Rex Ryan in unenviable position
Under pressure to win, Jets coach dealing with talent-deficient offense
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- As a coach, Rex Ryan lives on the edge.
His aggressive style earned the New York Jets trips to the AFC title game in his first two years. He'll blitz. He'll gamble. He'll even run with the bulls in Pamplona for a summer vacation.
Clayton's Camp Tour
• Browns: Still rebuilding
• Jets: Ryan's tough task
• Bills: Team in a hurry
• Colts: Easing Luck's burden
• Bears: Trusting Trestman
• Chiefs: Poised to surprise?
• Rams: The buzz is back
• Falcons: Super motivation
• Bengals: Roster is loaded
• Giants: Change is constant
• Eagles: Full of intrigue
But Ryan faces his most dangerous challenge in 2013. The Jets, as a franchise, are in transition. They hired a new general manager, John Idzik. Offensive talent is down. Pressure is up.
Ryan is under contract through 2014, but he might need to pull off a winning season to keep his job. Getting away from the bulls might be easier than the gauntlet he faces this season.
Here is what I learned at New York Jets camp.
1. Camp position battles: You start at quarterback. Even though it would be more logical to start veteran Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith has a chance to start. It was revealed over the weekend the decision isn't completely Ryan's, as Idzik and the organization have input. Clearly, the quarterback decision determines the Jets' present and future. A pretty good battle may be brewing at free safety, where Josh Bush, a sixth-round choice last year, is being pushed by seventh-rounder Antonio Allen, who shows a decent ability to make plays. Monday was an interesting day in setting the agenda for two key skill-position spots. Kellen Winslow, who practices every other day because of chronic knee problems, worked with the first team at tight end. He'll battle Jeff Cumberland for the starting job. Everything is up for grabs at wide receiver. Santonio Holmes doesn't know if he will play this season because of a bad Lisfranc injury suffered last year. The only certainty at receiver is that Jeremy Kerley is the slot receiver. Braylon Edwards, Stephen Hill and Clyde Gates are all battling for playing time. Hill is catching the ball better than he did in the offseason program and minicamp. Ryan is sorting out the guard position, but Willie Colon and Stephen Peterman should be the starters. The debate is which side they should play. The running back position is unsettled: Chris Ivory is slowed with a hamstring injury, and Mike Goodson hasn't reported to camp because of off-the-field problems. Ryan also has to decide whether he wants to start Kyle Wilson or rookie Dee Milliner at cornerback. Milliner ended a brief rookie holdout Sunday, but he's not ready to practice because of a shoulder problem.
2. Geno can make all the throws: Getting Smith ready to be the opening-day starter might be adventurous. He's learning the West Coast offense, which is very tough for a rookie. The play-calling verbiage is lengthy and takes time to learn. Smith struggled in OTAs and minicamp getting the plays off. He's learning. The one thing that isn't debated is his throwing ability: He has a strong arm, and you can see he's improved his footwork since being drafted. Smith has a nice, over-the-top delivery and gets his legs into the throw, which improves velocity. In Monday's team drills, he completed five of 10 passes, but two were dropped -- this offense drops entirely too many passes -- and he was sacked twice. The sacks were due to Smith's adjustments to the pass rush and making decisions while in the pocket. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Smith made it through the early practices without throwing an interception. The first interception in team drills so far was thrown by Sanchez and that was toward the end of Monday's practice. Sanchez still looks to be the starter, but the clock is ticking. It's pretty evident he's around only because of his contract. It's only a matter of time before Smith will start -- even if he has to wait until next year.
3. Ryan's eye for defensive linemen: Before becoming a defensive coordinator and then eventually a head coach, Ryan was a defensive line coach. His specialty was getting the most out of sometimes limited talent. This might be the most athletic defensive line he's coached. Left end Muhammad Wilkerson is a future Pro Bowler. Sheldon Richardson is promising on the other side. Nose tackle Kenrick Ellis, who might not be Ryan's most agile defensive tackle, avoided a tackle Monday and came in clean in a pass rush. Ryan moved Quinton Coples to linebacker and had him drop his weight into the 270s, but he moves to the line on passing downs, giving the Jets three former first-rounders up front in passing situations. Good line play and top corner play are the keys to a Ryan defense.
4. "Ground and Pound" has a donut hole: A lot of defensive coaches prefer to have an offense that uses the run to set up the pass. Missing Monday was the ground and the pound. Ivory was limited by a hamstring injury and Goodson was nowhere to be seen. That left Bilal Powell, Joe McKnight and John Griffin to handle the load. To be honest, Griffin didn't look too bad, but this is the first Jets team since the pre-Curtis Martin days to not have a back with a 1,000-yard season on his résumé. This might sound silly, but the development of the backfield could determine the starting quarterback job. A running attack would make it easier for Smith to handle the starting job. No running threat puts more pressure on Smith to work a passing game. With the uncertainty at tight end and receiver, that's a lot to ask of Smith if he can't rely on the run.
5. A 24-hour AFC perspective: Over a 24-hour period, I watched practices of three AFC teams that combined for 17 wins last season -- Cleveland, the Jets and Buffalo. Of the three, the Jets probably have the best chance to get a little better, but not much. The Jets have the best defense of the three teams. The Jets have a formidable defensive line and are deeper than the other two teams at cornerback. They were a top-eight defense last year and should be in the top 10 this season. But they have a bottom-five offense, potentially the worst of the three teams. The Browns have the best defensive front seven of the three and should be able to run the ball well. Still, their road schedule will work against them for getting to seven wins. As far as offensive excitement is concerned, the Bills and Browns offer a better show. Both teams have good, talented receivers. The Browns have a premier running back (Trent Richardson). With new offensive head coaches in Buffalo and Cleveland, both franchises are building for the future. The Jets' offense needs time, and the clock is ticking on Ryan to win.
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