New York Jets: Bill Belichick
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
Since PlaybookGate erupted last Thursday, most experts have downplayed the potential impact of having an opponent's playbook. Not Martin, who responded this way when asked if it could help coach Bill Belichick:
"Oh, tremendously, to be honest with you," Martin told ESPN.com at the Big Daddy Celebrity Golf Classic at Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York. "What most people don't understand is that football is a science. There are little signals and little movements from one person that can give an indication on where the entire play is going. I think it can have a tremendous effect on a game. If we're playing chess and I understand all of your moves before you make them, my probability of winning is pretty high."
Martin said he wasn't taken aback by Ryan's decision to give a playbook to Alabama coach Nick Saban, whom former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine suspects may have passed it along to Belichick. Martin figures that sort of stuff goes on between coaches. Belichick, he said, doesn't need any help.
"Belichick is one of those football savants," he said. "He (understands) the game, especially from a defensive perspective, at a different level. Does he need it? No. Does he have it? I don't know. I don't think so. Who knows? I don't like to talk on things that are assumptions. If they come out and say Belichick has the book, I'd say, yeah, it makes a big difference."
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said he laughed when he first heard the story.
"I have no idea about any of that," said McCourty, who also attended the charity golf outing. "I feel like to comment on it keeps the nonsense going."
Another person with knowledge of the Jets-Patriots rivalry, Eric Mangini, said the benefit of having an opponent's playbook would be minimal.
"There may be some value from an off-season perspective, but you still have to get through the terminology and you have to get through the adjustments," said the former Jets coach and ex-Patriots assistant. "Ideally, you have someone in the system that can take you through it. From a weekly perspective, it would be hard to get much (useful information) because you can't be sure that what's in there is what you're going to see."
Mangini is the broken branch on Belichick's coaching tree. He was cut off when he reported Belichick's illegal spying tactics to the league, resulting in SpyGate. So, yes, he can relate to the Pettine-Ryan situation. He's not sure why Pettine revealed such information, but Mangini believes it has been blown out of proportion by the media. Asked if he's ever given a playbook to a friend or colleague outside his organization, he paused for a moment.
"Typically, I haven't done that," he said, "but I don't think it's so far out of the range of what happens."
- If Belichick received a copy of the Jets' defensive playbook from Saban (personally, I don't think he did), it wouldn't have helped that much, if at all. As ESPN Boston colleague Mike Reiss discovered, it's easy to access a team's playbook via the Internet. Check out footballxos.com. The website has an 80-page copy of the Jets' 2010 defensive playbook, along with playbooks from several other teams, including the New England Patriots. Even though Belichick likes to mock himself for not being tech savvy, I'm pretty sure he knows how to execute a Google search. I agree with Ryan: It's "ridiculous" to suggest that possession of the playbook would've given the Patriots an edge over the Jets. You want to know the Patriots' edge? They have Tom Brady and the Jets don't. Period.
- I don't understand why Pettine chose to go public with this, saying Ryan gives out playbooks "like candy." I'm curious to hear Pettine's take, but he's on vacation and hasn't commented. As of now, this smacks of disloyalty. Has Pettine forgotten that he got his start in the NFL from Ryan, who pulled him out of the Baltimore Ravens' film room and gave him a chance to help with the defense? They decided to split up after the 2012 season, and Pettine evidently harbors bitterness. His comments cast Ryan in a poor light, making him look like a fool for giving away secrets -- and that isn't the case at all. Ryan was upset and hurt that Pettine said what he said. This wasn't quite Eric Mangini ratting out Belichick in SpyGate, but it's along those lines. The craziest part? It put Ryan in a position in which he actually defended his nemesis, Belichick, and criticized his (former) best friend.
- This story has been overblown in terms of the impact it may or may not have on the field, but it's also naive to suggest it's not a story at all. Of course it is. It involves the Jets and the Patriots, once busted for illegal spying. It's absolutely newsworthy. What's better than skullduggery between two bitter rivals?
1. Song remains the same: Rex Ryan's remarks the other day about the New England Patriots (in response to Calvin Pryor's "hate" quote) triggered a memory. Ryan's comments -- "[Pryor] knows who the enemy is" -- came almost five years to the day in which he uttered his famous line: "I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick's rings." The takeaway: Five years later, not much has changed.
No one knows how the rest of the Ryan era will play out, but it's quite possible he could be remembered one day as a good coach who failed to rise above also-ran status because he was in the same division as the winningest coach-quarterback combination in history. Ryan hasn't been able to conquer Belichick and Tom Brady. No one has, as the Patriots have won the AFC East every year since Ryan took over the Jets in 2009 -- and a whole bunch of years before that. The same thing happened to the New York Knicks in the 1990s; they had some terrific teams, but couldn't get past Michael Jordan.
The Jets have been respectable under Ryan (42-38), the eighth-best record in the AFC over that span, but the Patriots are a league-best 61-19. The Jets finished four games behind the Patriots last season, and there's no reason to think they will overtake their longtime nemesis this season. With Brady expected to play a few more years, Ryan could be playing catch-up for the rest of the Brady-Belichick era -- if he lasts that long. Lousy timing for Ryan? Yeah, you could say that, but he also knew what he was signing up for in '09.
2. Misplaced criticism: Ryan's decision to cancel the final OTA practice in favor of a trip to a bowling alley fueled some mild backlash on social media. Actually, it's not unusual for a coach to skip the last day. Belichick, of all people, canceled his final OTA practices in 2012 and 2013. He also took the Patriots to the movies late last season. The criticism of Ryan is off base. It's June, for crying out loud! It's not like he took the team to Dave & Buster's on the eve of a big game. Oh, wait ...
3. A delivery of Flowers?: Despite all the happy talk from the Jets about their cornerback situation, I think they should explore the possibility of signing Brandon Flowers, who was released Friday by the Kansas City Chiefs. The question is, will they? As of Saturday morning, they hadn't reached out to Flowers, according to a league source. Then again, John Idzik isn't a hurry-up kind of general manager, so you never know. In the end, I'd be surprised if the Jets show serious interest despite a need (in my opinion) at the position.
Despite a Pro Bowl appearance, Flowers is coming off a disappointing season in which he was demoted to nickelback. He was rated 87th out of 110 cornerbacks last season, according to ProFootballFocus. That he struggled under former Jets defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, whose system is similar to that of Ryan's, is worth noting. We also know Idzik is reluctant to spend significant money for another team's trash. But we're also talking about a 28-year-old player with a substantial body of work, someone who could benefit by a change of scenery. If they paid $3 million for the injury-prone Dimitri Patterson, why not make a run at Flowers, who would be an upgrade? They have about $21 million in cap room.
4. Goodson's future: Flowers may have sealed his fate by not attending OTA practices, which are voluntary (wink, wink). The Jets' Mike Goodson did the same, prompting some fans to wonder why the Jets haven't cut ties with the troubled running back. Goodson's situation is complicated by his legal problems and perhaps personal issues. Remember, he was slapped with a four-game suspension last year for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. I find it hard to believe he'd deliberately stay from the team, jeopardizing his roster spot, unless there's an extenuating circumstance. His agent hasn't returned calls or emails seeking comment, and the Jets have been tight-lipped, except Ryan saying he hasn't heard from Goodson. Ryan said he expects Goodson to attend next week's mandatory minicamp.
5. New kid on the block: Right tackle Breno Giacomini has spent his entire career on zone-blocking teams -- the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, his most recent team. The Jets run a mix of zone and gap blocking schemes, which will require a transition for Giacomini. Before signing him as a free agent, the Jets studied tape of how he fared against common opponents, and they came away convinced he could adapt to the specific style they use against certain teams.
6. Big Mike: To improve his oft-questioned durability, quarterback Michael Vick added four pounds of "solid muscle," he told The Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia, his hometown. He told the newspaper he felt great throughout OTAs, proudly noting he scored a rushing touchdown last week.
"Still can move," Vick said. "Doesn't seem like any of my skills have diminished. … I still feel like I can play at a high level. That may be tested at some point this season, and I look forward to it."
Vick described himself as a "trendsetter," saying the mobile quarterbacks of today are continuing the style he brought to the league more than a decade ago. He added: "I was kind of the originator. That's something I can take to the grave."
7. Sheldon wants 'Mo money for Wilkerson: Muhammad Wilkerson is taking a low-key approach to his looming contract negotiations, refusing to make public demands. Teammate Sheldon Richardson is doing the talking for him, telling the New York Post, "Hopefully, they do the right thing and pay the man." Oh, they will. The question is when. After exercising a fifth-year option, the Jets have Wilkerson under contract through 2015, so there's no sense of urgency.
Richardson has a personal stake in the matter because in two years, he'll be in the same boat as Wilkerson. If the Jets renegotiate with Wilkerson before his fourth season, it'll set a precedent for Richardson and other former first-round picks.
8. Picture of the week: Here's soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo receiving a throwing lesson from wide receiver David Nelson. No Tebow jokes allowed.
9. The anti-Rex: Can there be two coaches more dissimilar than Ryan and Jurgen Klinsmann? Klinsmann says it's not possible for his team -- the United States -- to win the World Cup. Ryan goes into every game telling his team they will win -- and I honestly think he believes it. Call me traditional, but I like Ryan's approach. Klinsmann might be right, but no one wants to hear that jive. It's a good thing we didn't have a guy like him coaching the 1980 U.S. hockey team.
10. Farewell to a champion: The NFL lost a legend Friday night with the passing of former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls. Two Noll disciples became important figures in Jets history -- the late Bud Carson and retired personnel director Dick Haley. Carson, the Jets' defensive coordinator from 1985-88, ran the defense for Noll during the iconic Steel Curtain era. Haley, who worked for the Jets from 1991-2002, was one of the architects of the great Steeler drafts in the 1970s.
1. Waiting game: Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson may not get that contract extension, after all. Like all first-round picks in the 2011 draft class, he could get burned by the fifth-year option in his contract.
Wilkerson signed a four-year contract, plus an option. It was widely assumed that Wilkerson and the other stars from that class would sign new, long-term deals after the third season, but an article by Jason Cole on National Football Post explains why that's not likely to happen. Turns out those fifth-year option salaries (based on a formula) aren't projected to be as big as anticipated, so it makes dollars and sense for teams to simply pay the option year instead of renegotiating a new contract. Teams have until May 3 to exercise the option.
In Wilkerson's case, the option is worth about $5.25 million. It could increase to about $6 million, but even that would be a bargain for the Jets. He's due to make $1.2 million in 2014, which means the Jets could have Wilkerson's rights for two years at about $7.2 million if they exercise the option. Let's stretch it further. They could hit him with a franchise tag of, say, $12 million in 2016, meaning they'd have him for three years at $19.2 million -- once again, a bargain for a player of his caliber. The NFP article, which surveyed 10 general managers and cap specialists, said they expect almost every first rounder in 2011 to be tendered for the fifth year rather than receive a long-term extension this year.
It stinks for Wilkerson and the others, but they're getting jobbed by a pro-management collective bargaining agreement, which went into effect for the 2011 draft. Yeah, the Jets still could do a long-term deal this year with Wilkerson, but because they hold the leverage, they'd demand a team-friendly deal. He could hold out, but the language in the CBA makes it difficult. Wilkerson, drafted 30th overall, would've been better off getting picked in the second round. Those players received straight, four-year contracts.
2. A new summer home?: It sure sounds like the Jets are ready to leave SUNY-Cortland, where they've held four of the last five training camps.
On Friday, the Jets said on their website they will explore other venues, as permitted in their contract with the school. They didn't rule out the possibility of returning to Cortland. In fact, there's a quote from general manager John Idzik, saying how much they've enjoyed Cortland. Basically, it's an option year, which was widely reported last summer. At the time, school officials thought their chances of hosting the 2014 camp would be greater if Rex Ryan remained the coach. Ryan was the driving force behind the decision to go to Cortland in '09.
Well, Ryan is sticking around, but the Jets actually started exploring their options as far back as September, according to sources. That tells me they're serious about going somewhere else or maybe staying home in Florham Park, N.J. The Jets conducted internal meetings Sept. 16 to discuss alternate sites, sources said. In fact, they were in contact with SUNY-Stony Brook, which had expressed interest in hosting camp. The Jets dispatched a staffer to check out the facilities. As it turned out, the school withdrew because it couldn't collect on short notice the amount of data required by the Jets. It still remains interested in hosting the annual Green & White scrimmage.
It'll be a sad day at Doug's Fish Fry in Cortland if the Jets go camping elsewhere.
3. The case for Sheldon: On Super Bowl eve, the major post-season awards will be announced, including NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. The top candidates are thought to be defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso. I have one of the 50 votes and, for the record, I voted for Richardson. He didn't have a gaudy sack total (3.5), but he impacted the defense. Example: The Jets allowed the fewest yards per rush (3.4) between the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Richardson was a big reason why. My gut tells me that Alonso will win the award. They're both deserving.
4. Like Mike: I'm sure Ryan is proud that Mike Pettine, a former protege, is the new coach of the Cleveland Browns. I'm also sure that Ryan is flabbergasted (and ticked off) that his twin brother, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, can't get a sniff of a head-coaching job. Rob has a better coaching resume than Pettine, but we all know there's more to it than that. Ryan believes his brother would be more marketable if he cut his flowing mane of gray hair.
"I can't explain it. Is it the hair? I don't know," Rex told the New York Post. "I'm trying to get him to get a haircut. Hopefully, this is one of the things that motivate him to do so."
5. Pepper shaker: New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick got all mushy and gushy in a statement about longtime linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, who announced he's leaving the team after 14 years. "Pepper made me a better coach and person and helped create some of the greatest moments of my career," said Belichick, who spent 24 years with Johnson in player/coach and coach/coach relationships. "He is a great player, coach and lifelong friend."
Johnson had that effect on coaches. I remember a game in 1997, when Johnson was playing for the Jets and suffered a season-ending leg injury. Bill Parcells became emotional in his postgame news conference as he described Johnson writhing in pain in the trainer's room. Johnson meant so much to Parcells that, as we later found out, he delivered his postgame address to the team in the trainer's room, cramming all the players and coaches in there just so Pepper -- unable to walk -- could be part of it. Every team needs a Pepper Johnson.
1. Knock, knock. Who's there? Bill. Bill Belichick: The New England Patriots' coach is one win away from his sixth Super Bowl and a full week of access to the New York Jets' facility in Florham Park, N.J. The prospect of the SpyGate kingpin roaming the halls has to be unnerving for Jets fans -- and maybe the organization, too.
- Coaches don't share coaches' offices. So, no, Belichick wouldn't have the chance to put his feet up on Rex Ryan's desk.
- Teams usually hold meetings at their hotel, where meeting space is set up by the league. Both teams are staying in Jersey City.
- Teams usually eat at the team hotel, so they won't get to sample the impressive fare at the Jets' cafeteria.
- Equipment is loaded into the locker room and kept there for the duration. Depending on the type of practice, the players will get dressed in the locker room. You can bet the Jets' staff will inspect it beforehand, removing any type of intelligence (i.e. game plans or iPads) left behind from the season.
- Most host teams will have their staff off during the times the Super Bowl participant is at the facility, so there's no chance for the staff to see the AFC team's staff or players. Too bad; a Ryan-Tom Brady encounter at the water cooler would've been priceless.
- The visiting team will be protected from potential espionage as well. Windows of any office with a view of the practice field will be taped over.
Chances are, Belichick, whose disdain for his former team is well documented, would feel more uncomfortable than his hosts. In the field house, he'd practice beneath giant murals of members of the Jets' Ring of Honor, including the one that got away from the Patriots -- Curtis Martin. Around the building, he'd see "Play Like a Jet" references on the walls, probably making him queasy. In short, it's probably the last place in the world he'd want to prepare for a Super Bowl.
2. Thoughts on the Rex-tension: Before Ryan finalized his contract extension, there were some people who thought he'd take a chance and coach out his current deal, becoming a free agent in 2015. That's tough to do, of course. When someone puts $4 million on the table, it's hard to walk away. He reportedly is due to make $3.3 million in 2014 (under his previous contract) and, from what I understand, he'll get a small raise for 2015 -- figuring close to $4 million guaranteed. Some people say he didn't get as much security as he coveted -- 2016 is a quasi-option year -- but I think he did OK for a coach who has missed the playoffs for three straight years.
3. Bottom line on Rex: Because it's technically a "multi-year" extension, the contract will create the perception that Ryan is safe beyond 2014. Yeah, it might quiet some of the speculation, but here's the reality: He's back to where he was before the 2013 season. As someone who knows Ryan told me, "If he bombs, he's gone."
4. Merit raises: RB Bilal Powell and WR Jeremy Kerley, heading into the final year of their rookie contracts, each received a $744,000 bump for 2014, thanks to salary escalators, according to overthecap.com. It brings their salary up to $1.389 million in '14. To earn an escalator, a player (drafted in Rounds 3 through 7) must play in at least 35 percent of the snaps in two of his first three seasons or 35 percent of the total snaps over the three-year period.
5. The Simms spotlight: Backup QB Matt Simms has a link to two of the "Final Four" quarterbacks -- and, no, I'm not referring to the fact that his famous dad will be broadcasting the Patriots-Broncos AFC championship. In 2010, Simms attended the Manning passing academy in Louisiana, hosted by Peyton Manning, Eli and their father, Archie. It's a four-day event for high school and college quarterbacks. One of Simms' fellow campers was Colin Kaepernick. In a skills competition, Simms finished second, ahead of Kaepernick and some kid named Andrew Luck. Yeah, Simms always could sling it, and now he's starting to mature as a player. The Jets recognize it, signing him before the season ended to a one-year, $495,000 contract (the second-year minimum).
By the way, Taylor Potts of Texas Tech (who?) beat out Simms in the skills competition.
6. Not 'The Man': After Friday's incident, I guess Geno Smith shouldn't expect to land one of those cool headphones commercials, a la Kaepernick.
7. So long, Sammy: Waiting in line at a restaurant the other night, a Jets fan asked me, "Can we get Sammy Watkins?" The draft still is more than three months away, but fans already have developed an affinity for Clemson's stud wide receiver, who would address a huge need for the Jets. Could Watkins fall to 18th? No way. An NFC scout, whose team picks in the top 15, said Watkins wouldn't get past them.
"He ain't gonna be there," said the scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Tell John Idzik, unless he trades up, he won't get him. He's a great kid, he works hard and he has some of the quickest hands you'll ever see. This kid has an unbelievable talent. He can fly and he has courage."
8. If not Watkins, then ...: There will be other wide receiver options for the Jets at 18. Marqise Lee (USC) could be there. A longtime scout told me, "I like him. Big-play ability. I could see the Jets taking two receivers in this draft and signing one in free agency." Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State) is a rising talent. Said the NFC scout: "He's got first-round talent. Before this year, every time I saw him, he was dropping easy ones, but he's matured and improved. He's running routes better and it seems like he's finally figured it out."
9. Dreaming of Johnny Football: Unless Johnny Manziel pulls an embarrassing stunt before the draft (thrown off a plane?), he won't fall to the Jets at 18. Some mock drafts project him going No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans. Our NFC scout said of Manziel, "He has unbelievable instincts. He's got eyes in the back of his head. He can run and throw and win games. But he's kind of small. He looks like a peanut. Durability could be a big issue, but that [kid] can play." It would be a major upset if he lasts beyond the top 8.
10. Losing games and viewers: TV ratings are soaring for the NFL, but the Jets are one of 10 teams whose local ratings have declined for two straight years, according to the Sports Business Daily. Their two-year drop is 19 percent, the second highest in the league. Only the Oakland Raiders (22 percent) suffered a bigger fall off. By the way, the New York Giants weren't far behind at minus-15 percent.
1. Rex & Co.: One of the most overlooked aspects of the Jets' surprising 4-3 record is how Rex Ryan has managed to galvanize a rebuilt coaching staff. Remember, Ryan parted ways with all three coordinators after last season -- OC Tony Sparano (fired), DC Mike Pettine (contract expired) and STC Mike Westhoff (retired). Ryan also lost assistant head coach/linebackers Bob Sutton, among others. At the time, it looked like passengers jumping from a sinking ship. Ryan filled some spots by promoting from within, but he had to go outside the organization to hire eight coaches, some of whom accepted one-year contracts. That's a lot of upheaval under a head coach with little security.
The personnel executive praised Ryan, saying he'd be a Coach of the Year candidate if it weren't for the Kansas City Chiefs' Andy Reid. "I knew you'd see the best of Rex," the executive said. "I knew he'd coach his ass off, whether he was interviewing for the Jets' job or his next job. He's more focused. It's the old saying: No man sees life clearer than a dying man."
2. Sour grapes from beneath the hoodie: The Jets didn't appreciate Bill Belichick's reaction to the "push" controversy, as he falsely accused them of the same illegal tactic on field goals. No one likes to be called a cheater (Belichick should know that), but I also think the Jets were chafed by how he handled the entire situation. At no point in his Sunday, Monday or Tuesday news conferences did Belichick say anything complimentary toward the Jets, who outplayed the New England Patriots; it was all about what his team didn't do. Hey, look, it's a grown-man game, and the winners aren't entitled to a pat on the back from the opposition. But Belichick tried to drag the Jets into the mud with him, and that was uncalled for. Great coach, terrible loser.
3. A push for safety: Westhoff, who coached special teams for three decades, said he blocked "a lot of kicks" using the two-player, pushing technique, which was banned this season. Despite his success with it, Westhoff was a proponent of the rule change because he saw the other side of it, the physical wear and tear it exacted on the blockers. He said the now-retired Brandon Moore, who played guard on the field goal unit, always remarked that his chronic hip pain could be attributed, in part, to having to block defenders that were pushed from behind. Said Westhoff: "Imagine the force that generates."
4. Pirate ship be sinking: The more the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose, the better it is for the Jets, who received the Bucs' third-round pick (2014) as part of the Darrelle Revis trade. There's a big difference between the 65th pick (worst record) and, say, the 85th pick (a wild-card team). The Bucs are 0-7, looking like they've quit on Greg Schiano. Money can't buy happiness, right Darrelle?
5. Running for a record: Geno Smith already has run for 146 yards, putting him on pace to break the team record (post-1970) for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback. Richard Todd ran for 330 in 1980. But let's be honest: There have been some glacially slow quarterbacks for the Jets -- Ken O'Brien, Boomer Esiason, Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington, etc. Mark Sanchez had some mobility, but he never eclipsed 106 yards.
6. Revisiting draft day: The Jets were second-guessed in some circles for passing on former Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert with the 13th overall pick. After picking CB Dee Milliner with the ninth pick, they certainly could've used a playmaker on offense. Eifert is off to a good start (22 receptions for 270 yards and one touchdown), but it's hard to second-guess the Jets' choice -- DT Sheldon Richardson, a possible candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
7. Revisiting draft day, part II: On Sunday, the Jets will cross paths with one of their worst draft decisions ever -- PK Mike Nugent. He has carved a nice career for himself with the Cincinnati Bengals, but that's not the point. In 2005, the Jets picked him in the second round, 47th overall -- a kicker! GM Terry Bradway thought the Jets were only a kicker away from being a championship-caliber team. Talk about a bad miss. Want to know some of the players they passed? Try WR Vincent Jackson, RB Frank Gore and DE Justin Tuck, all of whom were chosen within 30 picks after Nugent.
8. The kids are all right: Whenever Ryan faces the Bengals, he usually has a rookie at quarterback -- and he usually wins. In 2008, the Baltimore Ravens beat them twice with Joe Flacco. (Ryan was the defensive coordinator.) In 2009, the Ryan-coached Jets beat them twice with Sanchez, including the AFC wild-card game. (By the way, the Jets also beat them in 2010.) This time, it's the Rex & Geno show.
9. The old coach returns. Joe Walton was fired by the Jets in 1989 amid chants of "Joe Must Go!" On Saturday, he returned to New York on his farewell tour. Walton, 77, who is retiring after 20 years as the head coach at Robert Morris, was on Staten Island to face Wagner College, which acknowledged his retirement before the game. It ended badly in New York for Walton, but it has been a remarkable football life. Of all the coaches I've covered, he's the only one who showed up to the news conference the day he got fired.
10. Mother knows best: NT Damon Harrison has the best nickname on the team -- "Big Snacks," courtesy of defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. It's an obvious reference to Harrison's prodigious appetite. The nickname is so catchy that his mother, who used to call him "Heavy D," has jumped on the "Big Snacks" bandwagon.
"At first, I thought [the nickname] was something that would just hang around here," Harrison said. "I guess not."
No way, Kotwica said.
"We don't coach pushing or anything along those lines," said Kotwica, adding: "I don't know what they were trying to do. I just know this: We teach a technique and a scheme on how to block field goals and it's within the regulations of the game."
Kotwica echoed Rex Ryan, who fired back at Belichick Wednesday by saying the allegation is "not true." It appeared that Quinton Coples gave teammate Muhammad Wilkerson a one-armed push on Stephen Gostkowski's field goal at the end of regulation. It was "incidental contact," according to Kotwica.
Kotwica said he took no offense to Belichick calling out the Jets.
"No, I don't take it personally," he said. "I've got a lot of respect for Coach Belichick and what he's done for the game. That's his opinion. I wouldn't take it personally."
On Tuesday, ESPN.com reported the Jets' sidelined tipped off the officials during the game. It probably was Kotwica, who routinely speaks with officials during the week and before each game. Publicly, the Jets haven't confirmed that they alerted officials to the Patriots' previous use of the push play.
Kotwica cleverly danced around questions, saying he always communicates with the league office during the week to discuss rules and points of emphasis. He also speaks with the umpire before every game to discuss "different formations you have, different guys that are eligible ... and anything else that might happen during the game."
Asked point-blank if he brought up the subject last Sunday, Kotwica he preferred to keep those conversations private.
Everybody knows what happened. Nick Folk's field-goal miss from 56 yards in overtime was nullified because the Patriots' Chris Jones was penalized 15 yards for pushing a teammate into the Jets' formation. On his second try, from 42 yards, Nick was successful, lifting the Jets to a 30-27 upset.
"My initial reaction (to the penalty) was, 'I hope it's on them,'" said Kotwica, claiming he had no idea it would for pushing.
Belichick, in a conference call with Boston reporters, said the Jets were guilty of using the same illegal pushing tactic on field goals that got the Patriots busted in overtime. Asked if he's bothered by a news report that said the Jets' sideline alerted the officials to keep a close eye on the pushy Patriots, Belichick replied:
"Well, I mean, since they were using the play themselves, I don't even know about all that. But basically we're just moving on here."
It was a classic Belichick response: He wanted to turn the page, but he managed to include a snarky and incriminating comment about the Jets.
Clearly, he was referring to Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski's 44-yard field goal at the end of regulation. On that play, video replays from different angles show that the Jets' Quinton Coples extended his right arm and pushed teammate Muhammad Wilkerson from behind toward the Patriots' formation.
Wilkerson lined up in the A-gap between long-snapper Danny Aiken and RG Logan Mankins. Coples was to Wilkerson's left. On the snap, Coples didn't fire off the ball as quickly as Wilkerson, delaying for a split second. Coples used his right forearm on Wilkerson's back. Wilkerson split Aiken and Mankins and wound up getting lifted off his feet. He landed awkwardly.
Two officials were standing 5 yards away, behind the Jets' rush, and there was no penalty. Coples' push wasn't nearly as egregious as Chris Jones' push of Patriots teammate Will Svitek in overtime, resulting in a 15-yard penalty that gave the Jets another shot at a field goal and cost the Patriots the game. But there was contact. The officials evidently didn't think there was enough to warrant a flag.
It's not a surprise that Belichick raised the issue. It's always tit for tat between the Jets and the Patriots, and it had to gall him to have this happen against the Jets, of all teams. There are 16 years of enmity between the two franchises, and Belichick has been involved in most of it.
In fact, the Jets sideline alerted the officiating crew during the game to watch out for it, a person familiar with the situation said late Monday.
In other words, he knew.
Ryan declined to say if that information was shared with his players ("I'll leave that in-house"), and he also avoided the question of whether he tipped off officials before Sunday's game.
"Again, you know what? My comments with the officials, I’ll just leave that way," he said.
The Jets were well-schooled on the new "push" penalty, players said Monday. In addition to the mandatory tutorital in training camp from officials, who travel the country to educate teams on new rules, the players were "reminded" as recently as early last week, said Damon Harrison, a member of the field-goal unit.
They were reminded because the Patriots got away with it last week. Chris Jones pushed teammate Will Svitek on Garrett Hartley's 39-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter. Jones and Svitek ran the same technique against the Jets, but the umpire saw it and threw a flag -- 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. It nullified a field-goal miss by Nick Folk, who followed up by nailing one from 42 yards in overtime, lifting the Jets to a 30-27 win.
The "push" penalty, on the books this season for the first time, is designed to improve player safety. This was the first time it was enforced.
Former Jets special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, an ESPN Radio analyst, studied a tape of the play and said it was "very, very evident" that it was orchestrated. He said Jones "cheated back in his stance," allowing him to get in position to push Svitek from behind.
"I watched the tape. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes," Westhoff told ESPNNewYork.com. "I can't prove this -- I don't know what they teach -- but those guys are pretty sharp up there [in New England]. I can't imagine them running a technique and not being aware of it. In my opinion, it was coached, taught and implemented that very way. I think they did it on purpose and got caught."
Westhoff said he "blocked a lot of kicks with that same technique," but it was legal up until this season. He said it's an unsafe practice because of "the force it generates," a big body pushing another big body into a blocker.
Demario Davis, another special-teams contributor, said he was "very aware of the rule." Patriots coach Bill Belichick admittedly wasn't, acknowledging Monday his postgame interpretation was wrong. Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 from the rule book is pretty straight-forward: "Team B players cannot push teammates on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation."
Willie Colon, another interior blocker on the field-goal unit, said "all coaches should have knowledge of the rules." But he admitted he didn't know what was going on until after the game.
How could a head coach make such an oversight? Ryan didn't want to go there.
"I'm not worried about that," he said, bristling after several questions about the controversy. "The focus is going to be wherever you guys want it to be, but I think we outplayed New England, and I think that’s why we won the game."
The "push" heard 'round the world: There's no doubt that Chris Jones pushed teammate Will Svitek into blocker Damon Harrison on Nick Folk's 56-yard field goal miss, violating a new rule on the NFL books. On Monday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick came clean, admitting his postgame interpretation of the rule -- that it's illegal only if the push comes from a second-level defender -- was wr ... wr ... wr ... wrong. Yes, he actually said the word. Asked why he had the notion that second-level pushing was illegal but pushing at the line was within the rules, Belichick replied, "Because obviously we are wrong. What else is there to say? We’re wrong." Jets fans might want to tape that quote to the refrigerator.
Now there's a new wrinkle: I checked the tape of the Patriots-New Orleans Saints game from the previous week, and the Patriots ran the exact same technique on the Saints' 39-yard field goal late in the game. Same technique, same two players, Jones pushing Svitek. There was no penalty flag.
But wait, there's more to this story: The Jets might have been guilty, too. On Stephen Gostkowski's 44-yard field goal at the end of regulation, the Jets' Quinton Coples appears to shove a teammate into the Patriots' formation. It's hard to get a clear view from the TV tape. The coaches' tape, which should be released later Monday, will have a better angle.
Yep, another chapter in the Jets-Patriots rivalry.
Ground & Pound & Pound: Did Rex Ryan call the plays in this game? I say that jokingly, but there's no denying the game plan had Ryan's fingerprints on it. The Jets ran 52 times, their most rushing attempts since a 57-attempt day against the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2009 season finale. This was a radical departure for coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who averaged 26 rushes per game last season with the Philadelphia Eagles. The game-winning drive was way out of character for Mornhinweg, who ran on 11 of 12 plays. He got conservative at the end, calling an inside handoff on a third-and-5 from the Patriots' 36. The message was clear: Mornhinweg/Ryan had more faith in Folk from around 50 yards than they did in Geno Smith dropping back to pass. They almost got burned. The "push" play saved them from heavy criticism.
Crazy Legs Geno: Smith has rushed for 146 yards, already surpassing Mark Sanchez's career season high by 40 yards. Smith was at his best against the Patriots, with six runs for 32 yards. His 8-yard touchdown run was a thing of beauty, as he cut and slashed his way through three defenders. He made former Jets cornerback Marquice Cole look silly with an open-field move. Smith should run more often. If the Jets continue to see a lot of man-to-man coverage, meaning the defenders' backs are turned to the quarterback, it makes sense for Smith to take off if no one is open.
Defense rocks: Ryan called off the blitz, sending five or more rushers on only six of 49 dropbacks by Tom Brady, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It was a highly unusual approach by the aggressive coach, but it worked. Confident in the front four's ability to generate pressure, Ryan emphasized coverage. Part of the reason was because the secondary was healthier than it had been in several weeks, with the return of rookie cornerback Dee Milliner. It turned out to be one of the most impressive defensive days of the Ryan era. It's hard to believe, but the Jets held the Patriots to only two field goals on their final 10 possessions.
If they did, it wouldn't have been the first time the Jets blew the whistle on the Patriots. Anybody remember SpyGate in 2007? Obviously, that was on a much greater scale, but you get the point.
In their dramatic win over the Saints, the same two players -- Chris Jones and Will Svitek -- orchestrated the same technique as they did against the Jets. Attempting to block Garrett Hartley's 39-yard field with 2:24 left in the game, Jones shoved Svitek into the offensive formation, violating a new NFL rule designed to improve player safety. No penalty was called.
Could it be that Rex Ryan's twin brother, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, tipped him off?
With Nick Folk attemping a potential game winner from 56 yards in overtime, Jones and Svitek pulled their tag-team act, but this time Jones was flagged. It was unsportsmanlike conduct, 15 yards. Afterward, New England coach Bill Belichick claimed it's only a foul if the push comes from a second-level defender. The rule clearly states that any push is illegal.
On Monday, Belichick admitted to reporters he was wrong.
The Jets may have tried the same stunt, except they got away with it. On Stephen Gostkowski's field goal at the end of regulation, Quinton Coples appeared to shove a teammate into the Patriots' line. It's hard to tell from the TV replay if it was a significant push.
In each of the past four seasons (i.e. the Rex Ryan era), the Jets lost the second meeting between the two AFC East rivals. That's not a coincidence, it's a trend. When it was mentioned to Ryan, he tried to explain it by saying the Patriots benefitted from having the second game at home. In fact, that applies only to 2009 and 2010.
"Well, there goes that theory," he said, laughing.
Turning serious, Ryan said, "I think when you look at their team, their team historically, in that second half of the season, they don't lose much. Whatever it is, they've obviously done a better job than we have."
A much better job.
In each season, the second meeting was a blowout, including last year's 49-19 debacle on Thanksgiving night -- aka the Butt Fumble Game. In 2011, the Jets lost again in prime time, 37-16, a game best remembered for Ryan cursing out a fan at halftime -- and receiving a hefty fine from the NFL. It was a similar story in 2010, 45-3, except the Jets got the last laugh, stunning the Patriots in the playoffs.
The Patriots' ability to raise their level in the rematch is a testament to Bill Belichick and his coaching staff, their ability to make adjustments and react to the Jets' adjustments.
It certainly doesn't bode well for the Jets on Sunday.
ICYMI: Antonio Cromartie gave a brutally honest self-evaluation of his performance this season: Not good enough. ... In addition to returning kickoffs, newly-acquired Josh Cribbs may get a chance to return punts. And maybe, just maybe he'll be the personal protector on the punt team. ... Santonio Holmes won't play Sunday, as expected, and blamed the media for disrupting his rehab routine. ... Ryan has reached a crossroads in what he could be final season. Enough already, he needs to beat the Patriots.
In fact, rookie quarterbacks are 0-4 on the road against the Belichicks, and the average margin of defeat was 23.5 points. All four were first-round picks -- Byron Leftwich (Jaguars, 2003, lost by 14 points), Mark Sanchez (Jets, 2009, lost by 17), Andrew Luck (Colts, 2012, lost by 35) and Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins, 2012, lost by 28). They combined for a 52.1-percent completition mark, 10 interceptions and only four interceptions.
By the way, the Patriots are the first team since the merger in 1970 to face rookie quarterbacks in Weeks 1 and 2, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They beat the Bills' EJ Manuel in the opener.
A few other statistical nuggets to whet your Thursday night appetite:
1. If I'm the Patriots, I'd be worried about Smith's ability to make plays outside the pocket. He left the pocket 17 times in Week 1, most of any quarterback. On those plays, Smith went 6-of-9 passing for 60 yards, scrambled six times for 47 yards and was sacked twice.
2. The Jets' running backs need to do a better job of catching the ball. The backs dropped three of 10 passes that came their way in the opener (two by Chris Ivory), a drop-ratio of 30 percent -- by far the worst in the league for a running-back unit.
3. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is 5-0 in Thursday games, the best winning percentage in history (minimum: five starts). Next on the list is Peyton Manning at 9-1.
4. With Shane Vereen (injured reserve) ruled out and Danny Amendola likely to join him, Brady will be without two of his top three targets from Week 1. When targeting those two and Julian Edelman in Week 1, Brady went 24-for-33 with two touchdowns. When targeting all other Patriots receivers, Brady went 5-for-19 with an interception.