NY Jets Nation is looking forward to an encore performance by #10 in 2003
The question comes to me at odd times. Making a sandwich in the kitchen. Washing my car. On the exercise bike. The one thing that nags at me and keeps my optimism for this season in check.
It's not Dewayne Robertson's potential. Not Curtis Martin's ankles, Laveranues Coles departure or Sam Cowart's continued comeback.
It's The Kid. The one guy I shouldn't have questions about, right? Last year I wrote a preview column saying how the season hinged on Vinny Testaverde because The Kid wasn't ready. (And this will be the last mention of that insane opinion).
The Kid of course, is Chad Pennington. I go back and watch tape of the Raiders playoff game. Was it just a bad day for Pennington, or was he exposed? Does his lack of arm strength matter in the Jets' offense, or can tough man-to-man defense make it big-time trouble for The Kid to deliver an encore performance?
That's the question I'm talking about, because if the answer is the former, the rest of the training camp issues don't matter at all. Unfortunately, if the answer is the latter, the issues won't matter either, but for different reasons.
I did not weep at the Redskins pillaging of the Jets roster this off-season. John Hall? Missed too many kicks. Led the league in most blocked the last few years. Chad Morton? A huge threat on special teams, no doubt. However it's tough for me to complain about letting a guy go who touches the ball only 3 or 4 times a game. Randy Thomas? One of the best young guards in football. Got a HUGE contract offer from the 'Skins. He's replaced by Tom Nutten, who oh by the way blocked in two Super Bowls for Kurt Warner. I also have a feeling Coles will be looking to the comforting sight of his bank account when he finds out catching Patrick Ramsey passes with no running game is a different animal entirely. I still have that signing bonus, right? Nope, the key is still The Kid.
When The Kid took over, it was like watching someone play Sega or Playstation. 11 yards. 8 yards. 5 yards. 15 yards. 3 yards, touchdown. He was automatic, like Vinny was in '98, or O'Brien the first half of '85. However those were vets enjoying career years, The Kid was just getting started.
My life as a Jets fan goes back to the mid-70's and the days of the Richard Todd-Matt Robinson quarterback controversy (Maybe if they had kept Robinson HE wouldn't have thrown 45 interceptions in the 1982 AFC Championship game). I've never been this excited over a Jets quarterback in that time. Still, it nags.
Aberration, or harbinger?
He's said all the right things the last few months. Couldn't look at the Raiders tape for a long time. Burns with the memory of it, the fire still hot in his belly. His top priority is improving his deep ball accuracy. So why am I still so freaked out? Because all the smarts and heart and leadership in the world don't matter if a DB is in your wideout's shorts and you can't get it in there.
In normal seasons, I wouldn't be as worried. The Jets are good enough to be strictly a running team behind Curtis Martin and LaMont Jordan and they can win 9 games and squeak into the playoffs. No, this is about a championship. If Pennington can just come close to last season, they'll be fighting for home field in the playoffs this time around.
Geez, having a quarterback is a wonderful thing, isn't it?
TRAINING CAMP BREAKDOWN OF THE REST OF THE TEAM:
WIDE RECEIVERS: I'm half-optimist, half-pessimist in this area. Adding an experienced WR was a top priority for the Jets after losing Coles. You couldn't add two guys, because that would take away from Santana Moss' development. Number 83 is primed to have a breakout year, and he needs the ball. Still, you needed a #1 wideout to play alongside Wayne Chrebet who would take attention away from both he and Moss. In theory, Curtis Conway is a huge pickup. The big problem I have is his durability. If he gets hurt, which is always a concern, where are the Jets? Starting Chrebet and Moss with Kevin Swayne in the slot. Not the lineup I'd want to see if I were Herman Edwards. ANALYSIS: Cross your fingers for Conway, who's only played in all 16 games in a season once since 1996.
TIGHT ENDS: Hear those footsteps, Anthony Becht? That's Chris Baker on your heels for playing time. Baker has been so impressive that you could see plenty of two-TE formations this season. ANALYSIS: Underrated and deep, but don't expect Tony Gonzalez-type production.
OFFENSIVE LINE/RUNNING BACKS: The two go hand-in-hand. The big boys first. The best in the business in C Kevin Mawae, with Nutten and Dave Szott at the guards. Word around the league at the end of last year from opponents was the Jets o-line was night and day after Szott returned from injury. A full season from him is a must, although second year man Jonathan Goodwin should be able to fill in at either position if he has to, and the Jets won't lose much. Jason Fabini is as solid a left tackle as there is, and Kareem McKenzie surprised plenty of people with his level of play last season. Not much to say here you don't already know.
Rest, Curtis, rest. New York has a bit of breathing room now, knowing if Martin goes down all is not lost. LaMont Jordan is one of the best backups in the league, and with a taste of crunch playing time and the playoffs in 2002, he'll be ready when called upon, and may cut into Martin's playing time no matter what happens. Be ready for him to be the feature back in New York sooner rather than later. Richie Anderson brought guts and leadership, but with such a glut in the backfield he wasn't as necessary as in years past. Jerald Sowell came on at the end of '02, and B.J. Askew is a guy in the Sowell/Anderson mold of being able to run, block, and catch the ball out of the backfield. However, there is a dark side here. The last few years, when the Jets absolutely, positively HAVE to be able to run the football to win, they haven't been able to do it. How many "big" games have we seen since 2000 where Martin ends up with 15 carries for 30 yards and the Jets lose? Is it me, or were they all against the Oakland? ANALYSIS: New York may total 5,500-6,000 yards of offense this year, but to be seen as peerless (and advance deep into the playoffs), you have to dominate when the chips are down.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Someone make sure Chester McGlockton is on that treadmill 10 hours a day. Herman Edwards wasn't the only one salivating over a three-tackle/three-end rotation a month ago. Now with Josh Evans suspension and raw Dewayne Robertson, DT looks pretty thin (pardon the pun). John Abraham will get his 15 sacks and Shaun Ellis will be good, though not spectacular. A quantum leap by Bryan Thomas would make this unit into a terror, but you have to be able to walk before you can run. Matt Walters is an intriguing guy. The same measurements as Thomas, he could see a decent amount of playing time if Thomas can't get over the hump. ANALYSIS: Simple. If Robertson is a quick learner contributes, and Thomas can show why he was a first round pick, lookout. You'll see new Sack Exchange jerseys and signs everywhere. If both these things don't happen? Even David Carr will have all day to find a receiver against them.
LINEBACKERS: The general consensus is a player is back to his normal ability two years after suffering a serious injury. Hello, Sam Cowart! Cowart, much like
the rest of the defense, enjoyed a much better second half last season than the first. Expect him to be back to his All-Pro level this time around. Marvin Jones is still the rock in the middle of the defense, while Mo Lewis, while still a playmaker, is competing against father time. At 34, the Jets had an eye to the future (this season?) when they drafted Michigan's Victor Hobson as Lewis' heir-apparent. New York had him rated as the top LB in the country playing over the tight end, and he could see major playing time this season. Not a lot of depth here, however Between Jason Glenn, Kenyatta Wright, Khary Campbell and Kelvin Moses, someone has to be able to be counted on. Not that I'm pining for James Darling. Didn't it always seem last season that whenever there was a big offensive play against the Jets Darling was on the field? ANALYSIS: Teams will run away from Cowart and towards Lewis, hoping to exploit his age. One injury and this corps is in a ton of trouble.
SECONDARY: I really think the Jets are all set here. With one very good CB in Donnie Abraham, and two pretty good ones in Aaron Beasley and Ray Mickens, the Jets can go toe to toe with the best passing teams in the AFC. Sam Garnes has to have a better season than last year, and John McGraw is said to have the range Damien Robinson lacked at the free safety slot. If Jamie Henderson can stay healthy and Tyrone Carter is a free agent find, it'll be awful tough to throw on the Jets with regular success. ANALYSIS: With a pass rush, the secondary is lights out. Without one, we'll find out if Abraham can cover Eric Moulds for 15 seconds a play.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Doug Brien and Dan Stryzinski are the leading candidates at K and P, respectively, however don't be surprised if one or both wind up not being the guys when the season rolls around. Mike Westhoff really likes Stryzinski, and without telling why, said he knows why Stryzinski struggled last season, and it won't be a problem in '03. Brien is another story. Cut after missing 2 extra points in a game last season by Minnesota, the Jets didn't exactly give him a vote of confidence by bringing in two other kickers to camp. Danny Kight or Clay Rush could unseat Brien in a 5-game pre-season, where the coaches will have an extra week to make sure they keep the right guy. ANALYSIS: The Jets kicker for the regular season may
not even be on the roster right now.
Plenty of questions surrounding key positions, but I guess you can say that for any NFL team. Herman Edwards has done a wonderful job the past two seasons getting the Jets in the playoffs under wildly different and challenging circumstances. For the first time, he has the role of division favorite to play. I expect Miami to be very good, the Bills to be pretty good and New England to falter. The Jets, as always, are the division's wildcard. And, as always, the AFC East race won't be decided until Santa Claus comes down the chimney. 10 wins could do it as champion due to the division's depth. Will the Jets be fighting for it or playing spoiler? The Kid will let us know.
Besides writing for Jets Insider.com , Jason Smith can be heard on Fox Sports Radio coast-to-coast as co-host of 'The Jim Daniels Show' Monday through Friday from 11pm-2am PST..