- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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It seemed like an innocent gesture, a good PR move, but it turned out to be the first indication that something was going to be different about the New York Jets in 2011.
It was an automated phone call from Rex Ryan, delivered to season-ticket holders when the lockout ended in late July. On the recorded message, the ever-confident coach, channeling his inner Bart Scott, gushed about Mark Sanchez and revealed a new approach on offense.
"I can't wait to see his improvements and we're going to let it fly a little more than we have in the past," Ryan said.
Those six words -- we're going to let it fly -- would come back to haunt the Jets. They represented a departure in philosophy, one that transcended X's and O's. The NFL's most prolific rushing team, which built an identity based on power and intimidation, was stepping outside its comfort zone. The brawlers decided to become boxers.
It would be narrow-minded to say that alone was the reason for the Jets' crash, an end-of-season meltdown marred by locker-room turmoil, but that shift caused a ripple.
And the ripple became a tidal wave.
"I'm pretty sure our coach will tell you what I'll tell you: We are the team to beat."
-- Santonio Holmes, first day of training camp
The Jets didn't end up in this predicament -- egg on face -- with one or two bad moves and a few bad player performances. It takes more than that to blow up a championship-caliber team, but in performing an autopsy on their season, it's impossible to ignore the missteps that occurred in August.
On the eve of training camp, they jettisoned three-quarters of their receiving corps, parting ways with Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery and Brad Smith and acquiring Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. Privately, the front office was doing cartwheels, thinking it had dramatically upgraded the position.
In reality, they got older and slower.
In terms of career accomplishments, yes, there was no question that Burress and Mason were a step up, but they also were 34 and 37, respectively, receiving relics never known for their speed. Without the benefit of an offseason -- thanks to the lockout – they were expected to assume prominent roles in an unfamiliar offense.
It takes time to build chemistry between a quarterback and his receivers, but the Jets tried a rush job, one that became more complicated because Burress missed most of camp with a sprained ankle. Of all the position groups to shake up at the 11th hour, the last one should be the receiving corps, especially with a still-developing quarterback.
To a certain degree, the Jets' options were limited because Holmes, Edwards and Smith were free agents, but they exacerbated the upheaval by making the receivers the focal point of the offense. Instead of relying on Ground & Pound through the transition period, they put their run-heavy schemes on the side burner and went to a three-receiver base offense.
In the first four games, the Jets used a three-receiver package on 61 percent of their offensive snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In Week 4, a brutal loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Mason didn't know some of his plays and had to be coached during the game, a team source said.
"That's not the strength of what [Brian Schottenheimer] can call," rookie quarterback Greg McElroy told a Birmingham, Ala., radio station this week, referring to the three-receiver, one-back formations. "We just never had much of an offensive identity. You can't just change philosophy midway through the season. I think that hurt us."
After the Baltimore loss, Ryan announced to the team it was reverting to the run-oriented style, an attempt to reclaim the team's smashmouth personality. It also was a tacit admission that the passing game -- read: Sanchez -- wasn't up to the carrying the load.
At the time, players embraced the change, trying to use it as a rallying point. But it was too late; the Jets never recaptured their Ground & Pound glory. They finished 22nd in rushing offense.
Offensive-line coach Bill Callahan, commenting last week on the early-season change in philosophy, said he "understood that completely," but he hinted that it had an impact on the sub-par line play throughout the season.
"As a line coach, your numbers are going to change," he said, referring to a one-back, three-receiver offense. "You get into a different world when you do that."
For the Jets, it was outer space.
"I'm challenging our offense to score 28, 30 points a game We have all the weapons to do so."
-- Burress, in the preseason
Not only did the Jets take a misguided approach on offense, but they did so with the wrong pieces. A big part of the problem was Mason, who simply had no gas left in his tank. He also struggled to learn the offense and wasn't willing to take extra steps to cram.
Mason spent his off days at his home in Nashville instead of watching film at the facility. The Jets gave their blessing, something they never should've done. A younger Mason would've been able to overcome the challenge, but he couldn't rely on his natural talent anymore.
It was a stunning miscalculation, one that had a domino effect on the offense. Ryan predicted a 90-catch season for Mason, who was so bad that he was replaced as the No. 3 receiver after only four games. Mason let it be known that he wasn't going to be happy behind rookie Jeremy Kerley, so he was shipped out and the Jets ate more than $600,000 of his contract.
It was hailed as an addition-by-subtraction move, but that wasn't entirely true. It pushed Burress, fresh off a two-year prison sentence, into an every-down role. He ended up playing about 80 percent of the offensive snaps, far too many.
Burress made plays, especially in the red zone (eight touchdowns), but he struggled to get open between the 20s, where he couldn't use his 6-foot-5 frame as effectively as he did in the end zone. By December, he was cooked -- only eight catches over the final four games.
That, no doubt, contributed to the late-season collapse. Sanchez struggled, too, committing nine turnovers over the final three games. His mechanics were a mess and he seemed to lose confidence in himself and those around him.
In the final game, the Miami meltdown, Sanchez targeted Holmes only once and barely looked in his direction.
Sanchez is too much of a team player to consciously freeze out a particular receiver, but there appeared to be a lack of trust.
Sanchez never said so publicly, but he was frustrated with Holmes, his sloppy route running and his questionable practice habits. The pre-breaking point occurred four days before Miami, when he and Holmes had a verbal altercation in a meeting.
The whole thing blew up in the huddle, with two minutes left in the season.
By the way, the Jets never came close to Burress' preseason prediction. They averaged less than 24 points per game.
"Before all the all-stars came, he was here, making plays. We won a lot of games with him."
-- Brandon Moore on Cotchery, at the start of camp
Sanchez lobbied Cotchery for days, trying to get him to change his mind. It was no use. Cotchery, one of the most respected players in the locker room, wanted out -- and the front office granted his wish.
There were many reasons why Cotchery wanted to leave, but he told Sanchez that day in August that he didn't care for the vibe in the wide-receiver room.
He turned out to be correct. But it wasn't just the receivers' room, it was all over. The Jets parted ways with several team leaders -- namely Tony Richardson, Damien Woody and Shaun Ellis -- and it came back to bite them.
When things got crazy in the locker room -- like in October, when Holmes felt it was his place to call out the offensive line -- there were no elder statesmen to get everybody in line. Moore and Sanchez addressed the group in players-only meetings, separately, but it apparently wasn't enough.
The Jets erred by unloading so many leaders at once, creating a vacuum. Ryan tried to prop up Sanchez, naming him a captain and explaining in August, "I feel so strongly about our roster and part of it is based on what I think our leader is going to do."
Sanchez is respected by his teammates, but he avoids confrontation. Some eyebrows were raised Wednesday, when rookie quarterback Greg McElroy -- not Sanchez -- ripped the "corrupt mindset" in the locker room. Former teammate Kris Jenkins, speaking on 1050 ESPN New York, criticized Sanchez, saying, "The No. 1 quarterback should've said that a long time ago."
The Jets sacrificed character for talent, learning a hard lesson about the importance of team chemistry. The classic example is Holmes, a wonderful talent with a divisive attitude.
"The Jets' roster was built for the short term," said an opposing personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They brought in questionable character guys. When you do that, your biggest concern is, when the going gets tough … then you see."
Complacency also set in. After back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game, the Jets returned with largely the same cast of characters, listening to Ryan blow smoke about how they were a lock to make the Super Bowl. Players got too comfortable; there wasn't much competition in the way of positional battles.
"We never got that team chemistry going," guard Matt Slauson said. "I think maybe there was a part where we figured, 'Well, we've done it the first two years, it's just going to happen for us.' It never did. We never made it happen."
"We have to find somebody out there to beat New England besides us … I'm challenging the rest of the league."
-- Ryan, in the preseason
Before you issue that kind of challenge, you'd better be sure you can hold up your end. The Jets didn't, losing by 11 and 21 points to the Patriots.
Maybe they got overconfident after controlling Tom Brady & Co. in last year's playoffs, but the Jets failed to recognize a burgeoning trend -- the emergence of the Patriots' two-tight end offense.
Instead of tweaking their personnel to account for Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both stars on the rise, the Jets stood pat on defense. They kept their safety corps intact, re-signing Eric Smith and Brodney Pool.
They violated an important rule: Always keep a close eye on the enemy.
The Jets had millions of unspent cap dollars at their disposal, yet they opted to go with virtually the same defense as the previous year. They got older and slower, especially in the middle of the field -- safety and linebacker.
It's no wonder they couldn't cover Gronkowski or any other tight end with sub-4.8 speed. All told, the Jets allowed four tight ends to record at least 99 yards in receiving.
There were other problems, of course. You can trace a lot of it to August, when they did too much (on offense) and did too little (defense).
One of those years. Now they have six months to remember who they were.