Friday Insider Report: Deep Freeze and Football.

Ah, the joys of winter.

You are kicking back in your warm living room with a few friends, devouring chicken wings. And yes, of course, they are muy caliente. Perhaps you are drinking a cold beverage to wash down those artery clogging Sunday snacks. Maybe you are fortunate enough to own a Flat Screen television. There is doubtless a football game on, featuring the New York Jets. As both their schedule and divisional location dictate, you are most likely witnessing them battle both an opposing team, and the elements.

Thus represents an all encapsulating portrait of this American entertainment age. Technology and sports were a perfect marriage, and as the advancements continue, rightly uninterrupted, the fan lifestyle is becoming increasingly rooted. For this reason, the man watching football is bound become an archetypical image. Maybe it already is.  

So it’s routine, and with a clearer picture than ever before, even more entertaining. We all watch these incredible athletes overcome vicious winds, hardened turf, and sometimes even serious precipitation, all in the name of simply playing the game to usual capabilities. It’s only expected.

And yet, therein resides the rub. Atrocious weather conditions are a football fact. This is undeniable. What cannot be determined is how much a slick field or subzero temperature actually affects gameplay.

Weather is a variable, and games which are governed under Mother Nature’s harsher whims obviously demand to be judged on an individual basis. There are, though, differing schools of thought on just how much a team must adapt its game-plan to the elements.

Jets defensive tackle Sione Pouha was questioned if a player is capable of getting used to playing in freezing conditions. “Until I put a lawn chair outside in the cold, I don’t think that’s ever happening,” said the University of Utah Grad, with a smile suggesting incredulity. Yup, cold is cold, football player or not.

 Sometimes a snowfall will appear devastating on television, only to have a minimal impact on a high flying offense. For instance, Kerry Collins, a strong-armed passer and gambler, often intercepted, had one of the finest games of his career in a seemingly vicious snow-storm. Collins was with the Raiders at the time, and the date was November 28th, 2004. The veteran threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns. His opposite number, early retiree Jake Plummer, equally talented and erratic, flung for more modest numbers: one touchdown and tallied 245 yards. It was a true shootout, eventually won by the more impressive Collins, who engineered a comeback 25-24 victory. The results may have been no different on a sunny afternoon in Oakland. Or would they have been? Was it possible that the defensive backs in this particular contest were slipping and sliding, and not the receivers? Could it have been easier to plant and explode off the line of scrimmage, as opposed to setting feet and making quick shifting hip movements? Did the field ultimately favor the receivers, and badly cripple the corners and safeties? It’s an interesting question, and reveals the unpredictable nature of these types of games.

We can all definitely agree that the weather is a standard deviance that must be accounted for, whether your concern is playing, coaching, reporting, or gambling. [Not recommended] The extent of which may be debated, along with how exactly the players respond. As aforementioned, a snowflake fest in Denver would not usually inspire thoughts of 339 yard throwing day. Surprisingly, that is exactly what occurred.

One can easily consult the NFL record books for an instance which conforms exactly to expectation. The 2004 Chargers were a high powered machine of an offense. Whether it was the emergence of second year Tight End Antonio Gates, simple maturation, or a greatly improved offensive line, this was the season where Drew Brees became a brand name. He’s transcended even that haughty label now, but back then, it was jarring to see the previously maligned Purdue product evolve into an elite level passer. Brees was scintillating throughout the campaign, and the Chargers were on a roll when they visited an inferior Browns team week fifteen. The contest was played in an artic state. The Chargers managed to pull off a victory, but for one week, they were not the dynamic new force terrorizing defenses. The Siberian state of play had entirely dictated this turn of events. Brees passed for a minuscule 85 yards. LaDainian Tomlinson, at his absolute peak, ate up 111 yards and scored two touchdowns. A forgettable Browns team was shut out 21-0. Among the Chargers’ victories in ’04, this was definitely an outlier. Why, aside for one big play to Antonio Gates, they resembled a one dimensional ground and pound outfit. The game time temperature in Denver, where Collins lit it up, was twenty four degrees. The game-time temperature in Cleveland, where Brees only attempted an astonishing six passes? 24 degrees… OK, Norv Turner, who helmed the Raiders in ‘04, was more apt to throw it around then noted proponent of conservatism Marty Schottenheimer. Still, it’s tough to figure. The difference may have lied in the winds, the fields, who knows?

Certainly organizational factors play a role. The warm weather Chargers may have found adjusting to severe elements particularly difficult back in 2004. And aside from geography, stylistically, they weren’t a perfect match for the cold. But just last week, Tom Brady and a strictly finesse Patriots offense shrugged off the chill at Soldier Field and dynamited an overmatched Bears defense, as if they were playing on a beach without pads.   

As it concerns the Jets, their impending sub-zero rendezvous will say plenty about their playoff worthiness. First of all, last season, New York possessed a flashback offense, adhering to a ground and pound philosophy that would have been perfectly positioned in the 1970’s. They did this mainly to protect rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. Eventually, though, their addiction to the run-game created an identity, which they rode to the Conference Championship. Sanchez was expected to grow in his second year, surrounded by playmakers at the skill position. The departures of pivotal ground and pound parts Thomas Jones and Alan Faneca would certainly have on-field ramifications, but they were symbolic, as well. Sanchez would have to step up, no longer cocooned by the league’s finest rushing attack. The moves were defensible at the time. Now, though? Sanchez is toward the bottom of the league in completion percentage. The running game was hardly expected to be a liability. It was envisioned as dynamic, less one dimensional, and inevitably, more of a support system for Sanchez, instead of a crutch capable of hindering his development.  The plan has not exactly bloomed into fruition. Tomlinson and Shonn Greene couldn’t be labeled as disappointments, but their efforts, and those of this edition’s offensive line, are currently falling far short of last season’s achievements.

Faneca helped the Jets build an all weather rushing attack last season.

Coupled with Sanchez’s regression, the Jets’ offense has become a serious problem. With January rapidly approaching, it is inexcusable for a team so previously braggadocios to be utterly adrift, in terms of who and what they are. Who are the Jets, offensively? What are they trying to do? How exactly will they go about winning these upcoming tests, especially in the cold? Sanchez, the USC Graduate, is perilously close to being pegged a warm weather quarterback. Those accusations were nearly laid to rest permanently after ’09, but they are returning with a vengeance.  Will he be able to answer them in a satisfactory manner? The weather is tough to figure. The impact of the weather on games is tough to figure. And these Jets, well, they sure are tough to figure.  Last season, they could rely on the run in any conceivable situation. Sweltering heat, nightmarish cold, domed indifference, it did not matter. Should this already struggling offense be further reduced in effectiveness by the climate, then their many fans will find this playoff season especially stinging. They’ll still have the wings, the television, the beverage, all that good stuff… except a team to watch.

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Rex Notes

From the Friday Presser

On whether the Jets feel desperation: “Pretty much. We need to win. There’s no question about it.”

On Brian Billick’s contention that Ryan knew about ‘the green wall’: “I wish he would have asked me. I would have told him the truth. I think he made an assumption there, but he’s wrong.”

On whether Pittsburgh’s excellent run defense will alter the Jets’ game-plan:  “You don’t want to run your head into a brick wall all the time, but I still think we’re going to be able to run the football. I believe that. It’s remarkable, statistically, what they’re holding opponents to rushing.”

On Sione Pouha having a shot at the Pro Bowl: “He absolutely should… let’s face it, it’s hard to pronounce his last name, but he’s an outstanding player.”

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