The Jets hope drafting of Ohio State K Mike Nugent will solve the team's FG woes. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
Another hot, humid New York summer. Another off-season to think Super thoughts, hope Super hopes and live Super dreams. Not since Bill Parcells’ regime has there been such realistic optimism for a Jets team coming off a 10-6 campaign that seemingly improved itself in the off-season. The Jets have always been a good, or should I say.. active, off-season team. On paper, this 2005 version has the goods to truly compete for the championship. This is Herman Edwards make or break year - as he has his people (coaches and players) in place to make a serious run. But will he? In order for the green and white to be playing well into January, there are ten burning questions that need to be answered.
10. Will a starting RT please stand up?
Chad Pennington's health is obviously a no-brainer for the Jets to fly right in 2005, but with Kareem McKenzie's departure to the Giants, who will fill this important OL spot? Adrian Jones? A second year man from Kansas who played more on special teams than at RT in 2004. Untested, Jones is an enigma and might not be the answer to protect Chad and pry open holes for the ageless Curtis Martin. Terry Bradway needs to bring some other bodies in camp to compete for this spot. If the Jets brass is wrong on Jones and they don't have a solid plan to supplant him, opposing defensive ends won't have much resistance to disrupting the Jets offensive flow.
9. Is there a "secondary" concern? Goodbye, Donnie Abraham. While his retirement is really not a surprise, Abraham was a pretty solid corner for the Jets. Teams rarely threw to his side, and was the only truly "respected" cover corner the Jets had. Anticipating Abraham's retirement, the Jets smartly went after and signed Pete Hunter from the Cowboys. Only 25, Hunter, a former fifth round pick out of Virginia Union, played in 30 regular season games, making five starts, and has recorded 43 tackles, one sack, three interceptions, nine passes defended and two fumbles recovered. It's not certain that Hunter will be the starter to replace Abraham, but he does provide much needed depth at the corner position. Ray Mickens - when healthy is one of the best third down cover specialists in the game, but Herm has never liked Micken's size or lack of it. However, Mickens is the favorite to win the starting corner job - which is what he's always wanted and felt he's deserved his whole career.
Ty Law is still a player without a team. Many feel the Jets are the frontrunners to get him and they certainly can use a player of his skill and experience. Will John McGraw ever be healthy enough to play a full season? Based on past history, the oft-injured safety simply can't be counted on. What about David Barrett's propensity for getting burned on occasion at the other corner? It's not much of an issue when the Jets talented front seven do their job, but in order to play that aggressive style of defense, the corners and safeties must play well.
The rub here is the Jets draft picks. Andre Maddox, a 6-1, 200-pound safety from North Carolina State who finished his career with 341 tackles, eight sacks and 17 passes defended in 47 games and earned first-team All-ACC honors as a junior; Kerry Rhodes, a 6-2, 209-pound physical safety from Louisville who combined for 14 interceptions in his junior and senior years; and Justin Miller, the 5-10, 200-pound strong, physical shut-down cornerback from Clemson, who added three touchdowns as a lethal return specialist; must contribute immediately for the Jets to be "super". Especially Miller - who with his dangerous abilites returning kicks, will also be depended on to compete and eventually earn a starting job at cornerback. Donnie Henderson is as good as any defensive coordinator to speed up the learning curve for the rookies. He'll need to have his secondary on the same page by mid-season for these Jets to go anywhere.
8. Is time of the essence for Herm? It's the little things. The little moments that drive Jet fans crazy. One can only hope that Herm Edwards has learned the error of his ways and will truly become at least adequate at time management. Maximizing two-minute situations, knowing when and when not to call time outs, going for the jugular when it's there and overall field position/game management issues are things that Herm - a great motivator, with his intellect and passion - realized he had to improve on for this team to have more opportunities to win games. Maybe Herm wasn't as confident in Paul Hackett's offense last season - especially with Chad ailing as he was. This year, he has no excuses. He has an offensive coordinator in Mike Heimerdinger (Dinger) who likes to throw it around, the top kicking prospect to come into the NFL in several years in Mike Nugent, and the smartest quarterback in the game in Pennington. End of half, end of game faux pas should not occur in 2005. We'll see if Herm has got the best of time, this time around.
7. Is Nugent special enough? Speaking of special, enter the Ohio State kicker who the Jets spent their first pick in the draft on - Mike Nugent. After last season's Doug Brien playoff debacle, the Jets are trying to make sure they don't kick themselves in the foot again - literally. It's not that Brien was a bad kicker. Quite the opposite, but Nugent has the chance to be "special", and the Jets were more than willing to take that chance. Think about it…. Where would the Patriots be without Adam Viniatieri? Nugent finished his collegiate career with his name in the record books for most points scored (356), most points by a kicker (356) most field goals (72), most consecutive field goals made (24, 2001-02), most games with multiple field goals (20), most field goals of 50 yards or more (8) and best field goal percentage (.818, 72 of 88). If he's as good as this for the Jets - it will make the offense that much more potent and keep the pressure squarely on the other teams' attack.
6. Is our favorite Martin slowing down? He defies logic. He scoffs at the notion he is old. He is the ultimate player, warrior and teammate. Most surprising of all, he continues to keep himself under the radar in what is certainly of Hall of Fame career. But is this - finally and begrudingly - the beginning of the end? No way. Ask the Santa Monica stairs. Ask the defenders who have to face him. Ask his teammates in the locker room. Curtis Martin had arguably his best NFL season last season - his 10th - with a league leading and career best 1697 yards on 371 carries and another career best 4.6 yards per carry average and a career 2nd best 12 touchdowns. McKenzie's departure and Dinger's penchant for the passing game could slow Martin's statistical production a bit, but if anything, less carries means less wear and tear on one of the most conditioned backs in the game. Until future notice, Martin is still the man in the Jet backfield.
Most Jet followers were sad to see Lamont Jordan go - with good reason. Whenever Lamont touched the ball, good things would happen. He deserves his opportunity to start for the Raiders, but the Jets did get a pretty good back up in former Chief, Derrick Blaylock. Granted, he ran behind the Chiefs’ massive offensive line, but he still had nine total touchdowns last year and provides a speedy, change-of-pace back the Jets haven't had in a while. Dinger will find ways to get Blaylock involved in the passing game. The Jets still have a good 1-2 punch. The only question would be if Martin goes down, could Blaylock handle the load? Let’s hope we never find out.
5. Will the real Coles reinvent himself again? This was the way it was supposed to go down. If Laveranues Coles hadn't gone to the Redskins two years ago, he wouldn't have realized the grass was really greener being a Jet - and hooking up with his most successful dance partner, Chad Pennington. In reality, they both haven't been the same since they parted. Pennington with injuries and no true top receiver….Coles with a run-first coach who thought it was 1985 all over again. Their reunion should flow nicely with some of the goodies that Dinger will have in store. Coles was stagnated in a Redskins offense where he scored only seven touchdowns in two seasons. Back in 2002 with the Jets - Coles had his best season with 89 receptions for 1264 yards and 5 touchdowns. One year earlier - he had seven scores. Though this year's Jets have many weapons, it's Coles who holds the keys to the Jets’ offense. If he once again becomes Chad's favorite target - a 100 catch, 1300 yard, 10 TD season is in line - as will be the Jets postseason hopes.
4. Will Dinger finally open up the Jets offense? Oh my, is that a shotgun formation? It's 3rd and 10 and the Jets call... a pass! It is long overdue that the Jets have a legitimate coordinator in Mike Heimerdinger. No more will Jet fans complain of the lack of imagination and creativity in Jet game plans. They will also finally get to see if Chad can throw that 50 yard pass from like he did in the San Diego playoff game, on a weekly basis. Dinger is reunited with former Titan standout, WR Justin McCareins and also gets to use the services of perhaps, the Jets' best off-season addition in ex-Raider TE, Doug Jolley. Blaylock is also a good receiver out of the backfield, and Dinger gets Coles back just in time for this green and white offensive renaissance. It should be fun to watch.
3. Is Vilma Pro-Bowl bound? This time last year, the Fans were wondering if a rookie named Jonathan Vilma would be able to help the Jets defense at all. One year later, after a stellar rookie campaign where Vilma had 105 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 1 touchdown - NFL scouts are talking Pro Bowl. Comparisons to Ray Lewis have been offered. After all, stand out 2nd year defensive coordinator, Donnie Henderson came from the Ravens and was Edwards' surprise choice to lead the Jets defense in '04. Henderson knows the Jets needed to improve their team speed and when Vilma was inserted into the lineup, the defense started to take shape. Much of whether Vilma is Pro-Bowl bound depends on some of his friends. With Jason Ferguson gone via free agency - can 26 year old big man rookie DT Sione Pouha fill Ferguson's shoes in the middle next to Dewayne Robertson? Robertson has matured into a force in the middle but started slow as a rookie. Willl Pouha also struggle? From what everyone has written about him, he’s is a mature, hungry player who has the drive to do whatever it takes. It will be up to him, Lance Legree (career back up with Giants - 4 career sacks in 4 years) and James Reed (four sacks in four years) to step up in '05. Those guys will need to keep blockers off of Vilma, so he can make the side-to-side plays he made last year. Vilma must play like a star for the Jets to be super. The defensive line is the key to that happening.
2. Will Abraham play an entire season? The biggest frustration for Jet fans continues to be the questions surrounding the health, desire and unbelievable talent of DE stud John Abraham. We're talking about a player in a contract year who has the game changing potential to be one of the all-time best at his position. A Pro-Bowler in 2001 and 2002, Abraham has 42.5 sacks and 12 fumble recoveries in five injury-plagued seasons. The Jets tagged Abraham their franchise player, despite the fact he has never played a full season. It is bad luck, coincidence, or what some say might be his attitude that keeps him off the field? Off the field for last season's Jet playoff run, that if Abraham had played - the Jets could have gone to the Super Bowl. When he's on the field, the Jets defense is very dangerous. It helps that Abraham's fellow DE - Shaun Ellis - is a stud himself. Ellis had 9.5 sacks in 2004, and 12.5 sacks in 2003. Obviously, when Abraham and Ellis are on the field together, the Jets defense suddenly becomes a championship outfit. Few teams have as good a front seven as the Jets, but Abraham needs to keep himself on the field. Its funny how a contract year may be the good fortune the Jets and Abraham need for him to stay upright. If Abraham is to be an elite NFL player and demand the kind of money he feels he's worth, the time is now for him to showcase his talents... and durability. The whole league will be watching. When he finally signs his tender offer, the Jets hope they see a player driven to show everyone that he can lead his team to the Super Bowl.
1. In Chad we trust? This is a no-brainer. Even if Abraham plays a full season, both he and Vilma make the Pro Bowl, the secondary rights itself and Curtis Martin rushes for another 1700 yards, this team Jets isn’t going anywhere unless Chad Pennington does his best Tom Brady imitation and leads them there. QB Jay Fiedler was an excellent pick up and should be a great backup but remember what he didn't do for the Dolphins - a team that begrudgingly had a great defense and power running game, but missed the playoffs in 2003 because of poor quarterbacking in the clutch. Pennington's shoulder needs to be healed for the Jets to take flight. Last year, Edwards never let on how bad Pennington's injury was. Do you think he's going to start now? Quarterbacking for Dinger's offense - Pennington will need to make all the throws that were either not required or he was not trusted in making in Hackett's offense. He doesn't need a machine gun arm. Pennington's strengths are reading the defense and accuracy. His smarts are second to none, and his play-action is Montana-esque.
Entering his 6th season, this is the time for Pennington to put it all together. He gets back his main weapon in Laveranues Coles who he had a telepathic relationship with in 2002 when he threw his career best 22 touchdowns. He gets an offensive coordinator who believes in the forward pass. He gets a Hall of Fame running back who shows no evidence of slowing down. He finally gets a pass catching tight end - the first for the Jets since Mickey Shuler in the 80’s. He gets a kicker capable of booting 50 plus yard field goals consistently. And most of all, Pennington gets a head coach in Edwards who believes in him without measure. Make no mistake. This is Pennington's team to lead. A team that has as good a chance as any in the NFL to get to the Super Bowl.
How well the Jets answer these ten questions - will tell if their tale turns out to be Super or not. It should be quite a wild ride.