Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Season That Wasn't

Just one week left in what could be the strangest NFL season in recent memory. How is it strange? I think Bill Simmons summed it up nicely a few weeks ago in his weekly NFL column: there are just so many bad teams. Some teams started out bad, some fell victim to a glut of injuries, and some just couldn’t get the ball rolling out of the gate and suffered all season.

No one felt this more than the Jets. After a solid run in 2004 that led them to the brink of an AFC Championship appearance, the Jets heard the words “Super Bowl” muttered throughout their fan base in 2005. And why not? The biggest holes in the 2004 roster were plugged over the off-season. Chad Pennington had shoulder surgery, and they signed Jay Fiedler as a capable backup. Derrick Blaylock was brought in to replace LaMont Jordan. And Ty Law shored up the secondary.

Two holes remained, however: the offensive and defensive lines. Kareem McKenzie headed to the Giants and Jason Ferguson headed to Big D, leaving the Jets with gaping holes on both lines. The Jets O-line already had some problems in 2004, mainly because Brandon Moore just isn’t good enough to be a starter. Add to that the undersized Adrian Jones – 6-4, 296 compared to McKenzie’s 6-6, 327), and an aging Jason Fabini, and you have impending doom.

The departure of Jason Ferguson hurt the defense more than most fans anticipated. While he was never heralded as an elite nose tackle, his true value was realized in his absence. Without him eating up blockers, blitzes were compromised, and Jonathan Vilma wasn’t allowed to roam freely. Yes, he still leads the NFL in tackles, but his accomplishments were usually marked in the flats or at the second level instead of up by the line of scrimmage.

Even with those holes, the Jets stood a shot. But then Pennington went down. Then Fiedler. Then Kevin Mawae. Then Eric Barton. Suddenly, the talks have moved from playoff run to No. 1 Draft Pick sweepstakes. And with talks of the No. 1 pick come whispers of Reggie Bush.

This actually reminds me of an episode of Coach, after Hayden had taken over the Vikings. He was in the war room, debating whether to draft a halfback or an offensive lineman. The logic went, “if we draft the back, he’ll have no holes to run through. If we draft the lineman, there will be no one to run through the holes.” Exactly the conundrum the Jets are in right now.

Quite honestly, though, I don’t think the Jets should be thinking about Reggie right now, great as he may be in the NFL. I also think the talks should hush about Matt Leinart as well. Why? While they have problems at QB and RB, they have far worse problems elsewhere. Big money is tied up in Pennington at QB and Martin at RB (though they could conceivably restructure Martin’s deal or even cut him, depending on the circumstance). The Jets already have $120 million committed to 2006 salaries, and while plenty of that is sure to come off the books via restructuring and release, they can ill afford adding the monstrous contract of a Leinart or Bush.

Come draft day, the Jets should be focusing on their linemen and secondary (since Ty Law will be a cap casualty), which means swapping their top pick for a later first round pick and a second or third rounder. More draft picks = more chances to land a quality player. Later draft picks = less money taken from the rookie pool.

The draft must be the focus of the Jets off-season, since the bigger name free agents probably aren’t going to be enamored with the luster of the team. And since that’s the only selling point (and even that’s a stretch), they can pretty much forget about guys like Tom Ashworth and Nate Clements.

And that’s basically all I have. I can’t go analyzing potential free-agent pickups because there will likely be none of consequence, and I can’t go speculating about the draft because the combine changes everything.

So, in closing, I’d just like to say that even though the No. 1 pick in the draft is on the line next weekend, I still want to see the Jets actually win a game. Yes, I know that the game is inconsequential, but con sarnit, the Jets should beat Buffalo. There is just no excuse for a loss. Leave the tanking of games to the Texans.

Dammit, I just want to see a win.