Jets Put Hopes on an Untested Coach and a Much-Tested Right Shoulder

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The last time the Jets began a regular season with expectations as low as they are right now, the year was 1997. Coming off a 1–15 finish in 1996, the Jets hired Bill Parcells as the franchise’s savior, but everyone thought the team would need at least a couple of years before it could see a winning record.

Everyone was wrong. The Jets managed an eight-game turnaround in the standings, with Parcells leading the team to a 9–7 record. The following year, the Jets finished 12–4 and made it to the AFC Championship Game.

Can new head coach Eric Mangini engineer a similarly dramatic turnaround this year? Anything is possible in the NFL, where fortunes change quickly, but a winning record is highly unlikely.The Jets probably aren’t much better than last year’s 4–12 squad.


Quarterback is the one position where the Jets must be better than they were in 2005. Chad Pennington enters the season as the starter, but that hasn’t meant much the last three seasons, as he has missed 22 games because of injuries. He and the Jets say his twice-injured right shoulder is fine, although he hasn’t done anything in the preseason to prove that, exclusively throwing the kind of short passes that won’t tax his shoulder.

If Pennington misses playing time because of yet another injury, Mangini will likely conclude that he is too fragile to play quarterback in the NFL and begin the process of grooming rookie Kellen Clemens as the team’s quarterback of the future. Clemens has talent, but he isn’t ready to start yet, and if the Jets are forced to turn to him this year, there isn’t much hope of a successful season.

Although Pennington’s health is the Jets’ biggest worry, the question of who will start at running back could cause the most headaches. Curtis Martin, fourth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 14,101 career yards, definitely won’t play early in the year and probably won’t play ever again. Martin’s knee injury has him on the physically-unable-to-perform list, leaving the position he has occupied for eight years unsettled.


With Martin out, the Jets didn’t want to rely solely on Cedric Houston, Leon Washington, and Derrick Blaylock, who have a combined 857 career rushing yards. So they traded for Kevan Barlow, a five-year veteran of the San Francisco 49ers. Although Barlow has struggled in the last two years, averaging just 3.4 yards a carry, he’s only 27 and has played very well as recently as 2003, when he had 201 carries for 1,024 yards. Barlow is the likely starter, but all four backs will get playing time.

Those backs will run behind an offensive line that has undergone more changes than any other unit this offseason.The Jets used the fourth overall pick (acquired by virtue of finishing 4–12) to select left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and the 29th overall pick (acquired by trading defensive end John Abraham) on center Nick Mangold. Most draft analysts rated Ferguson as a blue-chip prospect and thought he would be ready to play in the NFL immediately, but he has looked skittish in the preseason, already being flagged with three false start penalties. Mangold has looked solid and should provide an immediate upgrade to the middle of the line.

Mangold had better play well, because the Jets gave up their best pass rusher to acquire him. Abraham was far from a perfect player — he got hurt a lot and lacked discipline against the run — but his quickness made him one of the few Jets the opposition always had to plan around. The pass defense was the Jets’ strength last year thanks in large part to Abraham’s 10.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. It’s not easy to replace that kind of talent.


But Mangini isn’t trying to replace Abraham so much as design a defense that doesn’t rely on one player as a pure pass rusher. Mangini’s new 3–4 defense will mirror the one he ran last year as the New England Patriots’ defensive coordinator, and free-agent acquisition Kimo von Oelhoffen, who spent the last six years in Pittsburgh, is the kind of defensive end Mangini wants. Von Oelhoffen doesn’t make the spectacularly athletic plays that Abraham made, but he’s a more consistent player, and more reliable when teams run directly at him.

With the defensive ends now primarily responsible for stopping the run, most of the pass rushing will come from outside linebackers Victor Hobson and Bryan Thomas.That could spell trouble for the Jets, because Thomas has just 6.5 sacks in his career and Hobson has only three. Meanwhile, the Jets’ most talented defensive player, inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma, could have a difficult adjustment to the 3–4 front.As a middle linebacker in a 4–3 defense during his first two NFL seasons, Vilma played in a scheme designed to keep opposing linemen and fullbacks away from him and give him the freedom to make plays. In the 3–4, Vilma will have to fight off blockers and rely less on his blazing speed.

Ty Law played well at cornerback for the Jets last year, but the secondary should still be fine with Law now in Kansas City. The Jets expect new cornerback Andre Dyson to step in and start immediately, and they have a good pair of young safeties in Kerry Rhodes and Erik Coleman.

If Mangini’s rebuilt defense can exceed expectations, if Pennington can stay healthy, and if both rookie linemen can contribute immediately, the Jets could have a better record than most people expect, especially because the league’s rotating schedule did the Jets the favor of giving them four games against the weak NFC North.

But in all likelihood, Mangini will need more than a year to get his defense up to par, Pennington won’t be the same player he was as a healthy 26-year-old, and the rookie linemen will need the time to adjust that almost all rookies need. These aren’t the Jets of 1997, and at the end of the season, Mangini’s biggest task will again be deciding how to spend a Top 5 draft pick.

Mr. Smith is a contributing editor for

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