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Superbowl Run? Not so fast!
By David Fletcher
Jets Insider.com Assistant Editor - Senior Writer
August 29th, 2007
This is a scene that Jets fans may want to get used to this season. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
This is a scene that Jets fans may want to get used to this season. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
After a magical ride in 2006 that saw the lowly Jets return to the ranks of the NFL elite, many Gang Green fanatics expect the team to roll to the next level and make a serious Superbowl run. However, don’t go making those reservations to Arizona just yet. This team seems to have some significant holes that could not only hamper a championship run but actually set the team back from last year.

Without further adieu, an in-depth look at some of Gang Green’s weaker points heading into the 2007 NFL season.

Offensive Line

Heading into the 2007 NFL Draft, the Jets’ offensive line was a point of concern many expected to be addressed on the first day of selections – a true testament to the direness of the situation. Although a strong, young nucleus already existed with 2006 first-rounders D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold anchoring the left tackle and center positions respectively, an underperforming right side of the line and a disgruntled veteran at left guard left major issues needing to be addressed.

Trades whittled down the team’s first-day picks to just two, which were both used to upgrade a defensive unit that was average at best the prior year. General Manager Mike Tannenbaum did manage to pick up an offensive lineman in the sixth round of the draft in the form of Jacob Bender, but it appeared certain that the massive tackle from Division I-AA Nicholls State was a long shot to even make the team, let alone be under consideration to start.

Yet here we are in August, less than two weeks from the start of the 2007 regular season, and it looks like Bender or journeyman Adrian Clarke may very well be the Jets’ opening day starter at left guard. This is, mind you, not based on any type of spectacular play by any of these men but rather by necessity, because the fact of the matter is that someone has to start in the place of G Pete Kendall, who was recently traded to the Washington Redskins. It’s true that Kendall was a distraction, but with Chad Pennington’s track record of injury, getting rid of this proven workhorse over a measley $1 million dollars could come back to haunt the Jets in a big way.

Bender may have blown his chance to start in the team’s third preseason game against the Giants, establishing himself as the least capable of the sorry cast of characters to guard the left side of the line. The rookie looked like a deer in the headlights and was blown past early on, resulting in a sack of starting-QB Chad Pennington, and appeared lost the entire time he was on with the first-string offense.

Possibly even more troubling for Head Coach Eric Mangini is the lack of experience as a whole at the position. The best proof of this was the play of Ferguson left tackle. With the veteran Kendall in at guard in 2006, Ferguson improved consistently throughout the season in his technique, making him a much more effective protector of Pennington’s blind side. Yet with Bender and Clarke next to him, Ferguson seemed lost as well, making careless mistakes and giving up a monstrous sack of his own.

Other players in the mix could be veterans Wade Smith or Adrian Jones but neither of them give you that warm feeling inside. The Jets are reportedly keeping a careful eye on the waiver wire to see if they can find a better option at guard.

Not only is the starting position weak, the team also has serious depth issues at every position on the offensive line if God-forbid, a starter gets injured.

Quarterback

Coming off a storybook season in 2006 that netted him NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors, Chad Pennington has been nothing short of horrendous in the 2007 preseason. That’s not a comment on how much pressure he’s been under or how many times he’s been hit (a lot, thanks to the new-and-unimproved offensive line); even when Pennington has had the chances to read the field and throw, he’s been simply awful.

Granted, in the first preseason game Pennington did nothing but hand the ball off to his running backs, leading to a final line of zero-for-zero on pass attempts with zero interceptions.

”I like the no interceptions,” Pennington joked later that week with reporters. He clearly did not expect that his work in that game might have ended up being his best of the preseason at the time, but it appears to be the case through three preseason games.

In the team’s second preseason game, Pennington probably would have probably in retrospect, continued to have hand it off every snap. His abysmal passing stats for the game included two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, both of which were caused by misreading defensive formations.

Game three – the annual preseason bout against the rival Giants – was no better for Pennington. The veteran did hit RB Leon Washington for a 79-yard touchdown on the first play of the game through broken coverage, but proceeded to show poor leadership throughout the remainder of the game. Pennington missed targets, played conservatively, and threw for only 10 total yards after the first play from scrimmage.

On the other hand, backup-QB Kellen Clemens has been phenomenal in preseason action. He has opened the eyes of fans, players, and coaches alike with his inspired play, yet it appears that Coach Mangini will make Pennington his starter regardless of the preseason numbers.

Now, many Jets fans have been up in arms about Clemens seemingly not having a chance to win the starting job, and the point may be valid, but before blowing a gasket they should ask themselves one question: Do we want our quarterback of the future behind our sorry O-line against the Patriots and Ravens in Weeks One and Two anyway? Also, keep in mind that most of Clemens’ play has been against second and third team players.

Running Back

The injury to RB Thomas Jones’ calf during training camp seemed to expose a major hole in the Jets’ offense: depth at running back. With Jones nursing a sore calf, RB Leon Washington saw the bulk of carries with the first-string offense over the team’s past two preseason games and was far from impressive.

Washington, a small and nimble rusher, thrived as the Jets’ go-to-guy last season because of bigger bruisers like RBs Cedric Houston and Kevan Barlow to change the pace of the game and occasionally push the pile. But with both Barlow and Houston no longer on the roster (Houston’s departure for personal reasons remains a mystery), Washington has been used as an every-down back and has not succeeded, for the most part.

Against Minnesota in Week Two of the preseason, Washington had moderate success as the team’s every-down back for the first half, finishing with 52 yards on 11 carries. He fared much worse against the Giants one week later, carrying the ball seven times for just six yards with the first-string offense.

Rookie-RB Danny Ware, out of Georgia, has made himself the favorite to win the third-string running back battle with three consecutive solid games this preseason. He has been facing second-string defenses, however, so his numbers do not necessarily translate to regular season success. Ware is over 30 pounds heavier than Washington, however, which would make him a nice compliment to “Lightning” Leon if Jones were to ever get hurt.

New England Patriots

Quite possibly the biggest weak point in Gang Green’s attempt to return to the NFL Playoffs for a second consecutive season behind Coach Mangini is the progress that has been made by his mentor, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, and the AFC East-rival Patriots.

The Patriots, who won the division last year over the Jets and proceeded to beat New York in the Wild Card Playoffs, spent an uncharacteristically-large amount of money signing big-name free agents in the offseason and further solidifying their status as the team-to-beat in the AFC.

Baltimore Ravens’ LB Adalius Thomas was the biggest free agent signing by the Patriots, who bolstered their already-stout defense with the addition of the Pro Bowler, but was hardly their only acquisition. The team also added WRs Kelly Washington and Wes Welker to their thin receiving corps as free agents, and on draft day, traded for former-Pro Bowl WR Randy Moss.

As if these monumental signings weren’t already troubling enough for the Jets, who face the Patriots twice in the regular season including at home on opening day, Gang Green’s chances of toppling the mighty Patriots were dealt another huge blow this week when New England’s star-CB Asante Samuel ended a contract hold-out and reported to camp.

A Glimpse of Hope?

One glaring weakness that became visible against the Giants was the Jets inability to hold opponents to short gains on running plays, which was a big concern during the team’s run to the playoffs in 2006 as well. Or at least it appeared to be a weakness.

Blame for this difficulty in stopping the run often falls in the lap of NT Dewayne Robertson, a converted defensive tackle who is considerably smaller (mainly in terms of weight) than the traditional nose tackle. It is unclear whether the Jets are unwilling to admit that Robertson is a bad fit for the newly-installed 3-4 system because they traded a lot to draft him, or if they are simply content with his performance. The latter seems unlikely, yet it just may be the case.

Last season, with Robertson playing nose tackle for the first time in his career, the Jets gave up an average of 4.6 yards per carry on defense. While this number was the fifth-highest in the NFL, the Jets still managed to win 10 games and make the playoffs.

The last time a Jets team gave up that many yards per carry on defense was in 2002, Pennington’s first year as a starter. In that season, the Jets gave up 4.6 yards per carry on defense – good for the fifth-most in the NFL – and won nine regular-season games as well as a playoff game.

Well, with three of four preseason games under their belts in 2007, guess how many yards per carry opponents are averaging against the Jets defense: 4.6.

Maybe it means something important, maybe it doesn’t, but it definitely does mean one thing: anything’s possible.

Bottom line is that this team is FAR from a lock to compete for postseason. Furthemore, unless Mangenius can pull another rabbit out of his hat and gel this squad into contenders, 2007 could very well be a step back instead of a step forward.