New York Jets: Calvin Pace
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Key free agents: RT Austin Howard, PK Nick Folk (franchise player), TE Jeff Cumberland, LB Calvin Pace, RG Willie Colon, S Ed Reed.
Where they stand: The Jets are trying to re-sign Howard before he hits the open market. He's not a household name, but he's a massive blocker with surprising athleticism. Howard has two years of starting experience and he's only getting better. They've expressed an interest in re-signing Cumberland and Pace, although it's unclear if deals will get done by Tuesday. Pace produced a career-high 10 sacks last season, playing for the minimum salary, but he's 33 -- and the Jets won't throw significant money at a player that old. The Jets are rebuilding at tight end, so Cumberland's role is undefined, which could affect negotiations. Colon and Reed are fallback options. In Reed's case, way, way back. Colon is recovering from biceps surgery and won't be healthy until the spring.
What to expect: With an anticipated $30 million in cap space, the Jets could be aggressive buyers if they so choose. They need a wide receiver (or two), a tight end and a veteran quarterback to push Geno Smith. There aren't any true No. 1 receivers on the market, so they'd better be careful not to overpay for the second-rate talent. Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate could be on the radar. They're likely to have interest in QBs Josh McCown and Michael Vick, who'd be ideal because he already knows Marty Mornhinweg's system from their days together in Philadelphia. If they strike out with free agents, the Jets could retain former starter Mark Sanchez, contingent on his health and a massive pay cut. The Jets could have 12 draft choices (counting possible compensatory picks), so they don't have to overpay to fix every need in free agency.
1. Austin Howard, right tackle -- The Jets are trying to sign him to a long-term extension before March 11. He figures to land a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million to $6 million a year. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan tweeted that Howard could get $7 million per year if he hits the open market.
3. Calvin Pace, linebacker -- There's mutual interest, but they can't re-sign him until free agency starts unless he agrees to another minimum-salary deal, per CBA rules. The reason is because the Jets received a minimum-salary cap benefit last season with Pace. However, in theory, the two sides can have a more lucrative agreement in place that could be quickly signed March 11.
4. Nick Folk, kicker -- By rule, he falls into the same category as Pace. After four consecutive one-year contracts, Folk deserves a long-term deal after a career year. Talks are ongoing.
5. Leger Douzable, defensive end -- He was an important backup last season, contributing 228 defensive snaps. The Jets would like to have him back, but they probably won't go much higher than a minimum salary.
6. Ellis Lankster, special teams -- The Jets want him back because he's a core special-teamer. Lankster may look around to see if there's a team willing to give him a shot at cornerback.
7. Willie Colon, guard -- His surgically repaired biceps will be ready for training camp, but it may not be with the Jets, who will consider in-house options and explore the free-agent market. Colon looks like a fallback.
8. Josh Mauga, linebacker -- He missed most of the last two seasons with injuries, but he's only 26 and the Jets are thin at inside linebacker. There's a chance he could return on a one-year deal.
9. Aaron Berry, cornerback -- He's coming off ACL surgery, never a good thing for a corner, but he flashed some potential before getting hurt. He could be a post-draft option.
10. Vladimir Ducasse, guard -- The former second-round pick has some talent, but he wasn't able to put it all together under three different line coaches. He's unlikely to return.
11. Ed Reed, safety -- Rex Ryan would take him back, but it's a long shot. He's not an every-down player anymore. He could be an emergency pickup down the road.
12. Josh Cribbs, kick returner -- He provided a brief spark last season, but he's coming off surgery for a torn pectoral muscle, and he'll be 31.
13. David Garrard, quarterback -- He was a good mentor for Geno Smith, but he's 36 with a bad knee. The Jets will look for a younger, more viable backup.
14. Lex Hilliard, fullback -- He's coming off shoulder surgery, but there's a chance he could be back. Tommy Bohanon didn't light it up.
15. Darius Reynaud, running back -- He had a late-season cup of coffee with the Jets. He's unlikely to return.
16. Kellen Winslow, tight end -- He will hit the market -- that's free agent, not Boston.
He also happened to be incredibly fortunate, in a right-place, right-time kind of way.
In other words, that 10-sack total is a bit deceiving.
Pace was the first to admit during the season that he benefited from being surrounded by young, talented pass-rushers such as Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and Sheldon Richardson. Instead of being the No. 1 or No. 2 pass-rusher, drawing extra attention from the opponent, Pace thrived in a complementary role. Indeed, six of his 10 sacks happened while the quarterback -- under pressure -- was stepping up and/or attempting the escape the pocket, according to a video breakdown of the plays. Pace became the clean-up guy, the finisher.
To his credit, Pace's sacks came at opportune times. In fact, eight of the 10 sacks came in Jets' territory, including two in the red zone.
Now Pace is due to become an unrestricted free agent March 11, and you can bet he's looking for more than the $1 million he made last season on a one-year contract. No doubt, he has earned more leverage, but the Jets have to be careful not to overpay for a player who will be 34 at midseason. Pace said at the end of the season that he wants to return, especially with Ryan staying on, but every man has a price. If Pace prices himself out of the job, the Jets will turn elsewhere.
Either way, the Jets need to look for a strongside linebacker in the draft. It doesn't have to be in the first or second round, but they could use another edge player to put opposite Coples, the rush linebacker in Ryan's 3-4 base scheme. There isn't an heir apparent on the roster, so it would behoove them to use the draft to find their 2015 starter.
Part of planning is evaluating what you have. Toward that end, we've ranked the top 25 players on the New York Jets' roster -- based on performance, potential, positional value and salary-cap status. Here's 16 to 20:
16. Dawan Landry, safety, (cap charge: $1.8 million): If Landry were a pitcher in baseball, he'd be described as an innings eater. He played a lot of football last season (98 percent of the defensive snaps), but he didn't make many big plays. Still, he has value because of his intangibles, namely his ability to quarterback the secondary.
17. Calvin Pace, outside linebacker, (cap charge: Free agent): This will be an interesting negotiation. Pace is coming off a 10-sack season, a career high, but he's 33 years old. You can bet he'll be looking for a lot more than the $1 million he made last season on a one-year deal. The Jets are thin at the position, helping Pace's leverage.
18. Bilal Powell, running back, (cap charge: $1.5 million): He qualified for an esclator, increasing his cap number in the final year of his rookie contract. Powell doesn't have star potential, but he proved last season he can be a solid complementary back. He finished with 969 yards from scrimmage.
19. Jeff Cumberland, tight end, (cap charge: Free agent): He has made considerable improvement since breaking into the league as an undrafted wide receiver. The question is, what is Cumberland's ceiling? If another team sees him as a legitimate No. 1 tight end, the Jets probably will lose him.
20. Santonio Holmes, wide receiver, (cap charge: $10.75 million): You can't be the 20th-best player on the team and have a huge cap number, which is why his days with the Jets are numbered. After two disappointing, injury-plagued seasons, Holmes is a certain cap casualty. He was terrific in 2010, but it has been all downhill since then.
21. Mark Sanchez, quarterback
22. Antonio Allen, safety
23. Nick Folk, placekicker
24. Willie Colon, guard
25. Stephen Hill, wide receiver
Late in the game, I pulled up a chair next to Steinberg in the press box and asked him about a few players, namely running back Blair Thomas. The former Penn State star ran all over the place and would be named the game's MVP.
"My grandmother could tell you he was the best player on the field," Steinberg told me.
Granny needed a new set of binoculars. Steinberg, too. The Jets picked Thomas and ... well, you know the rest of the story. It didn't have a happy ending.
I'm not covering this year's Senior Bowl (3 p.m. Saturday) in Mobile, Ala., but it's always interesting to track prospects on TV. You never know, they could end up being drafted by the Jets. Here are some players to watch, based on the Jets' draft needs:
Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, Eastern Illinois -- He was the talk of Mobile all week, impressing with his arm and sound throwing mechanics. The 6-foot-2 signal-caller put up huge numbers in college, but he has to prove he can do it against top competition. The Jets have three quarterbacks under contract, but we know GM John Idzik isn't shy about adding competition.
Tajh Boyd, quarterback, Clemson -- The Jets' scouts interviewed Boyd, according to the New York Post. Rex Ryan is familiar with Boyd because his son, Seth, is a walk-on receiver at Clemson. He has some accuracy issues, but he went 32-8 as a starter.
Jordan Matthews, wide receiver, Vanderbilt -- The Jets need wide receivers, and he's a potential second-rounder, so that makes Matthews a must-watch. He has great size (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) and he caught 112 passes for 1,477 yards last season.
Morgan Moses, tackle, Virginia -- The Jets will be in the market for a right tackle if they lose Austin Howard in free agency, and we all know how they love Virginia tackles. (See D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Oday Aboushi.) Moses is the 29th-rated prospect in the draft, according to Scouts, Inc. He was a right tackle before moving to the left side last season.
Josh Huff, wide receiver, Oregon -- He's considered a late-round prospect at this point, but scouts were buzzing about his deep speed in practice. He caught 62 passes for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
Trent Murphy, outside linebacker, Stanford -- Whether or not they re-sign Calvin Pace, the Jets need an edge rusher with speed. Murphy, projected as a second-rounder, racked up 14 sacks last season for a very good Cardinal defense. There are questions about his burst, so this will be a chance to prove the scouts wrong.
Dee Ford, defensive end, Auburn -- At 6-foot-2, 243 pounds, Ford projects to outside linebacker in the Jets' system. He's an explosive edge rusher who could go in the middle rounds.
Jerry Attaochu, outside linebacker, Georgia Tech -- No projection here; he played the position in college, recording 12 sacks last season. Some feel he's the best edge rusher in the Senior Bowl, but he looks like a mid-round prospect at this point.
Jaylen Watkins, cornerback, Florida -- Ryan loves him some man-to-man corners, and Watkins might be the best in this game. The Jets could have a big need, depending on how the Antonio Cromartie situation plays out.
Dez Southward, safety, Wisconson -- He's a versatile safety who can play in the box or in pass coverage. Southward looks like a late-round prospect at this point, but we know Ryan doesn't like investing high picks in safeties.
1. Rex's coaching tree: Pettine became the first assistant from Rex Ryan's original staff to land a head coaching job. That, no doubt, is a source of pride for Ryan. Pettine made a lateral move to the Buffalo Bills after the 2012 season, fueling speculation of a falling out between them, but Pettine knew he had to escape Ryan's shadow to improve his chances of becoming a head coach. They've drifted apart, but they remain friends.
2. Free-agent poaching: Pettine grew up in the league alongside Ryan, so they look at players the same way and share a lot of the same schematic beliefs. It means that some of the Jets' defensive free agents could be attractive to Pettine. Fortunately for the Jets, they have only one starter due to hit free agency -- outside linebacker Calvin Pace. The Browns are loaded at the position with Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo, so Pace wouldn't be a fit. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie, a possible salary-cap casualty, could be on the open market, but he and Pettine didn't see eye to eye. Pettine once criticized Cromartie to reporters, prompting Cromartie to curse him out in a meeting. In other words, don't expect a Cromartie-Pettine reunion. Pettine could pursue safety Ed Reed, whom he knows from their time together in Baltimore. Chances are, the Jets won't mind if they lose him.
3. Coaching staff: Ryan's assistants re-upped last week, so there's no chance of anyone leaving for Cleveland. Both teams are looking for a special-teams coach, so there could be competition between the teams. You have to wonder if Pettine will make a run at the retired Mike Westhoff. Frankly, I don't think so. They weren't the best of buds in New York.
4. Shades of '09: Pettine is walking into a situation that, in some ways, is similar to what he and Ryan faced in their first year with the Jets. The Browns have the makings of a very good defense (No. 9 overall), including a premier cornerback, Joe Haden. In '09, they inherited a solid defense (No. 16), led by cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Browns have a mess at quarterback and could draft one with the fourth overall pick. In '09, the Jets were a mess and drafted Mark Sanchez at No. 5. Overall, the talent base was greater on the '09 Jets than the current Browns, but Pettine will have tremendous roster flexibility.
In January 2011, Rex Ryan conquered his nemesis, the New England Patriots, creating a big, loud and cocky green monster that figured to wreak havoc for seasons to come. But instead of the Incredible Hulk, they turned into Shrek -- ugly and goofy.
On Sunday, the Jets completed their third consecutive non-playoff season. It's their longest postseason drought since the dark ages of the 1990s, when they failed for six straight years under four different coaches. Their record since 2011 is just 22-26.
Without question, they overachieved in 2013, squeezing eight wins out of a young roster devoid of stars. Ryan did a commendable job in a rebuilding year and will return in 2014, the team announced after a season-ending 20-7 victory in Miami.
For GM John Idzik, the honeymoon is over. It's on him, and he faces an offseason with many challenging issues. Such as:
Augment the quarterback position: This is the biggest decision facing the Jets. They have to decide if Geno Smith is a true No. 1 quarterback or whether they should hedge their bet by bringing in legitimate competition. They have 16 games on tape to evaluate.
While Smith's late-season rally reduces the need to make a major acquisition, the smart play would be to add a competent veteran. Problem is, it's hard to find that guy, a No. 1/No. 2 quarterback.
Mark Sanchez fits the description, but there are health and salary-related questions, not to mention the entire issue of whether they'd want to re-create last summer's competition. Been there, done that.
An interesting target would be Kirk Cousins, who probably will be dangled in trade talks by the Washington Redskins. He wouldn't come cheaply in terms of compensation, maybe a second-round pick. That's a lot to surrender for a possible backup, but they have to look at the long view. He'd be an asset that appreciates in value.
They could go for Matt Schaub, the 2006 version of Cousins. Schaub would bring some baggage to the party, assuming he's released by the Houston Texans, but he’s still only 32 and would be a worthwhile reclamation project/insurance policy.
What about the draft? Unless Idzik absolutely falls in love with someone (Johnny Manziel, anyone?), it wouldn't make much sense to sink a first-round pick into a quarterback, one year after using a No. 2 on Smith. Jay Cutler could be the big fish in free agency if the Chicago Bears let him hit the market, but he'd be a disaster in New York.
Rebuild the offense: The Jets' skill-position talent has deteriorated steadily since 2010. Since 2011, they're ranked 26th in scoring, due largely to a lack of playmakers and poor quarterback play. They've ignored this side of the ball under the defensive-minded Ryan. It's time to pour money and resources into the offense so they compete in an offense-obsessed league.
They need a new tight end and two new wide receivers, preferably a game-breaker. Stephen Hill was supposed to be that guy, but he can't be counted on after two disappointing seasons.
The free-agent market for receivers is thin -- Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos might be the best -- so look for Idzik to address the need in the draft. There are a couple of good ones, Sammy Watkins (Clemson) and Marqise Lee (USC), assuming they turn pro. The top free-agent tight end is Jimmy Graham, but there's little chance he gets away from the New Orleans Saints.
In theory, the Jets could stage their biggest spending spree since 2008, the year they acquired Alan Faneca, Kris Jenkins, Calvin Pace and Damien Woody, but Idzik believes in building through the draft. He owns eight choices, a total that could grow to 10 or 11 with expected compensatory picks.
This is "go" time for Idzik, a chance to show his acumen as a team-builder.
The first thing they should do is take care of couple of their own free agents, namely right tackle Austin Howard and kicker Nick Folk. Both earned long-term deals with their play in 2013. Linebacker Pace and guard Willie Colon are B-list free agents who have value for the short term.
Out with the old: Sanchez, Holmes and Antonio Cromartie -- key players on the 2010 team that reached the AFC Championship Game -- are highly paid players with injury questions. It's possible all three could be playing elsewhere in 2014.
Holmes is a goner, for sure. They would've cut him two years ago if it weren't for $24 million in guarantees, one of the contracts that got Mike Tannenbaum fired. Sanchez fits the profile of what they need, but he's due a $2 million roster bonus in March -- and there's no way that will be paid. He'd have to agree to a massive pay cut, and that's unlikely to happen. Chances are, he'll be released.
Cromartie is a tough call, with a lot depending on his bad hip. His contract, which runs through 2014, is prohibitive -- a $15 million cap charge, including a $5 million roster bonus. He says he wants to retire a Jet, but let's see if he changes his tune when they propose a pay cut. Chances are, they'll cut him, letting him establish a market price before deciding whether to bring him back on a new deal.
1. Stay of Rex-ecution?: Although signs point to Rex Ryan's return, as first reported Saturday by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, the team has yet to make anything official. Let me say this: It's the right move. Owner Woody Johnson would be making a mistake if he signs off on Ryan's ouster. Most supporters point to his work this season as the biggest reason to keep him, but let's take a step back and look at the wider view. Consider:
a. He's the second-winningest coach in Jets history, trailing only Bill Parcells in winning percentage -- .604 to .519. That doesn't include Ryan's four playoff victories, a franchise record. An organization that has lost Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick should know better than to turn its back on promising coaches.
c. Ryan provides endearing intangibles. To explain them, listen to retired Jets guard Brandon Moore, who played under Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini and Ryan.
"He changed the culture in the building," Moore said of Ryan. "Before he got there, they talked about winning championships, but no one believed it. With Rex, you believe it's possible."
Moore also said, "If they fire Rex, they'll never find anyone who wants to win a championship for that organization as much as Rex does. He truly loves the Jets. You can't put a price on that."
Your move, Woody.
2. Making it hard to say goodbye: If something goes haywire and Ryan ends up getting fired, it would be a fascinating news conference, especially if the Jets beat the Miami Dolphins to finish 8-8. What would Idzik give for a reason, that Ryan did a bad job?
3. Cloud of uncertainty: Ryan and his staff have had to work this season under the toughest of circumstances -- little or no job security. At least seven assistants, an unusually high number, are in the final year of their contract. A situation like that can create a huge distraction, but Ryan & Co. have done an admirable job of focusing on the job at hand.
4. Rex vs. Tom: Ryan's record is 41-38. Tom Coughlin's record over the same span is 42-37. I get it, Coughlin won two championships. I'm just throwing the numbers out there.
5. Pace setter: Strong words the other day from LB Calvin Pace, who was asked about the prospect of having to start over with a new coaching staff. "As a player, it's not ideal. ... It's chaos. Because then you're seeing bodies, people getting cut and what-not." Thing is, to an outsider like Idzik, who has his own ideas, that might be appealing.
6. MartyBall: I think OC Marty Mornhinweg has done a credible job this season, considering the paucity of skill-position talent. But doggone it (one of his pet expressions), how can you not notice how well the Philadelphia Eagles are doing without him? His previous team, with pretty much the same skill-position players as last year, is ranked No. 2 in total offense and No. 2 in scoring under first-year coach Chip Kelly. A year ago, it was 15th and 29th, respectively.
7. What a kick: You can bet PK Robbie Gould's four-year, $15 million contract ($9 million guaranteed) with the Chicago Bears opened some eyes in the Nick Folk camp. Folk, due to become an unrestricted free agent, has produced numbers over the past two seasons eerily similar to those of Gould, now the highest-paid kicker in history.
Field goal percentage in 2012 and 2013: Gould 87.0, Folk 86.7.
Percentage in the 40-49 range: Gould 81.3, Folk 81.0.
Percentage in the 50-plus range: Gould 83.3, Folk 85.7.
Interesting, right? If the Jets think they can re-up with Folk for the usual one-year deal, they will lose him.
8. Nnamdi and the Jets: I guess it's a good for the Jets that CB Nnamdi Asomugha turned down their five-year, $50 million offer in 2011. Asomugha, whose career declined steadily from 2011, announced his retirement this week. Even though he spurned them, he made an impact on the Jets -- in a bad way. His $16 million-a-year contract with his first team, the Oakland Raiders, became the negotiating threshold for Darrelle Revis in talks with the Jets -- a price they considered ridiculous and, obviously, never were willing to meet.
9. Speaking of Revis ...: For all the talk about his surgically repaired knee, he ended up having a very good season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He hasn't missed a game and he's the top-rated corner in the league, based on the statistical metrics used by ProFootballFocus.com. On Friday night, he was named to the Pro Bowl. No one on the Jets made the Pro Bowl. That's a hanging curve if you want to take a shot at the Jets.
10. A full Nelson: As Kristian Dyer of Metro New York pointed out, WR David Nelson actually signed a two-year deal when he arrived early in the season. Most in-season acquisitions sign for one year. This was a nice pickup by the Jets. Nelson has played more snaps (508) than any receiver on the team since his Week 5 arrival. He has 31 receptions, third on the team.
Stats: Leads the team with a career-high 10.5 sacks.
Analysis: Wilkerson felt he deserved to make it last season, but he still lacked name recognition. That shouldn't be an issue this time, as his national profile has grown. He's the best player on the team and he deserves the Pro Bowl, but there's no guarantee because defensive end is a deep position. In reality, Wilkerson plays as much tackle as he does end, making it harder to accumulate gaudy stats, but he's listed as an end.
Stats: Tied for second in field-goal percentage (93.9), having made 31 of 33.
Analysis: You could make an argument that Folk is the Jets' MVP even though Wilkerson won the award. He has been money from Week 1, his only misses coming from 48 yards (heavy wind) and 49 (hit the upright). The problem is that several kickers also are having career years, namely Justin Tucker of Baltimore and Matt Prater of Denver.
Stats: A career-high 10 sacks.
Analysis: This has been a renaissance year for Pace, 33, who spent a few months on the NFL scrap heap last offseason after being dumped by the Jets. He's no longer an every-down player, but the slightly reduced role has helped his stamina. He plays the "Sam" outside-linebacker position in the defense, as opposed to the rush linebacker, so he doesn't get as many pass-rushing opportunities as Quinton Coples. But he has made the most of his chances.
Stats: 3.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss.
Analysis: He won't make it as a rookie, but Richardson set a nice foundation. He's one of the leading candidates for NFL defensive rookie of the year. His sack production has tailed off, but he's still excellent against the run. And, oh yeah, he can run with the ball, too.
Stats: Anchors the league's sixth-ranked rushing offense.
Analysis: It's not often a four-time Pro Bowl selection flies under the radar, but that has been the case with Mangold. Flanked by a rookie left guard and a rookie quarterback, Mangold has provided leadership and stability for an offense in transition. The Jets average 5.16 yards per attempt on runs up the middle, second-best in the league, according to the NFL.
Stats: Only two sacks allowed, tied for the league lead among right tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
Analysis: Howard, in his second year as a starter, is one of the most improved players on the team. Good timing, too, because he will be an unrestricted free agent. When the Jets need yards on the ground, they run behind Howard. They have 82 rushes behind right tackle, the second-highest total in the league, per the NFL.
Stats: A team-high 86 solo tackles (according to coaches' tape).
Analysis: The Jets are ranked third in run defense, and that doesn't happen unless the "Mike" linebacker is having a good year. Harris dropped weight last offseason, improving his quickness and pass-coverage ability. He has seven tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If Rex Ryan gets fired, it means his only chance of survival was to make the playoffs. It means his new boss, general manager John Idzik, never was interested in grading him on a curve.
Ryan has done enough with the New York Jets to justify a one-year contract extension. Seven wins in a rebuilding year is solid work, deserving of another chance. Clearly, the Jets are still playing hard for Ryan, evidenced by Sunday's 24-13 win over the Cleveland Browns at MetLife Stadium.
But that's the view from inside the vacuum. Unfortunately for Ryan, the law of the NFL jungle isn't as forgiving. When you've missed the playoffs for three straight years and the new general manager has his first chance to hire his own coach ... well, it usually means you're done.
The word around the organization is that owner Woody Johnson would like to keep Ryan, but Idzik is undecided. After the game, Ryan was aglow, chirping about the team's bright future.
"I told you this team is on the climb, on the rise," he said, stating his case after what may have been his final home game. "It was pretty clear, at least to me, that's what we saw today."
Ryan, who has one year left on his contract, said he hasn't received any word regarding his status, which will likely be revealed the day after the season -- Black Monday.
Sources confirmed that Ryan mentioned his uncertain status Saturday night in the team meeting, as Fox Sports reported, but it wasn't a "Win one for me" motivational tactic. He used it in the context of how everyone in the room faced a cloudy future, how they could be scattered across the league next year and how they should go down fighting for each other.
It would've been a cheap ploy if Ryan had made it all about himself, but he was said to be "pissed" by rumors that the organization could be looking for a replacement.
Ryan wouldn't address the report, and neither did his players, who were told to keep it in-house. Obviously, it's on Ryan's mind. Ditto, the players.
"Rex is The Guy, and he needs to be The Guy," said linebacker Calvin Pace, one of the many players who expressed strong support for the embattled coach. "I think everyone rallies around him."
Guard Willie Colon, one of Ryan's most ardent backers, said, "I think Rex needs to be back. This team is headed in a great direction. He's our general. We love him. We bleed for him and he bleeds for us."
Unfortunately for Ryan, he's probably developing this rookie class for the next coach -- unless Idzik pulls a surprise and opts for the status quo. If Ryan gets a pink slip, he can walk away knowing he did a credible job with a roster that included more holes than the FDR Drive.
"If he finishes 8-8, you could make a strong case to keep him," said an AFC personnel director, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I thought they'd win three or four games."
Pace echoed that sentiment, saying, "To have seven wins after we were predicted to be the worst team in the NFL, it says a lot about our character and the way we rallied around Rex."
But they didn't rally around him last month, when the Jets dropped three straight after the bye week. That, ultimately, could be what dooms him. They went from 5-4 to 6-8, rendering the final two games meaningless.
On Sunday, they rallied from a 10-0 deficit, showing heart. Colon noted that, in several previous games, there wasn't that fight-back mentality. Ryan used a colorful analogy, saying, "It kind of reminds me of that UFC fighter that's turning purple, he's choked out, but he still fought, found a way to get out and win."
It makes for a nice story and it speaks to Ryan's motivational skills (although, if the players were so fired up by his Saturday night speech, why did it take 23 minutes before they woke up?). But if Idzik is thinking the way most GMs do in his situation, he's not giving out medals for trying.
Idzik, joined with Ryan in a shotgun wedding, has spent almost a year evaluating the entire operation. It was a honeymoon year for the first-time GM, who must ask himself if he wants to be joined at the hip with Ryan. Firing Ryan wouldn't be a popular decision in the locker room, but we know Idzik isn't afraid of criticism. He traded Darrelle Revis, didn't he?
When it was over Sunday, Ryan made sure to milk the moment. He joined the players on a victory lap, exchanging high-fives with the fans. They did the same thing at the end of the 2009 season, when they clinched a wild-card berth by routing the Cincinnati Bengals.
"This was our AFC Championship Game," Pace said. "We play our Super Bowl [next week] in Miami."
But that isn't the Super Bowl that Ryan promised when he was hired.
There have been many indelible memories, good and bad: Three victories over the New England Patriots. The playoff clincher over the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009. The dramatic comeback against the Houston Texans in '10. The Sal Alosi game. The emotional 9/11 opener against the Dallas Cowboys in '11. Victor Cruz's 99-yard touchdown. The Butt Fumble. If you want to include a preseason moment, it has to be the Snoopy Bowl debacle with Mark Sanchez's shoulder injury.
Chances are, Sunday's home finale against the Cleveland Browns won't make the list. It's a meaningless game for two teams that are a combined 1-9 since Week 10. Incentive? The Jets want to win their final two games, avoiding a second consecutive losing season. Could a strong finish save Ryan's job? It's possible, although decisions of this magnitude usually aren't based on a game or two.
"We definitely want to win this for him," defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said of Ryan.
Kickoff is 1 p.m. What to watch for:
1. Two more rides on the Geno-coaster: There's nothing Geno Smith can do in the final two games to dramatically alter the landscape of the quarterback position -- it would be too little, too late -- but a couple of feel-good performances wouldn't hurt, that's for sure. Smith has made minor strides the last couple of games, but he hasn't delivered a "wow" game since Week 5 in Atlanta. The Browns are no pushover (ranked No. 8 in total defense), but they're known for late-game chokes. They've blown three straight fourth-quarter leads, losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots and Chicago Bears. In fact, they've allowed six touchdowns and three field goals in their last nine possessions in the fourth quarter.
2. A swoon for the "Sons": Muhammad Wilkerson and Richardson -- two-thirds of the "Sons of Anarchy" defensive line -- are mired in a sack slump. They've both gone three straight games without a sack. In fact, Richardson has as many rushing touchdowns (one) as sacks over the last nine games. He's had a terrific season, but he could use one last push to boost his chances of winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples have been carrying the pass rush. Coples, coming on strong after a slow start, has quietly notched three sacks in the last three games.
3. Covering Josh Gordon: This should be interesting. The Browns' wide receiver, leading the NFL with 1,467 receiving yards, is a matchup nightmare for the Jets. Gordon is dangerous with the ball in his hands -- 597 yards-after-catch, fourth in the league -- and we all know the Jets' secondary has experienced tackling issues. Presumably, the Jets will put Antonio Cromartie on Gordon, a chance for Cromartie to save some face after a disappointing season. They also figure to give him over-the-top help from Ed Reed. Maybe Reed and Cromartie can avoid colliding into each other. Gordon has the ability to singlehandedly wreck the game for the Jets.
4. New faces on D: With the playoffs out of reach, the Jets will try to take a look at some young players for evaluation purposes. Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman mentioned that he'd like to see more of safeties Jaiquawn Jarrett and Josh Bush. Unless they're planning to use a three-safety package, it could mean some bench time for Reed, who probably would find a way to blame the media. On offense, you could see more of wide receiver Saalim Hakim, whose speed is intriguing. The coaching staff can talk about playing the kids, but in reality, the Jets have been riding with them all season.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Everybody loves Rex.
Day after day, testimonials are delivered from various precincts in the New York Jets' locker room. On Wednesday, they came from Antonio Cromartie, Calvin Pace, Sheldon Richardson and Santonio Holmes, who said he wants to ride off with Rex Ryan into the NFL sunset.
Ryan is a players' coach, a genuinely likeable man, so it's not surprising to hear so many players speak out on his behalf as he awaits his fate. How much will their support help his cause?
Not at all.
This isn't the NBA, folks. This isn't a league where a star player can get a coach hired or fired. In the NFL, the rich men in the owner's box make these decisions. If owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik believe the Jets will be better off in the long run without the popular Ryan, he's a goner.
It's a bottom-line business, and there will be a half-empty MetLife Stadium on Sunday as the Jets face the Cleveland Browns in a meaningless and unattractive game. This makes three straight seasons out of the playoffs, and it's hard to imagine Idzik -- joined with Ryan in a shotgun marriage -- inviting him back. Johnson, easily swayed, probably will side with his GM, forgetting about all those games Ryan won for him in 2009 and 2010.
If anything, the players like Ryan too much. Remember, this isn't a popularity contest. You think every player in the New England Patriots' locker room adores Bill Belichick? A prominent Jets player once told me he hated playing for Bill Parcells, but he reluctantly admitted that he played his best under Parcells.
"Rex is a keeper," Richardson said. "The guys love him. No matter what people speculate about him -- he might not be liked by other coaches in the league and other people -- but if he's on your side, you most definitely have a fighter."
Cromartie said it would be "a different defense" without Ryan, and Pace echoed that sentiment, saying, "I don't really want to envision that." They're loyal soldiers. They've made a lot of money playing for Ryan. They've won a lot of games, too.
On Wednesday, Ryan appeared uncomfortable answering questions about the future. When asked if quarterback Geno Smith would benefit from another season under offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, Ryan squirmed, saying he doesn't want to look beyond Sunday.
Ryan was all business in the team meeting, according to players. He expressed disappointment at being mathematically eliminated Monday night on Justin Tucker's 61-yard field goal ("A kick in the head," he told reporters), but Ryan quickly shifted back into Rex Mode. He talked about taking it out on the Browns and finishing strong, getting to 8-8. There was no dark cloud.
"If he's been told something or he kind of feels it, he's doing an incredible job of not letting the guys know," receiver David Nelson said. "There was no feeling on anxiety or tension of apprehension from him.
"From what I gather, he's ready to get ready for next year. If there's any kind of situation where he doesn't think he's going to be the man, he doesn't know and we don't know."
Richardson said he'd be "upset" if Ryan is fired, and he can't imagine why Idzik would make that move.
"With him and Idzik, their relationship is top-notch," the rookie defensive lineman said. "They're genuine. They're honest with each other. John is around all the time, so he sees how the team draws to [Ryan] and how much we respect him. I don't see [his ouster] happening."
Ryan has done an admirable job with this team, winning six games with a rebuilt defense and a talent-deprived offense. He hasn't won a championship, but he knows how to win. If it were up to the players, he'd be the landslide choice.
But this isn't a democracy. Only two votes count, and the results will be known in 12 days.
“I've got a couple more [years],” Pace said, “[if] somebody wants me. But just focus on these last two and whatever happens after that happens.”
He was released last February by the team, when keeping him would have meant a prohibitive $11.6 million cap charge at the end of a six-year, $42 million deal signed in 2008. In April, the Jets re-signed Pace on a one-year deal.
“This is what they envisioned for me to be doing,” Pace said. “My role before this year was a lot more, a lot more on my plate. This year we’re doing a little more four-man rush so that helps me out a lot, but whatever they ask me to do is what I do.”
Pace has been playing this season behind a defensive front with a lot of potential, something that has made his job easier.
“When I’m behind a guy like Muhammad [Wilkerson] or Sheldon [Richardson], it’s easier because these guys draw a certain amount of attention,” Pace said. “They’re not really looking for the old man to go in there and make a play.”
Richardson said he’d like to see Pace stick around a little longer.
“Most definitely want to see him on the same sideline as me. I've helped him get a lot of his nine sacks. If he didn't want to give me the credit, I’ll most definitely take it myself," Richardson said, laughing. "Nah, but it’s been great. He helped me with the playbook a lot, as far as dropping in coverage, what he would do in some situations. He’s been everything he needed to be as a vet, look up to him, talk to him, everything.”
The Jets will have to make a decision on the veteran during the offseason, one way or another.
He did it for 52 minutes. Then came disaster, an interception return for a touchdown -- one of the key plays in the New York Jets' 30-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
"I feel as though I let Rex [Ryan] down today, man," he said. "He talked to me about not having a turnover, playing a game without a turnover. On one occasion, I got sloppy with it and forced it, and I just didn't get it done, man."
Smith's big mistake came with 8:17 remaining in the game, the Jets trailing 23-13. He forced a pass into the teeth of a Cover 2 zone, targeting Santonio Holmes. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn made the interception and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown. It was Smith's fifth pick-six, tying Joe Namath's mark (1967) for the most in a single season in Jets history.
"Bad throw," Smith said. "Forced it. Should have checked the ball down."
Holmes took no responsibility.
"I did what he wanted me to do," he said of Smith. "I tried to get open and tried to make a play for the team."
Smith completed 15 of 28 passes for 167 yards, including a late touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland.
How to mess up a screen pass: The Jets continued their alarming trend of allowing big plays. This time, the killer came on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams, who bolted 72 yards for a touchdown. The Jets have allowed eight plays of 50 yards or longer.
This one was a well-designed play. Cam Newton faked a screen left, drawing safety Ed Reed out of position. He went right with the screen. Williams outraced linebacker David Harris, who appeared to be responsible for the man-to-man coverage. Reed arrived late and took a bad angle. Cornerback Dee Milliner couldn't get off a downfield block.
"The screen pass, obviously, was a back-breaker," Ryan said.
Ryan felt he made the right defensive call because he was man-to-man. In theory, they shouldn't have been affected by Newton's fake. But it sure looked like they were.
"It's the same old stuff," linebacker Calvin Pace said. "It's tough to play against the opponent and yourself."
Historic touchdown: Sheldon Richardson became the first defensive lineman in Jets history to score on a run or reception, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Injury report: Richardson was evaluated after the game for a shoulder injury. He declined to comment on it. He has been playing with an injured shoulder for most of the season. ... Special-teamer Ellis Lankster injured his jaw.
Odds and ends: The Jets ran for 157 yards against the league's top-ranked rush defense. At the same time, the Panthers gashed the Jets (ranked No. 2) for 131 yards. ... Wide receiver Saalim Hakim made his NFL debut. He gained 8 yards on an end-around and was targeted once, an overthrow on a deep route. ... Hard to believe, but tight end Kellen Winslow was targeted only once. ... Pace recorded his ninth sack, a career high. ... Nick Folk kicked a 54-yard field goal, his season long.
Rex outsmarts Payton: The game was billed as Ryan vs. Ryan, but it never was going to be Rex against Rob, the Saints' defensive coordinator. It was really a chess match between Rex and Saints coach Sean Payton, one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. The outcome: Checkmate, Ryan.
Drew Brees put up his fantasy numbers, throwing for 382 yards (the most against the Jets in the Ryan era), but he was rattled at key moments in the game. He was confused by the Jets' different looks, forcing him into rare mistakes -- taking two delay penalties and burning three timeouts in the first quarter. On the first timeout, he was befuddled by a 2-4-5 alignment. When he came out of the timeout, it was a 3-3-5 look by the Jets -- and a delay of game penalty.
This wasn't a blitz-heavy game plan by Ryan. In fact, the Jets sent five or more rushers on only 19 percent of Brees' 53 dropbacks, slightly below their average. They didn't have to blitz because Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples overmatched the Saints offensive line.
On Brees' first of two interceptions, Coples was the rover, lurking behind a three-man rush. At the last second, he rushed, getting one of his long arms in Brees' face as he released the ball, which was intercepted by Demario Davis after an on-ball deflection by S Dawan Landry -- a great play all around. Other times, I saw NT Kenrick Ellis and DT Sheldon Richardson peeling back instead of rushing.
Two impressive sequences jumped out. In the third quarter, they sacked Brees on back-to-back plays. How often does that happen? Wilkerson split a double-team for the first sack. On the second, Brees tried a quick count, but he outsmarted himself because TE Jimmy Graham was isolated on LB Calvin Pace. Graham is a great receiver, but he doesn't do blocking. Pace beat him cleanly for a sack.
The second impressive sequence occurred at the end of the game. Brees had the ball at his 19, with 1:58 on the clock. He has made a career of game-winning drives. Not this time. He threw four straight incompletions, one uglier than the next. On first down, the Jets had one down lineman and five others standing at the line. It looked like a blitz, but it was a ruse because they rushed two and dropped nine, including Coples, who lurked in the spy role. CB Antonio Cromartie was a safety on this play, another wrinkle.
Overall, it was a brilliant game plan by Ryan.
The art of deception: Obviously, the Jets were committed to running the ball, hoping to exploit a defense that had allowed a league-high 4.8 yard per carry. Here is an amazing stat: QB Geno Smith passed for only one yard in the first quarter and none in the fourth.
Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg did a fantastic job of using the read-option to exploit the Saints' aggressive front seven, which tends to over-pursue. On Chris Ivory's 27-yard run in the first quarter, they used the read option out of the Pistol formation. OLB Parys Haralson, influenced by the option, over-ran the play, leaving a gaping hole for Ivory.
On Josh Cribbs' 25-yard pass in the second quarter, the Jets ran a triple-option type play out of the Wildcat. Cribbs took the direct snap, faked to Bilal Powell and sprinted right with a run-pass option. He threw a dart to TE Zach Sudfeld, the Jets' best pass of the day.
I loved the two touchdown runs at the end of the second quarter. It was a great set-up by Mornhinweg, who used virtual mirror-image plays to outfox the Saints. On Ivory's three-yard scoring run, they were in shotgun, with Ivory to Smith's left -- the strong side, along with the tight end (Sudfeld) and two receivers (Stephen Hill and David Nelson). They ran a weakside play, with Ivory blasting off right tackle, behind key blocks by RG Willie Colon and RT Austin Howard.
After Cromartie's interception, the Jets got the ball back in almost an identical situation -- ball at the 3. They used the same personnel package, except they flipped the formation. Ivory went to the right of Smith, along with two receivers (Nelson and Greg Salas). The Saints probably were thinking it was a run to the left. It sure looked like as they ran Ivory to the left on a play-action. LBs David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton bit hard on the fake. Smith used the read-option. He pulled the ball out of Ivory's belly and kept it himself, putting a nice, open-field move on DE Cameron Jordan for the touchdown. Actually, Jordan read it well, but he was faked by Smith and had no back up because Hawthorne and Lofton were out of position.
The Jets finished with 198 rushing yards. Ivory got the headlines, but the coaches did a nice job of exploiting the weaknesses in the Saints' run defense.
Geno's signature moment: The play that had people buzzing at One Jets Drive was a 6-yard scramble by Smith at the start of the third quarter. It wasn't enough for a first down -- it was a third-and-10 play -- but it got them into field goal range, as Smith avoided a big loss.
DE Tom Johnson blew past LG Brian Winters and had a clean shot at Smith, who eluded him with a nifty step-back move. Smith took off and gained six valuable yards, allowing the Jets to take a 23-14 lead after the field goal.
Odds and ends: Winters made a key block in the second quarter, pulling to the right on Ivory's 52-yard yard. Winters got a piece of Lofton, who ended up missing the tackle in the hole. Sudfeld, not known for his blocking, delivered a key block as well. Hill, invisible in the passing game, made a nice downfield block. ... There was confusion on Graham's 51-yard TD reception. S Jaiquawn Jarrett raised both arms before the snap, as if to say, "What do I do?" He ended up getting torched on a double move. ... I have no idea what Ryan was thinking on the Jets' final possession. They got the ball on downs at the Saints' 9, with 1:21 to play. The Saints had one timeout left. Three kneel-downs and it was over, but the Jets ran two plays and called a timeout before having Smith take a knee. What was the point of risking a fumble? Made no sense.