- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The New York Jets will search for a new wide receiver, a new right tackle, a new safety (or two) and probably more pass-rushers.
But where will the Jets find leadership in 2012? That is the most difficult question facing New York this offseason.
The Jets' implosion last season was well-documented. New York was 8-5 with the playoffs in sight. But poor performance on the field, combined with combustible personalities and a lack of leadership, led to a three-game losing streak and an even uglier fallout.
By the end of the season, there was a wide rift between Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez and leading receiver Santonio Holmes. There also was tension between New York's 25th-ranked offense and its fifth-ranked defense, because the offense wasn't pulling its weight. Jets backup quarterback Greg McElroy said it was the most selfish and divided locker room he'd ever seen.
The Jets will continue adding talent to their roster via the draft and free agency. But how will they fix their poor chemistry?
You cannot just draft leadership or buy it in free agency. There's also no instruction manual to get 53 professional athletes back on the same page. But the Jets must find a way to make it work next season if they want to get back to being contenders.
"I do believe in the fabric of our team and the backbone," Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said at the NFL combine. "The D'Brickashaw (Fergusons), the (Nick) Mangolds, the (Darrelle) Revises, we have a lot of good players that care deeply about our team. All we can try to do is add to that."
New York has playoff-caliber talent but 4-12-caliber leadership. Perhaps that is why the Jets finished 8-8 in 2011.
Here are some candidates who must step up for New York next season:
Jets Pro Bowler Darrelle Revis is the best cornerback in the NFL. But he's never been the type to grab a person by the collar and keep everyone else in line. Revis leads by example. He will work harder than anyone else, and most of the time he plays better than anyone else. Revis is rapidly putting together a Hall of Fame résumé on the field. For most teams, that is enough. But the Jets need more vocal and forceful leadership from their best player, who is 26 and in his prime. When Revis speaks, people will listen.
Leadership in the NFL must always come from the quarterback position. It's time for Sanchez, who is entering his fourth season, to grow up on the field and in the locker room and meeting rooms. Sanchez had it rough coming to the big stage of New York as a starting quarterback from Day 1. He handled the pressure well in his first two years, when Sanchez could hide behind the "young quarterback" label and play a complementary role. But the Jets needed more leadership and better play from Sanchez last season. The late-season feud with Holmes was an example of Sanchez's lack of assertiveness. The quarterback doesn't always need to be the best player on the team. But he must be a natural leader who is able to inspire teammates and keep everyone focused.
In addition to the best corner in football, the Jets also have arguably the best center. Four-time Pro Bowler Nick Mangold is as tough as they come. He played on a bad ankle for long stretches last season and still performed at a high level. He also has the rugged persona to challenge teammates when they get out of line. But how much teamwide leadership can truly come from the center position? Jets left tackle and three-time Pro Bowler D’Brickashaw Ferguson also can help. The offense was in shambles last season, and these two players need to step forward.
Not all the blame falls on the players. Jets head coach Rex Ryan admitted he needs to do a better job of having the pulse of his locker room. Ryan didn't understand the level of dysfunction within his team until it was too late. Ryan said he plans to do more team-building exercises and events to improve chemistry.
"I don't see ... that we got completely off the track," Ryan said. "I think we kind of got in the gravel a little bit, we've just got to right it. And we can't knee-jerk reaction and we'll roll it the other way. So you know, there's ways of handling this type of thing. I think our football team is a little closer than people give us credit for. But again, I'm excited about the challenge."
The Jets are at a crossroads. Is 2012 the time to rebuild or simply tweak?
One year ago, New York played in its second straight AFC Championship Game. But the team finished without a winning record this past season for the first time under Ryan. New York also is expected to lose veterans such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Plaxico Burress, Jim Leonhard and potentially Bart Scott, who was recently given permission to seek a trade. The Jets will replace the talent, but it will be harder to replace the lost leadership.
The Jets better get their act together soon, because the AFC East will be very competitive next season. The New England Patriots were just a touchdown short of winning the Super Bowl, and the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are expected to improve.
There is also the looming prospect of Miami's landing future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who is expected to be released this month by the Indianapolis Colts. That would leave most football observers picking the Jets to finish third in the division, especially if they can't resolve their internal issues.
The New York Jets will search for a new wide receiver, a new right tackle, a new safety (or two) and probably more pass-rushers.But where will the Jets find leadership in 2012?