By Mark Cannizzaro
Jets Head Writer
January 11th, 2007
With a young base of players and a ton of cap space, the Jets should be a force to be reckoned with next year. (Jets Photo)
With a young base of players and a ton of cap space, the Jets should be a force to be reckoned with next year. (Jets Photo)
In spite of the abruptness and finality of the Jets’ wildcard playoff loss to the Patriots in New England on Sunday, when the Jets and their fans take a step back and assess the 2006 season there’s an overwhelming sense of positive vibes.

The Jets are clearly headed in a positive direction with Eric Mangini at the wheel.

They have a solid system in place with a sound assistant coaching staff.

They seem to have build a sense of chemistry and confidence inside the locker room.

They, too, have a strong core of players with which to build and become better in 2007 and beyond.

That said, however, is a guarantee for nothing in 2007. Success in 2006 is success in 2006. Success in 2007 is a completely separate deal. It’s going to have to be achieved in 2007.

Credit to Mangini for not falling into the coachspeak trap and stating that the Jets could ride the momentum from the unexpected 2006 success into 2007.

Too many head coaches give their player the false hope that a strong finish to one season will carry over to the following season.

Ask the Miami Dolphins how that theory worked out after they won their final six games of the 2005 season, then gushed about how that finish would carry over to the 2006 season. Even the prognosticators bought into it, many forecasting the Dolphins as a Super Bowl team in this season.

Miami followed up that six-game winning streak in ’05 by starting 2006 with a 1-6 record. The Dolphins never recovered, never made the playoffs and their star head coach bolted for a better financial deal in Alabama.

Even the Jets players who were on the 2004 team that came within a 43-yard Doug Brien field goal from playing in the AFC Championship Game know that lesson. That run to the second round of the playoffs was supposed to catapult them deeper into the playoffs in 2005. Some forecasters even had the Jets as a favorite to get to the Super Bowl last season.

We all know what happened from there.

Three games into the season the Jets were without Chad Pennington and his backup, Jay Fiedler, both of whom were lost for the season with shoulder injuries. The Jets finished 4-12 in 2005 and out went head coach Herman Edwards.

Mangini is well aware of those prior scenarios and many more, which is why he has not fallen into that cop-out trap in believing a strong finish in one season boosts the team the following year.

While speaking to his players for the last time this season, Mangini instead made it clear that the players would have to work even harder than they did in 2006 if they want to overtake the Patriots.

"We need to collectively understand we're no longer 10-6, we're no longer in the first-round of the playoffs,'' Mangini told his players. "Where we are right now is we're back to a clean slate. Each season is its own unique season.

"It's not a function of just picking up where you left off. That's got to be our position and the way that we view things moving forward. It's 0-0. We now control what happens based on the things that we do.''

Particularly because of the blood and sweat the players put into this season and because the end came so abruptly, it’s a difficult task for the players to wrap their arms around.

"He just stood in front of us and said, 'Look guys, you all had a good year but none of that means nothing, so we're starting off just like everyone else next year at 0-0,’ ’’ receiver Laveranues Coles said. "We see the hard work it took to get us to his point so you all know we're going to go work at it even harder next year, so I don't think it's getting any easier. It's tough for me right now even thinking about it.''

Chad Pennington said, "During the season you normally have another opportunity. Once you're in the playoffs and you lose, you don't have another opportunity. There's some finality that exists. It comes to an abrupt halt and it's tough to deal with.

"You work so hard during the season and all through the off-season, when it comes to an end like that, it's tough. It's such a string of emotions at the end. It is hard to deal with.''

The players know Mangini’s not going to get any easier.

"I don't think Eric's going to let anyone rest on their laurels,'' veteran left guard Pete Kendall said. "I don't worry about any sort of sense of being comfortable for anybody. I don't think that's going to creep in here.'

Added linebacker Matt Chatham: “Each season is its own stand-alone entity. There's no such thing as momentum in the NFL. We just have to take what we've learned and continue to apply it all over again.''

To do that, there are several things the Jets have to address this offseason.

The first thing they need to fix is their spotty running game.

The Jets have been spoiled since 1998 when Curtis Martin arrived here and carried the offense. Martin will retire officially soon.

That leaves Leon Washington, a talented playmaker who might not be an every-down back, Cedric Houston, a decent second-string back but not a full-time feature back, and Kevan Barlow, who might not even be back with the team next season.

The Jets might make a free agent run at Michael Turner, LaDanian Tomlinson’s backup in San Diego, who’s a restricted free agent and might cost a first-round draft pick as compensation.

They, too, could draft a potential feature back. California’s Marshawn Lynch looks intriguing if he leaves after his junior year, which seems to be his plan. Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson, who has been injury-plagued, is probably the best back coming out. Penn State’s Tony Hunt could be a second-round possibility.

Bottom line is this: The Jets cannot go into next season with the same group of backs. They need a true feature back who’ll carry the ball 20 to 25 times a game. They need an upgrade. Ideally, Washington would be the change-of-pace back.

The Jets, too, must address their defensive line and pass rushing situation. They got 10 sacks out of their front three, which is not enough. Veteran defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, who’s been a rock in the locker room, had poor production on it, making only 28 tackles and one sack. That’s not enough for a starter who’s making some $3 million a year. An upgrade is essential there.

Cornerback is also an issue. Andre Dyson is their only real good cover guy. After Dyson are a group of mediocre corners that include Justin Miller, Hank Poteat, Drew Coleman and David Barrett.

In the free agent market, New England’s Asante Samuel, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with 10, and Buffalo’s Nate Clements are unrestricted and available, though they’ll be costly.

One thing about Mangini’s Jets is this: They will not stand pat, be happy about what they did in 2006 and, as Kendall said, rest on their laurels. The feel-good portion of the 2006 is over in the offices at Weeb Ewbank Hall.

The Jets will look a lot different next July when they convene for Mangini’s second training camp then they did last Sunday in New England.

“One thing I’ve learned about this business is that the NFL is about change,’’ Pennington said. “That's probably the one constant in the NFL: Change. What you’ve done in years past has nothing to do with the present. You know the future is going to hold some type of change. You have to deal with those changes and understand part of being a pro is how to react to those changes.’’

Added Coles: "This was coach Mangini's first year and I'm sure he's going to come in and shuffle some chairs this off-season. We had a winning season and some people might smile upon that and say we were somewhere they didn't expect us to be. But with all the hard work guys put in I don't think us just having a winning season is enough.''

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