Like a fine wine, the ageless Curtis Martin got better in 2004, leading the NFL in rushing. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
- Peaking into the rear view mirror revisits painful memories of a season gone sour for the 2004 New York Jets. The crash-landing that occurred in the AFC Divisional Playoff game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers has undoubtedly left the hearts of Jets’ faithful charred in agony. On a day where the defense and special teams supplied scoring plays, the offense nearly sputtered to a complete stop, mustering just three points. Much of the blame fell squarely on maligned offensive coordinator Paul Hackett and rightfully so. His unit had failed to show up in big games all season, ultimately sealing his fate with the organization. The club jettisoned Hackett less than a week after their disheartening loss, replacing him with distinguished offensive mind Mike Heimerdinger, formerly of the Tennessee Titans. While the hiring of Heimerdinger should benefit a Jets offense that lagged from conservative and predictable play calling in recent seasons, the players will ultimately be accountable for the unit’s success in 2005. Here is a breakdown of each offensive unit and how they fared this past season:
Last week, word had leaked that Jets QB Chad Pennington had actually suffered a torn rotator cuff Nov. 7 versus the Buffalo Bills. An initial MRI exam showed a tear in Pennington’s arm, but the team termed the injury a “strain”. After sitting out the next three games, Pennington returned with many observers proclaiming that the Jets’ QB had lost some velocity on his throws. Nonetheless, Pennington played the final six games of the season, including playoffs, with a significant injury to this throwing shoulder. Statistically, Pennington continued his efficiency and management of the offense, completing 65 percent of his passes for nearly 2700 yards and 16 touchdowns with only 9 interceptions on the season. Pennington also improved his passer rating slightly from 2003, jumping to 91.0 from 82.9. Yet, his no-risk approach found the Jets ranked 22nd in passing offense with 190.6 yards per game. Jets’ faithful will undoubtedly monitor Pennington’s injury status during the off-season as the quarterback will have surgery shortly after the Super Bowl on Feb. 6, which will be performed by renowned specialist James Andrews. The team is cautiously optimistic that Pennington will return to full form by the time training camp rolls around next summer.
"We are optimistic Chad will do absolutely fine," team physician Dr. Elliott Pellman said. "But as you know, there are black holes with any surgery. We'll have to wait and see."
With their starter rehabbing from injury and their backup QB Quincy Carter scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this spring, the team will certainly be in the market for a quarterback this year. Carter, who won two out of three games as the team’s starting signal-caller during Pennington’s absence, finished with a 60.3 completion percentage and a 98.2 QB rating. Carter also threw the team’s longest pass play of the season (69 yards).
While the Jets’ brain trust continues the evaluation process at Weeb Ewbank Hall, fans are rest assured the club will attempt to bolster the position via free agency or the NFL Draft.
Stealing a line from a popular insurance company, the Jets in 2004 were “in good hands” at the running back position. The Jets possess arguably the best running duo in the NFL with backs Curtis Martin and LaMont Jordan pounding defenses into submission. The murmurs of a decline in production for the 31-year old Martin heading into the season were dispelled quickly as the future Hall of Fame back became the oldest running back to capture the NFL’s rushing title with 1,697 yards and 12 touchdowns, finishing with a gaudy 4.6 rushing average. Additionally, Martin climbed to fourth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list and now trails only Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders for the record. Martin’s memorable season also earned various other accolades, including recognition as Team MVP and First-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press this season.
Waiting in the wings behind Martin is talented backup LaMont Jordan, who churned out a respectable 479 yards and two touchdowns in limited duty. The performance of Martin and Jordan allowed the Jets’ rushing attack to soar to 3rd in the NFL. Jordan provided a bruising change-of-pace style to the slashing, patient running of Martin. Jordan’s 5.2 yards-per-carry average was a team-high and his production will undoubtedly come into play when assessing his value to the team as free agency looms. Jets fans pray that the front office can convince the talented Jordan to stay aboard.
While the ball carriers garner all the attention, it was the unselfish attitude of FB Jerald Sowell who paved the way for Martin’s record-setting season. Sowell, who was snubbed of a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl this year, was frequently mentioned as a vital aspect of the offense by his teammates. Sowell snatched 45 passes for 342 yards and one touchdown, providing Pennington a sure-handed receiver in the flat. When handed the opportunity, Sowell was productive, finishing with two carries for 28 yards, with a long of 19.
WIDE RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS:
The receiver position was strengthened this season by the offseason addition of WR Justin McCareins, who led the club with 56 receptions and established a nice rhythm with Pennington as the year progressed. For 2005, McCareins will be aided by his reunion with new coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who tutored the lanky wide out in Tennessee. The arrival of Heimerdinger, whose offense averaged 337 yards per game and 220.5 yards passing during his five seasons in Tennessee, will certainly boost a receiving corps that underachieved in 2004. WR Santana Moss led the club with 838 yards receiving and five touchdowns, numbers that will certainly need improvement if the Jets want to employ a balanced attack and relief some pressure from Martin and company. Heimerdinger’s expertise will come in handy as he was the receivers coach for the two-time Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos before his stint in Tennessee.
Fan Favorite and Mr. Reliable WR Wayne Chrebet improved his production from 2003, but still fell well short of his usual achievements. Chrebet finished with 397 yards on 31 receptions (12.8 ypc) and experienced yet another concussion late in the year that has clouded his future with Gang Green. Chrebet has been a staple as a slot receiver throughout his career and helped the Jets finish 8th in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (42.5) this season, but the club has promising prospect WR Jerricho Cotchery waiting in the wings and he could take Chrebet’s place.
The tight end position dogged the Jets this season, garnering minimal production from starter Anthony Becht. Becht, who started all 16 games, caught just 13 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown in 2004. To his credit, Becht remains a stout run blocker and certainly deserves credit for assisting Martin to his record-setting year. Reserve TE Chris Baker fared slightly better than Becht, snagging 18 catches for 182 yards and four touchdowns.
The grunts up front did a commendable job of keeping Pennington’s jersey spotless this season, as they finished tied for 7th in the league for fewest sacks allowed (31). The starting unit of OTs Jason Fabini and Kareem McKenzie, Guards Pete Kendall and Brandon Moore and Pro Bowl C Kevin Mawae also deserve much of the credit for the club’s 149.2 rushing yard average per game this year. Kendall was another Jet deserving of Pro Bowl recognition. His late addition to the club solidified a stout unit that will certainly improve in 2005 as the mesh and establish continuity.
After the 2003 season, the Jets deemed it necessary to fire defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and hire Donnie Henderson. This year, it was the offense’s turn. Heimerdinger replaces Hackett and will undoubtedly breathe new life into an offense that assumed the fetal position (especially in the red zone) when the pressure increased. Henderson’s unit jumped from 21st to 7th in just one season and the Jets are hoping for similar results for a unit that finished a mediocre 17th with 20.8 points per game last year. There are positives for Heimerdinger to work with. The Jets finished second in the NFL in penalties (91), second in turnover ratio with a +17 and fourth in time of possession per game (31:52). The Jets’ offense showed glimpses of greatness during the 2004 season and have the ingredients to rank among the league’s elite. With some tweaking and guidance by Heimerdinger, the Jets’ offense could soar to greater altitudes next season.