioned unanswered questions, is perfect. The Ravens, featuring a positively terrifying defensive line, certainly capable of curtailing any run game, especially if that area of an opposing offense has been totally zeroed upon, do face secondary concerns. Domonique Foxworth suffered an unfortunate ACL injury, lost for the season. Ed Reed, the hard-hitting, ball-hawking safety supreme of the National Football league, will not be suiting up, dogged by hip problems. Fabian Washington is making his way back from a torn ACL endured last November. Former Special Teams ace, and current first team free safety Tom Zbikowski; has not had much experience starting.

Teams will be attempting to exploit these potential weaknesses all season. The Jets have the first shot, and just may be forced to throw. The game could hinge on Sanchez. Full circle.

The Ravens are an impressive outfit, no doubt. Having made the playoffs for consecutive seasons under Head Coach John Harbaugh, they have advanced a long way from the unbalanced outfits defining Brian Billick’s tenure.

After securing a Super Bowl in 2000, due almost entirely to a spectacularly gifted defense, Head Coach, and supposed offensive guru, Brian Billick struggled piecing together a passing game. Elvis Grbac replaced Super Bowl hero Trent Dilfer, lasting one disappointing season. Kyle Boller had all the physical gifts, but never really put it all together, eventually succeeded by the late Steve McNair, who piloted a 13-3 team in 2006, a group eventually upset, at home, by Peyton Manning and the Colts in the postseason. And though the Ravens were a more complete team with McNair at the helm, the offense sputtered terribly in the playoff game, causing their ouster. McNair had a huge heart, but he was aging, and the Ravens sputtered to 5-11 in 2007 as he struggled with injuries. The Ravens hierarchy had apparently tired of Billick’s inability to construct a consistent offense, replacing him before 2008 with Harbaugh.

In short, Harbaugh and General Manager Ozzie Newsome have done an incredible job building an offense capable of sustaining excellence. Gone are the days of relying on a quick fix from a proven veteran like McNair. Harbaugh, Newsome, and company totally nailed it when drafting Joe Flacco eighteenth overall in ’08. Flacco posted a very impressive 80 quarterback rating in his first year, bouncing back convincingly from shaky beginnings, failing to sling a touchdown until week four. The Ravens were a surprise, reaching the AFC Championship game, falling to the eventual Champion Steelers. Many analysts have lumped Flacco and Matt Ryan together as sophomores who regressed. It’s true that Ryan took a slight downturn, but where it concerns Flacco, the charge is baffling. His quarterback rating jumped eight points. His touchdown to interception ratio improved from plus two to plus nine. His completion percentage edged upward by three percent. Flacco’s passing yardage during his rookie year: 2,971. Second year: 3,613.  His record as Ravens starter: 20-12. There was no backslide… If anything, Flacco seems primed for a special season. Why not? Within a two-year period, the Ravens drafted fellow offensive cornerstones Michael Oher, and Rutgers product Ray Rice. Surrounded by that type of talent, Flacco is bound to thrive. The multidimensional Rice, a brilliant pass catcher out of the backfield, is a matchup nightmare. Considering his equal prowess running the football, Rice is a definite sleeper pick for Most Valuable Player. Oher is a key piece of an offensive line that, along with the Jets and Titans, ranks among the best in the AFC. Oher, subject of the Sandra Bullock hit “The Blind Side,” is accompanied by the fearsome likes of Ben Grubbs and Matt Birk. It’s a downright nasty assemblage at the point of attack, taking no backseat to a defensive line comprised of Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg. Those practices must be intense. Indeed, the Ravens are a formidable foe.

Surely owning high expectations.

Prediction:

Bart Scott has proven quite effective shutting down opposing backs with pass catching ability. He did a memorable job against Steve Slaton in the opener last season.  But he faces a tough challenge in Rice, who nabbed an outlandish 78 receptions in 2009. 78 catches? 1339 yards rushing? Where’s the Ray Rice attention? This guy is unreal.  Scott won’t be able to do it alone.

Scott and the linebackers are going to have their hands full with Ray Rice.

Darrelle Revis versus Anquan Boldin is also a fascinating duel. Will Revis be rusty? Highly doubtful… Boldin will have something to prove in his first game with the Ravens. His addition, along with T.J. Houshmandzadeh, should help Flacco overcome his troubling tendency to lock onto one receiver, usually Derrick Mason. Mason has quietly had three straight thousand -yard receiving seasons. Todd Heap had his most catches since 2006. What a loaded offense.

Revis’ presence is huge, as it allows the Jets to delegate their resources far more effectively. Considering their opponent, New York may have faced a real struggle pulling out a win without their best player. Revis changes everything.

For everyone grousing about Sanchez’s preseason, and deservedly so:  Keep in mind that the slick motion patterns effectively employed by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for easy completions were probably on ice in games that didn’t count. Braylon Edwards was often seen in motion at the line of scrimmage in training camp.

There will be two keys: Baltimore, with all its weapons, especially Rice, will move the ball. Holding them to field goals, instead of touchdowns, is essential, especially in the first half. If the Jets can establish the run, keep Rice, Boldin, and all those other weapons off the field for long stretches, and make a big play or two off play action against that unproven secondary, they can win this game with room to spare.  But it won’t be that easy. Baltimore is ready to rock, and they will play very well. It’s going to be close. Real close.

Nick Folk is the hero in overtime, nailing a 44 yarder.

Jets 23 Ravens 20 [OT]

Previewing Preseason Game Number Four. Jets backups [And special guest star Santonio Holmes] versus Eagles Backups

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

The New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles will play a game of football tonight. We know that with decent amount of certainty. Sure, the where, when, and what is simple enough. But personally, finding a totally sound explanation for this entire exercise is proving quite elusive.

Starters will not be suiting up for this particular exhibition, sparing fans and journalists from analyzing incomplete snapshots of offenses and defenses running mostly base packages. Sure, Mark Sanchez hasn’t been overly impressive thus far. And that Left Guard competition isn’t exactly lighting the world aflame, or inspiring a multitude of confidence in either competing party. The first team defense has looked strong, and LaDainian Tomlinson rejuvenated. Now, what will it all mean five minutes into the first real game of the season on Primetime against a tough Baltimore team? Who knows? Maybe that horrifying Ravens defensive line will wreak havoc, legitimizing concerns about a suddenly questionable line. [Damien Woody has been beaten a couple of times pretty badly pass protecting] Maybe Tomlinson rips off a long run and we smile, in quiet understanding, that the preseason isn’t a totally worthless predictive model. But then again, maybe not.

Because nothing provides a preseason reality check quite like the existential vacuum that is the fourth game. The finale. It’s the Last Waltz, without any heavy-hitting guest stars. Not an Eric Clapton or Neil Young in sight Well, Santonio Holmes, he of the upcoming four game suspension, is going to get plenty of burn. And Mark Brunell really needs to start showing something… or else… the Jets will feel slightly less confident about him standing on the sidelines in case of potentially season crippling emergency. Well, there is the downright commendable tale of Kellen Clemens, who appeared an ill-fitting cog in the Jets machine just weeks ago, only to rally against onrushing unemployment to secure a roster spot over developmental disappointment Kevin O’Connell. Now, if O’Connell and Clemens were still dueling, that’d make for an interesting storyline. Not exactly a duel protagonist denouement rivaling Al Pacino and Robert De Niro at the conclusion of “Heat,” but still a worthwhile subplot. Alas, we are left with Clemens potentially edging toward Brunell on the depth chart, even though when push comes to shove, the long tenured lefty will most likely be the first man off the bench should Mark Sanchez be injured. Even if Clemens went wild, hitting a ten on the Danny Woodhead dynamite fourth preseason game meter, his status as number three seems pretty well set. Clemens had to take a pay cut to remain a Jet, while Brunell was actively sought. If Clemens were to legitimately pressure Brunell, it would happen through the course of evaluations made during in-season practices.  The Eagles’ J.V. isn’t going to have that much of a say in the composition of the Jets’ roster.

Brunell. Clemens. One time, for all time.

And that’s another thing about this game, just from the standpoint of basic honesty. I could sit here and say the Jets are going to take a look at Vernon Gholston, or new linebacker Rickey Foley, judging them against potential pickup Adalius Thomas… but honestly, I think Tannenbaum and company know exactly what they are doing already. Will a few players on the bubble have a shot to turn heads? I suppose, but the Jets treated this game with such total apathy that they made the call on Clemens versus O’Connell before it even occurred. And could they be blamed? It’s extremely unlikely that the events of this evening lead the Jets to conclude,”Eh, who needs Thomas? Look what Player X just did to that backup Eagles lineman!” Show me the team that utilizes this methodology, and I show you a bottom feeder.

And as for the Eagles, Head Coach Andy Reid has a well-established reputation for not playing his starters week four of the preseason. One Eagle to watch will be the recently acquired Jorrick Calvin, a cornerback with experience returning kicks. Calvin was dealt by the team who drafted him, Arizona, for the player picked directly ahead of him in the draft, fullback Charles Scott. Scott was selected with the two hundredth pick, Calvin immediately following.

Former standout scrambling quarterback Michael Vick, a star with the Atlanta Falcons before a dog-fighting scandal, and subsequent prison sentence, marred his career, will play the entire first half. Vick could potentially become a massive piece of the Eagles’ puzzle, should starter Kevin Kolb go down for any extended period of time. Vick will surely pose a challenge for Vernon Gholston, who has shown questionable closing speed in the past. The Eagles also have preseason history with Danny Woodhead, who exploded for 158 yards in last season’s finale.

Ultimately, this game could be summed up thusly: When it is over, the contest itself will take a backseat to one simple fact: The preseason is over. Final roster adjustments will follow, and brace yourselves…

Prediction:

Michael Vick gives Eagles fans some damn good talking points, in case Kevin Kolb struggles and they feel like making irrational demands by the second quarter of week two. But a resurgent Kellen Clemens, targeting Holmes for about fifty catches, will carry the Jets to a 20-17 victory, foiling Vick’s show… What’s the spread? I hope you aren’t that sick.