One of the burning questions -- like an inferno -- entering the 2010 season is whether or not the New York Jets are the real deal.
They came within 30 minutes of reaching the Super Bowl last season, and they've loaded up for another run. They've added LaDainian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes, Jason Taylor and Antonio Cromartie among others to a team that was atop the NFL in rushing offense and total defense in 2009.
Expectations are so high that anything short of a deep playoff run will be a failure. Yet there are all sorts of ways to imagine a collapse. All-world cornerback Darrelle Revis hasn't signed. Sophomore quarterback Mark Sanchez might not be mature enough. Chemistry concerns exist.
ESPN.com AFC East blogger Tim Graham and ESPN national correspondent Sal Paolantonio hash out whether or not the Jets have what it takes to make it to the Super Bowl.
Tim Graham: Seven months ago, we witnessed a shift in the AFC East. The combination of the Jets winning two playoff games on the road and the Patriots getting bombed out of the first round already put me in a comfortable place when it came to the future of the division. I realize the Jets caught a lot of breaks last year and snuck into the postseason by playing the Colts' and Bengals' reserves. The Jets' playoff opponents missed five straight field goals. But the Jets got there and won when it counted, gaining invaluable confidence and experience. I thought the Jets would be the team to beat in 2010 then, and they've gotten better over the offseason.
Sal Paolantonio: The Jets have definitely improved in a number of areas. First of all, depth at cornerback is going to be a huge factor. Rex Ryan learned a painful lesson in the AFC Championship Game, when injuries slowed down linebacker Bart Scott and decimated his secondary. His pass rush was there against Peyton Manning, but without the coverage on the back end, the Colts passing game was just too relentless and precise. That's why it was crucial to draft Kyle Wilson in the first round and acquire Antonio Cromartie, who had a marvelous training camp. Depth in the secondary, especially with Darrelle Revis currently AWOL, will be key if the Jets are going to advance deep into the postseason.
TG: You're absolutely correct, Sal. The Jets have bolstered their secondary considerably from last year, which strengthens my belief they're for real -- even if the Revis holdout lasts through training camp or into the season. They're deep enough with Cromartie, Wilson and Dwight Lowery. Granted, they won't be as good against the run because Revis is a superior tackler compared to Cromartie, but coverage will allow the Jets to execute their normal defensive game plan. They finished No. 1 in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense last year and then brought in reinforcements. Remember, the Jets finished atop the heap without nose tackle Kris Jenkins for their last 13 games (postseason included). They've added pass-rush specialist Jason Taylor, and the overlooked acquisition of safety Brodney Pool will make them better, too.
SP: But, Tim, the Jets defense was helped considerably last year by a ball-control offense that played a superior field-position game. Translation? You need a productive running game or -- as Rex Ryan calls it -- "ground and pound." The problem is that general manager Mike Tannenbaum jettisoned Thomas Jones. He's taken his 14 touchdowns and 331 carries with him to Kansas City. Now, Ryan is going to ask sophomore running back Shonn Greene to pick up the slack -- to go from 108 carries in his rookie campaign of 2009 to the doorstep of 300, depending on how much gas LaDainian Tomlinson has left in the tank. Remember, the Jets ran the ball 59 percent of the time last season -- more than any other team in the league. The running game was their true strength in 2009. In 2010, it could be a weakness they can't afford. And then, this field-position approach needs a reliable kicker. Again, Tannenbaum allowed Jay Feely to walk out the door and left special-teams guru Mike Westhoff to steady the shaky leg of Nick Folk. Iffy.
TG: I'll grant you Folk doesn't engender the same kind of confidence as Feely did, but coming back too soon from hip surgery is a big reason Folk struggled with the Cowboys and eventually got cut last year. Plus, the need for a clutch kicker might be a tad overstated. Of the Jets' nine regular-season victories, none were by less than six points. In fact, the two games in which they truly needed their field-goal unit to bail them out (Week 6 against the Buffalo Bills and Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons), they lost. As for the running game, Greene is no sure thing, but the Doak Walker Award winner was a star in the playoffs. Tomlinson has his question marks, but he has shown a spark in the preseason. Tomlinson's value will be as a receiver out of the backfield, something the Jets didn’t have after Leon Washington went down with a compound leg fracture. The Jets looked at their backfield and saw two players -- Greene and Jones -- with the same rugged style. Greene is younger and cheaper. The Jets finished dead last with only 197 yards on passes thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. Tomlinson still can help in that regard.
SP: Well, I will grant you this, Tim, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and sophomore quarterback Mark Sanchez certainly have more options on offense this year. I think Son of Marty Ball could reach puberty this season. The L.T. option will make Sanchez more comfortable when he gets into trouble. Dumping off the ball to Tomlinson will certainly cut down on his interceptions. Sanchez looked very impressive when I saw him early in camp. He had a clear idea of where the ball is going and appears seamless and confident. But the most impressive guy on the offensive side of the football, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, will be MIA (serving a league suspension) for the first four games of the year. I think Schotty wants to throw the ball down the field more, getting away from the dominantly right-handed, play-action passing game that limited the Jets last season. In Holmes' absence, the Jets need Braylon Edwards to be a lot more than the pedestrian possession receiver he was last season. And right now, Edwards is listed by most mock fantasy football draft boards below Julian Edelman. Ouch.
TG: Let's not forget two other targets who round out one of the deeper groups of passing options. At this time last year, Jerricho Cotchery was the Jets' top target. He has caught 82 passes twice in the past four seasons and gained 1,130 yards in 2008. He's a talented player who would be a go-to guy for some other teams. Less than a year later, he's the Jets' third option. And don't overlook tight end Dustin Keller. When you look at his stat line from last season, you probably aren't overly impressed. But consider he caught a touchdown pass in each of their three playoff games. He'll be a threat in this offense.
SP: I was around this Jets team practically every day during last season's late run, and I have spent some time at their training camp at SUNY Cortland. There is no doubt this is a playoff-caliber team with that same swagger. But I only really see one more regular season win than last year, making them 10-6 -- if they successfully navigate the first month and a half of a very tough schedule. Four of their first six games are against legitimate playoff contenders: Baltimore, New England, at Miami and at home versus Minnesota. And the two other games are on the road: at Buffalo and at Denver. Then, after the bye, Green Bay comes into the Meadowlands, and I am not alone in seeing the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. So if you want to crown the Jets, go ahead and crown them. But I think Rex in the City, the Sequel, may not be playing in Dallas in February. In the AFC, there are four teams I would put ahead of the Jets right now -- the Ravens, Steelers, Colts and Chargers will all be more well-balanced on offense and defense and play more consistently throughout the season. The Jets defense will be suffocating and dominant at times. But unless he gets Darrelle Revis back, Rex Ryan will have a very difficult time sustaining the level of defensive play the Jets produced in 2009. I have the Colts and Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, facing either the Packers or the Saints in the Super Bowl. Those are my final four teams.
TG: You're giving the Jets one more victory on their regular-season record compared to last year's. So I don't think it's all that much of a stretch to see them winning one more game in the playoffs. That would put them in the Super Bowl. An organization good enough to achieve that is the real deal in my book.