When Rex Ryan
walked to the post-game podium on the night of Jan. 23, 2011, his voice was tinged with sadness and optimism, a strange blend for a man whose bravado had captivated the NFL for two years. The Jets’ miracle playoff run dubbed “Mission: Impossible” by their fearless head coach was over.
They had beaten Peyton Manning and Tom Brady before being stopped by the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. For the second consecutive season, Ryan and his young quarterback, Mark Sanchez
, had come within one game of reaching the Super Bowl.
“It cuts your heart out,” Ryan said that night in Pittsburgh. “It’s supposed to hurt. I’m going to keep swinging. We’re going to get through this thing eventually.”
Less than two years later, Ryan’s icy stare as he walked by Sanchez last Monday night after a crushing loss eliminated his team from playoff contention for the second consecutive season told an altogether different story.
How did the Jets fall from their perch so quickly?
The franchise has reached the crossroads thanks to a series of costly missteps.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Santonio Holmes may have made several game-winning plays for the Jets in 2010, but his troubled history should have given the franchise pause for concern when he became an unrestricted free agent after the season. The Jets gave Holmes a five-year, $45 million contract that boxed them in through 2013 due to built-in, player-friendly guarantees.
When Holmes’ petulance bubbled to the surface in 2011 — Sanchez threw him out of quarterback-receivers meetings late in the season for being a distraction days before the wideout was benched for jawing with teammates on the field in the season finale in Miami — the Jets’ worst-case scenario was realized. They owed Holmes a guaranteed $7.75 million in 2012, and assuming he was on the roster in early February of 2012, he'd receive an additional $7.5 million from his 2013 salary. The Jets were on the hook for $15.25 million, a crippling amount for a player who ultimately missed the bulk of this season with a foot injury.
Sanchez’s uneven play in 2011 — he had career highs in touchdowns (32) and turnovers (26) — divided the organization about his future as the franchise quarterback. When it became obvious that Peyton Manning would hit the open market, players and members of the organization wondered whether the Jets should make a run at the future Hall of Famer. The Jets made an inquiry to gauge Manning’s interest, but were quickly rebuffed.
General manager Mike Tannenbaum already had been working on an extension for Sanchez in an effort to lock him up at a team-friendly long-term rate. (Those negotiations would have ended if Manning was truly interested in the Jets). The Jets ultimately signed Sanchez to a three-year extension that sparked plenty of debate. The organization didn't re-do the deal to placate Sanchez in the wake of its interest in Manning.
Tannenbaum, who reduced Sanchez’s cap charge in 2012, made a critical gamble that didn’t pay off. The Jets raised Sanchez’s 2013 salary from a non-guaranteed $6 million to a fully guaranteed $8.25 million, a move predicated on the belief that the signal caller wouldn’t tank in 2012.
However, Sanchez’s regression this season will make it extremely difficult to trade him without the Jets absorbing a bulk of his guaranteed money for next season.
Perhaps the biggest myth surrounding the Jets is that owner Woody Johnson was the mastermind behind the trade for Tim Tebow in March.
Johnson called it a “phony argument” earlier this season. He’s right. The move was driven by Tannenbaum and Ryan’s desire to add a multi-purpose player to the roster. Ryan realized Brad Smith’s value as a Wildcat quarterback after he was gone. The head coach and general manager’s critical mistake: They viewed Tebow’s skill set in a vacuum without taking into consideration the adverse affects of having the most popular — and polarizing — player in NFL history on their roster. Tebowmania had a negative impact on Sanchez, who had the daily distraction of having an inferior, but more popular player behind him.
Bottom line: The Jets hampered Sanchez’s development by adding an unnecessary distraction into the equation. It’s a faulty argument to suggest that the organization shouldn’t want Sanchez if he couldn’t handle having Tebow as his backup. No player in this generation of team sports has had such a fervent following as Tebow. The Jets’ inability to foresee that proved costly.
The Jets, who are 14-16 in the past two seasons, are far from a lost cause. Johnson’s decisions in the coming weeks will shape the future of a franchise that has become the most captivating story in the NFL. Starting over isn’t the best solution.
WHAT WOODY CAN DO
1. Keep Ryan:
Ryan, who is signed through 2014, made the Jets relevant with his bravado and penchant for grabbing headlines, but the bigger point is that the players still play hard for him. He deserves to be back.
2. Bolster the talent at the offensive skill positions and coaches around Sanchez.
The Jets will explore trading Sanchez in the offseason, but it’s unlikely that they’ll find a deal that makes sense considering the quarterback’s bulky contract. The organization needs to add a quarterback via free agency or the draft to compete with Sanchez in the offseason, but there must be a marked improvement at the skill positions. In addition to re-signing wide receiver Braylon Edwards, the Jets must add at least two offensive difference makers via free agency and the draft.
For all the criticism that Sanchez has received, the reality is that he tried to force too many throws and make dynamic plays, in part, because of the lack of talent around him. Young quarterbacks with a 3:1 touchdown: interception ratio in the playoffs don't grow on trees. Sanchez obviously took a step back this season, but he can be resurrected with more talent around him and a dynamic new quarterbacks guru and play caller.
3. Supplement the front office
When evaluating Tannenbaum’s future, it’s fair to examine his entire body of work rather than just the recent miscalculations that have contributed to the lack of offensive talent on the roster. He drafted cornerstone players such as Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson and pulled off high-risk, high-reward trades for Antonio Cromartie and Holmes.
Tannenbaum has been down this road before and proven to be a problem solver in the past. Johnson, who has a great deal of trust in Tannenbaum, may decide to improve the front office infrastructure by adding a personnel lieutenant to work alongside his general manager.
4. Re-sign defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
For all the Jets’ recent problems, the defense has been the stabilizing force. Pettine turned down a contract extension offer that will effectively make him a free agent after the season. Ryan’s trust in Pettine has been one of most important and overlooked elements the past few years. The Jets have finished first, third and fifth in total defense in the first three years under Pettine. Despite playing much of the season without Revis, arguably the best defensive player in the league, Pettine’s group ranks eighth. Losing Pettine would be a significant blow to the most successful unit of the team.