1. Sunglasses needed: Rex Ryan was fired up after the first practice, radiating enough sunshine to raise the tanning index to a 10. The coach said the Jets are "a zillion miles ahead of where we were last year" at this time, claiming this team is further along than any of his previous teams. He raved about Geno Smith, Michael Vick, Chris Johnson, Calvin Pryor, Antonio Allen and Kyle Wilson. Even rookie quarterback Tajh Boyd got some love. Said Ryan: "He's got a little magic in him." Sitting in the news conference, I thought for a moment that I was covering the '85 Bears. But you know what? This is who Ryan is. He's the enternal optimist, and it's one of the reasons why the players still like playing for him after five years.
2. Geno wins the day: On Day 1 of the pseudo quarterback competition, Smith outplayed Michael Vick, who threw an interception that wasn't entirely his fault. (Rookie wide receiver Jalen Saunders ran the wrong route.) There will be more days like this, especially if Smith continues to receive three-quarters of the first-team reps. Vick is working with an inexperienced cast of characters, and that's bound to impact his performance. You'll be reading a day-by-day analysis of the quarterback situation (hey, it's what we do), but know this: To nail down the job, Smith needs to show up in the preseason games. In other words, he can't throw a pick-six on a screen pass on his first attempt. (See: Mark Sanchez, 2013).
3. Three-headed safety: Dawan Landry, Antonio Allen and rookie Calvin Pryor rotated with the starting unit at safety. It's not hard to read the handwriting on the wall: The Jets prefer a Allen-Pryor tandem, but they're not ready to abandon Landry, the wise head of the secondary. Ryan said he wants to keep Allen "really humming because I think he's really stepped up, and I'll try to put him out there with the 1s as much as possible." The same could be said for Pryor. Unfortanately, you can't play with 12 players.
4. Early glimpse at the receivers: Eric Decker, Jeremy Kerley and David Nelson were the best receivers on the field. The others had drops at various points in practice, with rookie Quincy Enunwa (hip) taking an early seat because of an injury. No reason to reach for the panic button. Just stating the facts. Obviously, the Jets need one or two receivers to emerge from the pack.
5. Rex rocks the house: Several players, especially the rookies, were still buzzing about Ryan's speech to the team Wednesday night. Ryan knows how to bring it, especially on the eve of training camp. According to several players, he spoke about the playoffs, how the drought has lasted long enough. This is how Boyd described it: "I'm sitting in there and I don't know what to expect. He gets up there and he's very modest and he's talking, 'It's going to be a great camp, I'm excited.' Then he just flipped the switch five minutes into the talk. You could just feel the fire burning inside the guys. He made me want to run through a brick wall. I think he's got an opportunity to be a legendary coach one of these days."
"We've got weapons, man," said linebacker Calvin Pace, who has endured plenty of mediocre offense in his six seasons with the Jets. "The pieces are in place."
On Thursday, the key parts were together on the field for the first time, something that rarely happened last season. Johnson, who sat out the offseason as he recovered from knee surgery, was in the backfield, chipping off the rust at full speed. Decker, seven months removed from Peyton Manning, was on the outside, showing the young cornerbacks how a precise route-runner gets open. Smith ran the show, spreading the ball around.
For a change, the Jets actually have hope on offense.
"It's night and day for our offense," defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said.
The Jets finished 25th in total offense last season, and they're talking like they expect to take a Bob Beamon jump into the top 10. Is that even possible? Can a team improve that much in one season? Actually, yes.
Since 2000, there have been seven instances in which a team improved its ranking by at least 20 spots, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In fact, three occurred last season: The San Diego Chargers (31st to fifth), the Chicago Bears (28th to eighth) and the Arizona Cardinals (32nd to 12th). So there's hope for the Jets, right? Well, take a closer look at those teams. Each one had an experienced quarterback -- Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler/Josh McCown and Carson Palmer, respectively.
The Jets don't have a seasoned quarterback, so it's probably a stretch to predict a top-five or top-10 offense. They're better on offense than a year ago, but this isn't an elite group -- not yet anyway. But they don't have to be. With Ryan's defense, all they need on offense is a middle-of-the-road ranking. That would be good enough to get them into the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks finished 17th in total offense, and they did well for themselves.
A significant improvement will hinge on at three factors:
Fewer turnovers by Smith, a healthy season for Johnson and the emergence of a legitimate No. 2 option in the passing game -- i.e. someone to take the pressure off Decker, who was targeted on every other pass in practice. Or so it seemed. Maybe rookie tight end Jace Amaro can be that guy. Maybe it will be David Nelson. Maybe Stephen Hill finally will show up. That will be one of the stories in training camp, hoping someone separates from the pack.
No matter happens, the Jets can't be worse than last season, when they managed only 20 points during a three-game losing streak that wrecked their playoff chances. Decker and Johnson will help, no doubt. In the first practice, they made an impact, if only in subtle ways. Decker was constantly open, frustrating the defensive backs with his precise routes.
"I mean, the top of his routes are unbelievable," quarterback Michael Vick said. "He knows how to create space. You can just tell that him working with Peyton over the last couple of years has helped him blossom as a receiver."
Johnson, too, made an impact in the passing game, splitting out wide and catching balls in space -- a new dimension for the Jets' offense. He's so fast that linebackers will have to cover the flat routes, which will create room in the middle of the field. For a change, the Jets can attack all areas of the field. It's not a phone-booth offense anymore.
"The offense can be extremely good," Vick said, "as good as we want to be."
"He's supposed to report today," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "Hopefully we'll see him on the field [Friday]."
Tight end Jeff Cumberland, who has been excused from the start of camp for personal reasons, was also absent Thursday.
Pryor restraint: Part of rookie safety Calvin Pryor's game is his ability tackle with meaning. Both he and his coaches realize that what they see before he puts on the pads is just a shadow of his true abilities.
"From a physical standpoint we won't recognize him until we put a live drill out there," Ryan said. "Then we'll hear him play. I mean that's what happens, but he's a special guy that way. I think (Dawan) Landry has been a mentor to all of them, but he's certainly taken him under his wing as well. We expect huge things out of Calvin."
Asked if he was ready to hit, Pryor said yes, but he didn't want to hurt his teammates. He'd save that for actual games.
Decker <3's NY: Jets wide receiver Eric Decker was asked what he liked about New York, and the former Denver resident had nothing but good things to say about the food and the shows on Broadway.
"This is one of the best cities, if not the best city in our country," Decker said.
Now there's a man who knows how to win over the locals.
Ryan's job security: The Jets coach appears to have a little more job security this year than he did last, when new general manager John Idzik came in and agreed to keep him for the time being.
There's optimism around the team, and Ryan seems as secure as a coach in the NFL can be.
"I know you guys had that question for me, still working? Yeah, still here! I am still here. I don't know if there was a whole lot of confidence in that last year at this time, but still here."
Roommates: Michael Vick was asked about his first night with running back Chris Johnson and he said it went well, but they didn't get much sleep.
"We sat up and talked maybe a little too long last night," Vick said. "I'm kind of tired right now, but I think I let him get some rest. I was doing all of the talking."
Just like college.
On the first day of training camp, everything seemed possible for the New York Jets. It always looks and feels better when the quarterback plays well.
It was only one practice, and things can change in a hurry (as we saw last summer), but the Jets swear Smith is a different player than the wide-eyed rookie who coughed up the football through much of last season. They say he looks and sounds more confident in the huddle. Nelson went so far as to say Smith "(knows) it's his team." Smith wasn't ready to go there just yet, saying, "I don't look at it like that. I love the confidence my guys have in me."
My guys? Sure sounds like he's taking ownership. Of course, Mark Sanchez kept saying the same thing last summer, and look how that turned out.
"Coming into this year, I'm a lot more confident in my reads and my footwork, and delivering the ball a lot stronger and a lot more accurately -- all good signs of progress, but we have a long way to go," Smith said. "I have a long way to go."
For the record, Smith took the first four first-team reps. In came Michael Vick. By the end of the practice, the split was 13 for Smith, four for Vick -- pretty much the ratio offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg had outlined recently. For the stat geeks, Smith completed seven of 10 passes in team drills, with no turnovers.
In case you haven't noticed, this is Smith's job to lose -- even if Ryan won't put it in those words. Asked if he agrees with Nelson's assessment, that it's Smith's team, Ryan did a little spinning.
"I consider it our team," he said. "Do I consider it Geno's team? Yep. I also consider it Michael Vick's team. And my team. Everybody's team."
Barring an injury or an utter meltdown in the preseason games, Smith will be the opening-day starter. Even Vick has acknowledged the handwriting on the wall. In a way, training camp is Smith vs. Smith, not Smith vs. Vick. So far, Smith is winning. He's acting like the starter, according to Nelson.
"I see that when he's in the huddle, I see that whenever he's calling plays," Nelson said. "I see the way he has ownership and command over the offense."
Johnson got plenty of reps a day after being cleared by team doctors; the running back had knee surgery after his last season with the Tennessee Titans. The 5-foot-11, 203-pound back looked light on his feet, and fast.
"I haven't really went 100 percent with the team since I have been here so being able to go out there and run and do all the team periods felt good," Johnson said.
Some of his reps on Thursday weren't rushing plays, but the team also lined Johnson up wide and had him catch passes.
"It's not really new to me," Johnson said. "From college to the pros I've been doing some of those things so it's not really new."
Last year, the Jets used Bilal Powell in that role, and before that LaDanian Tomlinson was a reliable receiver. Johnson however is a little bigger, and could present a challenge for defenses if he stays in the role according to wide receiver David Nelson.
"When they see CJ in the flat they're going to have to jump to that," Nelson said. "When they do that, it opens up a lot of space in the middle of the field. If they don't he's going to take it to the house. It opens up a whole different dimension for us especially in the passing game."
Still, it's early. Aside from one fumble on a run, Johnson seemed right at home.
The Jets won't be in pads until this weekend, so Johnson and the Jets will have a better sense of his physical condition and how the knee is withstanding the contact. But in the meantime, he said he feels good.
"I felt good," Johnson said. "I felt no pain or anything like that."
As expected, Smith received about 76 percent of the first-team reps -- 13 reps to Michael Vick's four. Smith completed 7 of 10 passes in team drills, with one sack. Afterward, Ryan praised Smith for his command of the offense. He was particularly sharp in a 7-on-7 drills, completing 5 of 6. It was the kind of start the Jets wanted to see from Smith, the leading candidate in the so-called quarterback competition. Of course, he also got off to a terrific start in last year's camp before fading.
Vick, working mostly with the second team, completed 2 of 5 passes, including an interception (Jaiquawn Jarrett).
Safety dance: They used a three-safety rotation throughout practice, with Dawan Landry, Antonio Allen and No. 1 pick Calvin Pryor taking turns. This will be interesting to watch. Ryan said he wants to give Allen as many first-team reps as possible, but he also doesn't want to take away too much from Landry's workload. At the same time, he wants to give Pryor -- a likely starter -- plenty of quality work. It'll be a juggling act.
Here's CJ: Running back Chris Johnson, six months removed from knee surgery, made his long-anticipated debut. He got a full workload and moved pretty well for a guy who didn't do much of anything in the spring. The biggest takeaway is that, on occasion, he was flexed out as a receiver, displaying his underrated receiving skills. The coaches want to get him in space, which should put a lot of stress on the defense. On the downside, Johnson had one fumble.
New-look receiving corps: Eric Decker, their big free-agent splurge, looked fantastic. He caught two balls in team drills, as did Stephen Hill. No official stats, but it's safe to say Decker was targeted more than any receiver. Early prediction: Decker will be among the league leaders in targets. None of the young receivers stood out. In fact, Shaq Evans had a few drops in positional drills, although he rebounded with a long reception in a one-on-one drill, beating cornerback Jeremy Reeves. The unit had an early case of the yips, as Hill, Clyde Gates and Jacoby Ford dropped balls. At one point, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg expressed a bit of frustration.
Medical report: This could be a minor thing, or it could be considered an ominous sign. Running back Chris Ivory, who missed most of last training camp with a pulled hamstring, sat out team drills with "a little bit of a hamstring," according to Ryan. The coach didn't seem concerned, noting that Ivory was kept out as a precaution. ... Rookie wide receiver Quincy Enunwa (hip) didn't practice. Presumably, it happened early in practice. No word on the severity. ... Linebacker Nick Bellore tweaked a thigh, but finished practice. ... Guard Willie Colon (knee), on the physically unable to perform list, should be ready in a few days. It'll be longer for linebacker Antwan Barnes (knee).
This and that: Newly-signed defensive end Jason Babin didn't make it to Cortland in time for practice. ... Tight end Jeff Cumberland, excused for a personal reasons, also didn't arrive in time. He should be here Friday. ... With Colon out, Oday Aboushi worked at right guard, with Brian Winters at left guard. It was the other way around in minicamp. ... Rookie quarterback Tajh Boyd made a great escape on a strong rush by Muhammad Wilkerson. Boyd showed his inexperience, throwing two interceptions in 7-on-7. ... Rookie cornerback Dexter McDougle got some work with the first-team nickel. ... Cool temperatures prompted Geno Smith to tell quarterbacks coach David Lee that it felt like an air-conditioned setting.
Per CBA rules, the Jets won't be in pads, but there will be no shortage of storylines. A quick sampling:
• The big-name newcomers -- Chris Johnson, Eric Decker and Michael Vick -- are healthy and ready for action. You might have heard, Vick is competing with Geno Smith for the starting-quarterback job. Vick, who gave himself a C+/B- for his spring performance, knows he had to raise his grade to make Smith sweat a little.
• With Johnson and Decker, along with a lot of young blood at wide receiver, the Jets expect to be vastly improved on offense. It'll be fun evaluating the early stages of the rebuilding job.
• Newly-signed pass rusher Jason Babin is expected to make his Jets debut, joining one of the most talented defensive lines in the league.
• The defensive spotlight also will be on prized safety Calvin Pryor, who has received more praise than perhaps any rookie under Ryan. And that's saying something.
There was some question whether he'd show up, if only because the Jets have had high-profile holdouts recently, notably former cornerback Darrelle Revis,
Wilkerson, drafted in 2011, has two years left on his contract, making $1.2 million this year. Under the CBA, a player is subject to a $30,000-a-day fine if he stages a contract holdout.
At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, Wilkerson is one of the best players on the team and anchors what is considered a strong defensive line with players such as Sheldon Richardson. His compensation however, lags when compared to others at his level. The Panthers franchised Greg Hardy this year for a little over $13 million.
PUP talk: Jets coach Rex Ryan commented on the two players added to the PUP list early in the day, DL Antwan Barnes and OL Willie Colon, saying that he wasn’t concerned about their availability later on despite the tag.
“Well, Antwan will be on PUP right now; we are going to be smart with him,” Ryan said. “In fact he passed his conditioning test. Willie Colon also will be on PUP, and he passed his conditioning test. We’re just going to be smart and we’ll see how it plays out.”
Rain on a parade: The Jets opening pep rally in Cortland got off to a damp start. The bus of rookies arrived a half-hour behind schedule, and just after they arrived a lightning storm had cleared out a lot of the fans who had come to say hello. After the deluge, about 150 fans were still around to greet Ryan and the players who rode up on the buses. Ryan put a good face on it though, saying he would take the rain as a good omen.
Long haul: Training camp is one place where grown men making good bank have to room with each other like they’re back in college. Some tolerate it, some dislike it, but just about everybody has a roommate.
This year, LB David Harris and LB Calvin Pace are in a room, while QB Michael Vick and RB Chris Johnson will share space. Asked who he is rooming with, rookie S Calvin Pryor said he’s with a kicker. “I know, I was pretty surprised too,” Pryor said.
• You can't have too many pass rushers: The Jets made a smart move, signing the well-traveled Jason Babin to a two-year contract -- assuming the money isn't ridiculous. Obviously, the 34-year-old Babin is on the downside of his career, but he led the Jacksonville Jaguars in two important categories last season -- sacks (7.5) and snaps among the defensive linemen (772). One of the Jets' goals this summer was to identify another edge rusher to add to Calvin Pace, Quinton Coples, etc. If healthy, Antwan Barnes would be that guy, but he's not close to returning from last year's knee surgery. Rex Ryan, explaining the importance of pass-rushing depth, mentioned two recent Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks and New York Giants. Yep, it's a copycat league. That the Jaguars cut Babin three months after giving him a $500,000 signing bonus is a bit curious, but that's hardly a concern for the Jets.
• CJ2K is back: The most important development of the day, though not surprising, was Chris Johnson's proclamation that he's been cleared by Dr. James Andrews to participate in training camp. He spent the last month training in Orlando and showed up Wednesday in terrific shape, "flying" in the conditioning run, according to Ryan. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Of all the new additions on offense, Johnson is the one with the potential to make the greatest impact. When healthy, he's one of the fastest running backs in the league, and the Jets need speed in the backfield.
• Where have you gone, Joe McKnight? Apparently, there are no McKnights on this season's roster. You might recall that McKnight started to play his way off the team last summer by flunking the mandatory conditioning run. This year, no one failed the test, according to Ryan. That, he said, never happened before in his head-coaching tenure. Presumably, this means the Jets reported to camp in tip-top shape. Barnes and guard Willie Colon (knee) passed the conditioning test, yet they still landed on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Don't worry about Colon; he's not that far away from being activated. Barnes? That could take some time.
• The anti-Revis: Not that there was any doubt, but defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson did, in fact, report to camp, backing up previous statements in which he vowed not to stage a contract holdout. He said he never considered a holdout for a second, claiming he wouldn't be acting like a team leader if he pulled a no-show. Truth be told, he doesn't have much leverage to get a new contract, considering he's signed through 2015 and the daily fine would've been $30,000. But give him credit for taking the high road, trying to be a team player -- something Darrelle Revis never did in the past. Now we'll see if Wilkerson's anti-Revis approach has any sway with the powers-that-be.
"I still feel like I'm a premier quarterback in this league," Vick said Wednesday after reporting to training camp.
This will be a fascinating dynamic because Vick is a more accomplished player than Smith, but Smith is the likely opening-day starter. Ryan, taking the politically correct approach, said he has two starting-caliber quarterbacks. But, at some point over the next few weeks, he'll have to pick one. Ryan wouldn't give a timetable, saying a decision will be made at the "appropriate" time.
Vick, entering his 12th season, acknowledged this situation feels different because he's entering camp as the presumed backup. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said recently that Smith will get 70- to 75-percent of the first-team reps, a clear indication that it's Smith's job to lose.
"The thing that popped up when I heard that is, it's going to be very important for me to get mental reps," Vick said. "For any athlete out there in the country, when you're not getting the reps with the 1s, mental reps with the 2s are just as important. I can't lose sight of that."
Vick, who has all but conceded the job to Smith, said the key to handling the No. 2 job is finding "an inner peace. I have to find things that keep me stimulated and motivated on the football field."
On Day 1, Smith didn't make any bold statements. He said recently that he expects "big things" out of himself in 2014, but he stayed humble as he spoke to a pack of reporters outside the team's dorm. He knows the drill when it comes to positional battles.
"I mean the names are different, but honestly it doesn’t" feel different than last year, said Smith, who won the job by default last summer when Mark Sanchez was injured.
Actually, it is different. A lot different. The coaches won't be as patient with Smith when he makes mistakes, especially with Vick at the ready.
"He's head and shoulders above where he was last year, I don't think there's any doubt about that," Ryan said of Smith.
Ryan called this the "strongest quarterback situation" he's had in six years as the head coach. It's hard to dispute that.
Yet, as the team arrived at the SUNY College at Cortland campus for the start of training camp, some dialed back talk of playoffs and Super Bowls, starting with Jets coach Rex Ryan.
Ryan has been talking about the playoffs since the January 2009 day that he took the Jets head coaching position, when he predicted the team would meet just-elected President Barack Obama in the White House when he hosts the Super Bowl victor.
It hasn't exactly happened like that, but each season offers a new opportunity to say, like Jets WR David Nelson did to the New York Daily News, that the Jets are a playoff team.
Quarterback Michael Vick, who played for a Philadelphia Dream Team that didn’t turn out to be one, said he doesn’t think preseason talk is a problem. Those intra-squad pep talks are just a way of communicating.
“I don’t think there’s any danger in having confidence,” Vick said. “That’s an emotion that we all have, we all want to exuberate at some point -- this is the time to do it. In football you have to have confidence, you have to toe the line between confidence and arrogance, and this team has felt for a long time like they can get it done, and that’s the right mind set. That’s how we feel, and that’s how we want to approach the season.”
And the truth is that individual players on the Jets have noticed the chance in the atmosphere this year, privately saying that the offseason workouts produced a lot of team unity already.
Second-year quarterback Geno Smith, who will get about 70 percent of the snaps at training camp over the more-experienced Vick, isn’t one to join in the predictions, but he can appreciate it.
“I love the confidence, we all love confidence,” Smith said. “We’re confident in ourselves and we’re confident in our team, but today is day one. It takes step by step, you can’t take the elevator up.”
And this was how, on the eve of training camp, the Jets began to quiet the big talk and consider how it would translate into what they could do on the field in the next few weeks.
“We know we’ve got a pretty good team, but we know that we’ve still got to take one step at a time, and that’s getting training camp out of the way and start winning games,” running back Chris Johnson said. “We can’t just jump to the playoffs or straight to a Super Bowl. We’ve got to take it one game at a time.”
Passing the conditioning test Wednesday morning was just the start.
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- After sitting out the offseason as he recovered from knee surgery, New York Jets running back Chris Johnson was medically cleared recently by Dr. James Andrews to participate in training camp.
And he got off to an impressive start Wednesday.
Rex Ryan said Johnson was "flying" in the mandatory conditioning run. The Jets practice Thursday for the first time.
The Jets, looking for a home-run threat in their backfield, signed the former Tennessee Titans star to a two-year, $8 million contract only two months after he underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus. It was a calculated gamble, but they believe a healthy Johnson can make a huge difference.
Johnson, 28, is attempting to rebound after rushing for career-low 1,037 yards last season, when he provided fodder for those who believe he's on the downside of his career.
The critics, he said, are off base.
"I don't think they're legitimate," he said after checking into camp. "I don't know too many guys that had a torn meniscus since Week 3 and still rushed for 1,000 yards."
Babin agreed to a two-year contract, a source confirmed to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini. The agreement includes a team option in the second year, NFL Network reported.
"You can't have enough pass rushers," coach Rex Ryan said as the team checked into training camp in Cortland, New York. "He is a relentless guy, (with) a phenomenal motor. Obviously, he's got a history of being able to get to the quarterback. He's going to bring a lot to the table in that regard, for sure.
"You watch the tape from last year, and he's got plenty left in the tank."
Babin is expected to join the team Thursday for its first practice.