- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York Jets reporter
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The New York Jets haven’t faced expectations this low since 2006, when they hired a relatively anonymous New England Patriots assistant named Eric Mangini. Somehow, they made the playoffs under the baby-faced head coach.
The odds of duplicating that this season are about the same as seeing two Butt Fumbles in one lifetime.
Even the bombastic Rex Ryan, who once guaranteed a Super Bowl, has refrained from delivering a headline-making prediction. The Jets are rated in many power polls as a bottom-five team, but that stoked Ryan’s fire to only a medium flame.
“If you’re a competitor, how does that thing not get to you?” Ryan said. “How does that not motivate you? It’s almost like, ‘Well, OK, we’re going to show you.’”
In the not-so-old days, Ryan would’ve said something like, “We’ll see who has the egg on their face when we’re in the playoffs.”
Ryan has toned it down because he recognizes the enormity of the challenge.
The Jets, coming off a dysfunctional, Tim Tebow-obsessed 6-10 season, are rebuilding. New general manager John Idzik parted ways with 11 starters (including All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis), tore apart the front office and changed the culture.
Idzik, hired even though he has little background in personnel, instilled a buttoned-down, almost paranoid environment in an organization once known for its wacky ways.
The circus is gone. The Kremlin is here.
It’s a change for the fun-loving Ryan, but he has bought in because he’s coaching for his job. He joked recently that if the Jets are in position to draft Jadeveon Clowney, the presumptive No. 1 pick in 2014, he won’t be around to see it.
Earth to Ryan: You won’t be around if you finish with as many as six wins. Idzik inherited Ryan, at the urging of owner Woody Johnson, and he will hire his own man if the team shows no improvement.
In a way, Ryan is in an almost impossible situation. His roster was gutted, leaving a team many scouts believe has only four top-tier players: cornerback Antonio Cromartie, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
Throw in a potential quarterback controversy, and you’re looking at a long year in New York.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Who plays quarterback? The competition is billed as Mark Sanchez versus Geno Smith. In reality, it’s Smith versus Smith. It’s his job to win. If the second-round pick proves capable of functioning in an NFL offense, he’ll be the opening-day starter.
Sanchez will start the first preseason game, but his performance is virtually meaningless. The Jets know what he can and can’t do, and it has been a “can’t-do” situation over the past two seasons. If it weren’t for an $8.25 million guarantee, he probably would have been cut loose in the offseason.
The organization wants a fresh start at quarterback. It went into camp thinking Sanchez would win by default, but Smith, shaking off a lackluster spring, has impressed with his arm strength, accuracy and athleticism. “He can do more” than Sanchez, one veteran player said. The question is whether or not Smith can handle it from a mental and maturity standpoint. When his brain catches up to his arm, it’ll be his team.
2. How will they score points? The Jets finished 28th in scoring last season, and they will be hard pressed to improve that ranking. They have a suspect cast of skill-position players, including past-their-prime pass-catchers (Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow), a lead back who’s never had more than 137 carries in a season (Chris Ivory) and an injured former Super Bowl hero who may never be the same (Santonio Holmes).
New offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is an experienced playcaller, but it’s hard to call plays when you don’t have the talent. The Jets need productive seasons out of wide receiver Stephen Hill and tight end Jeff Cumberland, who have a combined total of 53 career receptions. Holmes could be a factor at some point, but he probably won’t be ready for Week 1 as he continues to rehab a surgically repaired foot. Get the picture? It looks bleak.
Because of the uncertainty at quarterback and the lack of playmakers on the perimeter, the Jets absolutely must be a strong running team. That’s not out of the question -- the line is solid -- but they will see a heavy dose of eight-man fronts and run-blitzing defenses.
3. Can Ryan hold it together? After back-to-back seasons out of the playoffs, Ryan faces a make-or-break year. He has two years left on his contract, meaning he’ll be extended or fired after the season. He has no previous background with Idzik, making it a tenuous situation.
Thinking self-preservation, Ryan has taken control of the defense, becoming the de facto coordinator. He did it this way in 2009, when he felt most comfortable as a head coach. He’ll leave the offense to Mornhinweg, whose pass-happy philosophy might not be a good fit with Ryan’s defensive-oriented approach.
Ryan’s job security will be an issue throughout the season, especially if the Jets get off to a bad start against a tough schedule. It could become a feeding frenzy for the New York media. It may not be playoffs or bust, but another losing season probably will mean the end of the Ryan era.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Once again, the Jets will rely on their defense -- and that’s not such a bad thing.
Under Ryan, they’ve finished no worse than eighth in total defense, and they have the talent to keep the streak alive. There could be some growing pains as Ryan integrates seven new starters, but the unit should get stronger as the season progresses.
Revis is gone, traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Jets will be OK outside with Cromartie and top pick Dee Milliner. They’re good enough to play man-to-man coverage, which will allow Ryan to crank up his blitzing schemes.
They don’t have a big-time pass-rusher -- the glaring deficiency -- but this is the most athletic defensive line of the Ryan era. And it should be, considering they’ve drafted linemen in the past three first rounds. If Quinton Coples and rookie Sheldon Richardson develop as quickly as Wilkerson, already one of the league’s best 3-4 ends, this group will be fun to watch.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the Jets’ quarterback situation is as murky as any in the league. It’s a controversy waiting to happen.
Sanchez still has the loyalty of a few holdovers in the locker room, but there are many players intrigued by Smith’s skill set. If Sanchez wins the job and struggles, it could create a division in the locker room.
Nothing drains the energy out of a team more than a quarterback mess. It happened last year with Sanchez and Tebow, although this could be more volatile because Smith -- unlike Tebow -- can actually play the position.
Sanchez has lost the home fans, who booed him mercilessly last season. If the toxicity carries over to this season, it will create a bad vibe, and that can bring down an entire team. A difficult first-half schedule won’t help matters.
The Jets are relying on several players with recent injury histories, including Winslow (limited in camp), Edwards (limited), Holmes, guard Willie Colon, wide receiver Clyde Gates and kick returner Joe McKnight. That’s always a dicey proposition.
The Jets have been spoiled for two decades at running back, but not anymore. This marks the first time since 1994 that no one on the roster has a 1,000-yard season in his career. It will be backfield by committee, with Ivory (yet to practice because of a hamstring injury), Bilal Powell and McKnight. Mike Goodson was supposed to be a key player, but he’s dealing with undisclosed personal issues and didn’t report to camp. Powell, a pleasant surprise, could end up as the lead back.
Remember all the talk last summer about Tebow and the Wildcat? It was all hot air, as the Jets barely used him. Tebow is gone, but the plan remains. They will use the Wildcat with Powell or wide receiver Jeremy Kerley, and they plan to use the read option with Smith. Ironic, huh?
Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman will keep opponents guessing by employing different looks. The Jets remain a 3-4 base defense, but don’t be surprised if they mix in 4-3 fronts. They will blitz a lot more than last season, count on it. You also could see three cornerbacks (Kyle Wilson lining up as a safety) in certain base packages.
Wilkerson doesn’t garner too many headlines because he doesn’t say much, but he’s a special talent. He felt he deserved to go to the Pro Bowl last season; he’s ready to break through in ’13.
Mornhinweg, a Bill Walsh disciple, employs a West Coast offense, but he’s not the stereotypical West Coast guru. He’s an aggressive playcaller and will take deep shots. That should bode well for Hill, a vertical threat who has matured after a disappointing rookie year.
The Jets could have three rookies in the opening day lineup -- Smith, Milliner and Richardson. The last time they had as many as two was 2006, Ferguson and Mangold. By the end of the year, Brian Winters could be starting at left guard. It could be a watershed draft
Looking for a sleeper? Keep an eye on second-year linebacker Demario Davis, who replaces Bart Scott. Davis is terrific in pass coverage, so good in space that Ryan is thinking about keeping his base defense on the field against certain three-receiver packages.
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The New York Jets haven’t faced expectations this low since 2006, when they hired a relatively anonymous New England Patriots assistant named Eric Mangini.