Florham Park, N.J. – For the third straight year the Jets finished the season without qualifying for the playoffs, but this felt different. The past two years the feeling of despair cloaked the air in the locker room, this year the energy purging through the locker room was of hope and jubilation.
Hope and jubilation are not words you typically associate with an 8-8 season, but when put into context they fit perfectly with the mindset of the Jets players as they head into the offseason. Don’t get confused with the jubilant part, none of the players or coaches are celebrating being 8-8, being .500 isn’t satisfying to them, but there is clearly a feeling of great happiness and triumph for the players as they closed out the season with two wins and secured their beloved coach at least one more year leading his players.
Woody Johnson said they made the decision to retain Rex Ryan awhile ago, who really knows when the decision was made (all we know is Ryan was informed right before kickoff in Miami), but JetsInsider.com heard from numerous players last week that they thought, key word being thought, Ryan was going to get fired and they clearly didn’t want to see that happen.
So, they fought for him and how much of an impact the wins had on the decision we’ll never truly know, but they felt they needed to win those games for him and today you could still sense the enjoyment the players got out of Ryan returning as much as you could by replaying the clip of the announcement made in the visitors locker room in Miami.
That’s the reason for the celebration, but these players are nowhere near satisfied. They are however hopeful as the common phrase you’ve been hearing repeated over and over is about how, “the arrow is pointing up.”
It’s absolutely a talking point memo, a ‘boy this sounds like a good way to put it,’ manufactured phrase, but it also happens to be correct. Over the next week we’ll dive deep into more of the specifics of all the reasons the arrow is indeed pointing up, for now we’ll just list them below with a little preview of what’s to come.
The Front-Seven – A group that spent most of the 2013 season teetering on the brink of dominance and only figure to improve. The core of this group is young and cheap and with another year together and some added help behind them in the secondary there’s no reason to expect anything other than total domination from this group going forward. Even as the season went on, after the Jets were eliminated from the playoff race, it was still easy to get enjoyment out of watching this group week after week, at times they were scary good and considering how young they are it’s even scarier to think how good they could become.
Nine Draft Picks and a Whole Bunch of Money – The Jets had very limited options in free agency last season as John Idzik had to dig his way out of the salary cap mess Mike Tannenbaum left him, but this year they will have no problem being big spenders in free agency. Idzik’s motto is use free-agency to fill holes and take the best-player-available in the draft, this year they’ll have anywhere from $40-50 million to spend (depending on who gets cut or restructures their deals) on a free-agent pool that includes receivers such as; Golden Tate, Jeremy Maclin (assuming the knee checks out), and Eric Decker and safeties like Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward that match up with areas of need and also allow for them to add depth at any position they so desire.
Idzik will also have at least nine draft picks to work with and this year’s draft class is loaded with receivers and tight ends, the top receiver in the draft, Sammy Watkins, will likely be long gone by the 18th pick, but one of, receiver Mike Evans or tight ends Eric Ebron or Jace Amaro will certainly be available when they Jets make their first pick. The 2013 Jets were a team with a tremendously talented young core, but were also filled with gigantic holes. $40-50 million and nine draft picks will go a long way to not just plugged those holes but turning them into potential strengths of their own.
Continuity – Bringing back Rex Ryan means continuing to build off this talented core of young players and keep them all on the same path as they move forward. The defense, especially the front-seven, is the obvious strength of this roster and players like Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson would still be great under any other coach, but this front-seven is built in Ryan’s image and he’s clearly the best person to get the most out of this already talented group. There’s rumblings that Ryan might have to agree to some changes to his staff, but the only ones who really need to stay are Ryan, Marty Mornhinweg and David Lee. Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar could be included on this list, but as long as Ryan is here Dunbar is more of a luxury than a necessity. Mornhinweg and Lee are essential to the improvement of the offense next season.
One of the best arguments for keeping Ryan was that it would mean also keeping Mornhinweg and Lee, Mornhinweg showed creativity the Jets haven’t seen from their offensive coordinator in, maybe ever, and while the offense clearly sputtered due to lack of playmakers and injuries to the supposed playmakers Mornhinweg got the most out of the talent given to him and did a phenomenal job coaching the extremely raw rookie quarterback, Geno Smith. Firing Ryan would have likely meant starting over with Smith in a brand new system and as Jets fans know that typically doesn’t go so well for young quarterbacks.
This Year’s Rookie Class – It was just a few weeks ago that the narrative dominating the New York media was about all the draft busts in this year’s class, but Geno Smith, Dee Milliner and even Brian Winters all closed out the season strong having their three best games in their three last games. Milliner showed signs of being close two months ago, but things finally clicked for him over these past three weeks as he played outstanding. Two interceptions against Miami and handling Josh Gordon mostly with no help. The position of cornerback is one of the hardest in all of sports and Milliner clearly stumbled coming out of the gate, but the kid finished the season looking like the player the Jets expected him to be when they drafted him with the ninth overall pick.
To say Smith was raw coming out of college is a gross understatement, the Air Raid (shotgun only) system they run at West Virginia is nothing close to an NFL offense, let alone the west coast offense and Smith clearly had issues with adjusting to the speed of NFL defenses, but the game seemed to slowed down for him these past few weeks and while no one should be convinced he’ll be great, the growth he showed with such limited weapons should certainly give everyone hope. Smith has all the physical tools, can make all the throws, is a smart kid with the exact right attitude. He’s shown great poise and confidence and while having all these traits doesn’t mean he’ll ever put it all together to be a great quarterback, they are all traits a great quarterback needs to have.
Even Brian Winters took a huge leap forward these past couple of weeks. In training camp, Ryan was absolutely giddy over the potential of Winters, for most of the season that potential was nowhere to be found, but it certainly surfaced the past two weeks.
The one rookie that was never questioned was Sheldon Richardson. The college tape on Richardson was impressive, but it doesn’t begin to do him justice. From the first day of rookie camp it was clear that Richardson was a special player and a special personality, Jets fans are going to love rooting for this kid as he grows and they’ll get to enjoy a hell of a player while they do.
All of these are reasons the arrow is pointing up and if Idzik has another draft as successful as this year’s and uses all that cap money wisely the Jets will certainly be a playoff-or-bust team and they smart money would be on playoffs.
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