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Friday, September 10, 2010
Time to welcome Gang Green to reality

By Rich Cimini

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It hangs on the far wall of the New York Jets' cavernous field house, high above the playing field -- a 30-foot picture banner of the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It's a new addition to the facility, a reminder of what was -- see the "1968" tag -- and what can be.

What will be, according to Rex Ryan, who expects to add "2010" to the banner in due time.

"Everybody expects us to be a great team," he said, "and we expect to be a great team ourselves."

Starting Monday night, the team with the big talkers, big expectations, bigger-than-life coach and really big stadium will strut to the center of the stage. America's cable-TV stars will face the Baltimore Ravens in a rock 'em, sock 'em football game at the New Meadowlands Stadium, and it's going to be crazy.

And different, but not because they have new digs, a $1.6 billion metal and cinder-block palace. No, it will be different because the Jets have gone from Rudy to Rowdy, the team everybody loves to hate. The Jets brought it on themselves, and now they have to deal with the consequences.

They're wanted. It's a most unusual position for a franchise that hasn't achieved championship glory in 42 years, but last season's playoff run, coupled with a big and brash offseason, has raised expectations to an all-time high. It's Super Bowl or bust and, in their minds, bust isn't allowed in the stadium. (Maybe the PSLs are too expensive.)

This is the Jets' most important season opener in a long time, a wonderful opportunity to validate themselves as a legit team, worthy of the headlines. Are they hot air or the hot heir to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC?

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis made his feelings known this week, basically saying the Jets are unworthy of the hype. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski named the Jets as one of the most overrated teams in the league, saying, "They were a 9-7 team a year ago. Many people have them picked for the Super Bowl. Only time will tell if they continue to improve."

Fellow ESPN analyst Jon Gruden believes the Jets added a "bevy of outstanding players," but he wants to see how it comes together. As for the bravado, he called it "elevator music ... I don't think it offends anybody or stimulates any team, but I do think they have a lot to prove."

Now it's proving time.

It's time for Mark Sanchez to prove his mediocre preseason was an aberration and that he really is the quarterback who matured last January. The Ravens' secondary, sans safety Ed Reed, is an inviting target. A poised quarterback, with the help of a clever offensive coordinator, should be able to figure out ways to probe the secondary and find the weak spots.

Time for LaDainian Tomlinson, 31, to prove he's still got it, and that the front office didn't blow it big-time by shipping leading rusher Thomas Jones out of town.

Time for Jason Taylor, another sure-fire Hall of Famer, to prove that 30 other teams were wrong about him. After being discarded by the only other team he ever loved, the Miami Dolphins, Taylor, 36, received only one free-agent nibble -- the Jets.

Time for Matt Slauson to not be Adrien Clarke, the overmatched scrub who was handed the left-guard job when Pete Kendall was unceremoniously traded in 2007. The Jets gave Alan Faneca a Kendall sendoff, jeopardizing the chemistry on a wonderful offensive line.

Time for Antonio Cromartie to prove he's not the player he was in 2008 and 2009, and it's time for Nick Folk to prove he's not the kicker who was run out of Dallas last season.

There are questions, to be sure, but the Jets have an impressive collection of talent. They also have a very good coaching staff, but the landscape has changed. They're not going to surprise opponents anymore. Some teams act differently when they're a favorite. Some get out of their comfort zone and forget the things that made them successful.

The Ryan Jets were built on defense and a ball-control offense, same as the Ravens, who are showing signs of becoming more versatile on offense. It would be a mistake for the Jets to suddenly morph into a passing team, especially if it becomes obvious that Sanchez isn't ready for the promotion.

It's a delicate balance. The Jets believe they're special in all areas, but are they as good as they think?

"If you want to win, you ought to be man enough to stand up there and say we expect to win," Ryan said. "I've got news for you: We expect to win this week, next week and every week."

In case they forget, they have a 30-foot mission statement hanging from the wall. Big reminder.

Big dream.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for Follow him on Twitter.

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