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

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.

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   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.”

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