Eric Barton will try to rejuvinate a former old and slow Jets linebacking squad. (AP)
What significance does 212 years have to the New York Jets franchise? No, it’s not the number of years that the organization’s long-time suffering fans will have to wait before finally winning a championship. It’s the collective age of the starters who were purged from the Jets roster in Terry Bradway’s recent attempt to rejuvenate the team heading into the 2004 season.
After reaching the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, the front office rolled the dice in 2003 and tried to eek one last year out of its veteran players. Although this risky strategy was motivated in part by salary cap considerations, it proved to be a gross miscalculation by the General Manager. Time after time, Jets fans cringed as lumbering dinosaurs like Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones failed to chase down lightning quick running backs. All too often, fans winced as lead-footed defensive backs Aaron Beasley and Sam Garnes inhaled the exhaust fumes of blazing wide receivers. In the NFL, they say speed kills. Well if that’s the case, age is suicidal.
The decision to completely gut the roster of the four aforementioned starters, in addition to wide receiver Curtis Conway, may have come one year too late. But to Bradway’s credit, when he finally implemented this slash and burn strategy, he accompanied it with an aggressive replacement plan. Unfortunately, little comes easily for this franchise or its front office. For that reason, few were too surprised that the Jets failed in their efforts to wrangle elite cornerback Champ Bailey from the Redskins. Similarly, not many were shocked when talented Antoine Winfield rudely left the Jets at the alter in favor of a more generous bride. As the team stumbled badly out of the free agency gate, many of the Jets faithful couldn’t help but utter those three familiar dirty words: Same Ol’ Jets.
But Terry Bradway had three words of his own in response to the doubters. McCareins. Barton. Barrett. Within a two-day span, the Jets quickly and decisively filled three starting vacancies with speed, youth and upside. No longer will Jets Equipment Manager, Clay Hampton, be stocking the Jets locker room with hearing aids, rolling walkers and adult undergarments. No longer will fans have to wonder whether a player is removing his mouth guard or his dentures while in the huddle. The Jets are now discriminating against the elderly. And proud of it.
In acquiring 25 year-old wide receiver Justin McCareins from the Titans, the Jets were forced to surrender a second-round draft pick. That’s a hefty price to pay, especially when one considers that the Baltimore Ravens paid a similar tab for perennial Pro Bowler Terrell Owens. But Owens is 30 years old, coming off a mediocre season by his standards, and significantly more expensive. Also, lest anyone forget that he comes equipped with several industrial size Samsonites filled with off-field issues, Owens reminded everyone on cue by promptly denouncing his new team following consummation of the trade.
In the 6’2”, 215 lb. McCareins, the Jets not only satisfy their craving for a large physical target to compliment Santana Moss, they also obtain a player with sensational breakaway speed. McCareins may have flown somewhat under the radar in 2003 on a Tennessee team stacked with four capable wide receivers. But one glimpse at his AFC-leading 17.3 yards per catch statistic and 1 to 7 TD to reception ratio tells you all you need to know about this player’s outstanding potential.
Eric Barton, the 26 year-old former Raider linebacker, will provide the Jets defense with lateral quickness that was sorely lacking last season. With Victor Hobson replacing Mo Lewis, Sam Cowart trading places with Marvin Jones, and some eagerly anticipated 3-4 looks featuring John Abraham as a weakside LB/DE hybrid, this rejuvenated linebacking corps will be unrecognizable from the geriatric unit of 2003.
The Jets’ sudden facelift also includes ex-Arizona Cardinal David Barrett taking over for aging, often burnt cornerback Aaron Beasley. Barrett is relatively unknown, but he’s a young, athletic, sure tackler who, for the first time in his career, will have the opportunity to display his potential on a defense with a legitimate pass rush. The fact that the Jets coaching staff also features three individuals with particular defensive backfield expertise (Herman Edwards, Donnie Henderson and Doug Graber) will only benefit Barrett’s development.
So after two straight days of guzzling from the Fountain of Youth, a bloated Terry Bradway kicked back, put his feet up, rubbed his belly, and let out a loud, proud belch. His work is far from finished, however, as the Jets will continue to get younger and faster via next month’s draft. But at least now, the Jets have the flexibility and luxury to select the most talented available college prospects, without scrambling to reach for rookies to fill glaring positions of need. Finally, it’s likely that one or two additional free agent moves are still in store, perhaps even the acquisition of John Lynch in a rare but justifiable exception to the youth movement.
Although these are exciting times for a reinvigorated Jets team, many fans won’t help but feel somewhat sentimental watching the departure of loyal mainstays like Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones. Remember, Lewis is the same 13-year veteran who played as a rookie alongside the likes of Ken O’Brien, Al Toon and Freeman McNeil. Just like all of us, Marvin and Mo have shared a seat on this whirlwind, gut-wrenching ride that has experienced six different coaches, a shameful one-win season, a memorable AFC Championship Game appearance, a Monday Night Miracle, and countless other hard-fought battles along the way. Through it all, Father Time only succeeded in robbing these two lifelong Jets of their skill, but never their heart or dedication.
We’ve now reached Marvin and Mo’s stop on this ride, and with a tip of the cap and a nod of the head, we thank them for their contributions and wish them farewell. And as we pull out of the station, Herman turns and gives us all a confident wink because he knows what we all know: this train is back on track and en route to its final destination. And it now feels noticeably faster, undeniably more powerful, and unmistakably more determined.