Same Old Gang Green, Better Result

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If the formula for success these days is to hire a Bill Belichick assistant, I guess you may as well go for his old fraternity brother. The Eric Mangini era — an “era” in New York Jets football lasts about five or six years — began if not with a bang then at least a loud pop. It is far too early to evaluate the changes in personnel or strategy (there seemed to be little difference from the 4–3 defensive set used most of last season and yesterday’s 3–4), and the brain trust’s decision to play conservative ball on defense in the fourth quarter is unsettling.

In fact, there seemed little difference between the 2005 and 2006 Jets except in the areas that really counted. That slight difference made the Jets look like a team on the way up and the Tennessee Titans one on the way down. Neither squad ran for beans, with the Jets getting just 91 yards and the Titans 86. Both ran 69 plays, allowed 2 sacks, drew 8 penalties, and 2 fumbles. From those stats, you couldn’t tell who won the game.The difference was all in the passing, and it was all on the Jets side of the ledger.

Chad Pennington, playing with the steely concentration of a man who knows that this is his last shot at greatness, riddled the Titans for 319 yards on 33 passes, an average of 9.7 yards a throw — the first time this century a Jets quarterback has thrown more than 25 passes and averaged more than 9 yards a toss. Tennessee’s quarterback was Kerry Collins, and no team that starts the season with Kerry Collins has any business even pretending it is a contender. (Collins should be wearing a sign on his back that says “Fill-in.”) He threw for 223 yards on 38 throws for a 5.9 average, and a team that averages 5.9 yards a throw never beats one that averages 9.7.

Unless that team gives up a key fumble and a cheap touchdown in the fourth quarter and then give the other team a shot at tying the game by playing a prissy prevent defense which lets the lesser team get down to their 8-yard line with a chance to tie the game just before the gun. If I had been calling plays for the Titans, Vince Young would have been in the game at that point with instructions to drop back three steps and, if no one was open, run. The Jets’ defenders were playing so far off the ball that Young could have covered half the eight yards before someone in white and green hit him, and then he could have fallen the rest of the distance into the end zone.

For the time being (which means until the next game), though, let’s dwell on the positives. Mangini’s draft focused on the offensive line, particularly center Nick Mangold and offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and, except for one play when rookie nickleback Cortland Finnegan knocked the ball out of Pennington’s hands on a safety blitz — the kind of play the Jets should have been using on Collins late in the game — scarcely any Titans got through the front wall on pass plays.

The Jets had no run from scrimmage longer than 12 yards, and in fact had only 2 rushes longer than 6, but that’s irrelevant if the pass blocking holds up. The Jets’ running backs got 32 tries, mostly because Pennington got them 16 first downs with his passes. That’s nearly double their average in the last half of 2005.

New York’s wideouts Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery are vastly underrated by the rest of the league, and I hope they stay that way, because they’ll continue to get single coverage in key situations. Against the Titans, the two caught 14 passes for 219 yards and 10 first downs. Coles took a lot of flak for not catching more balls thrown his way last season, less than 50%. But as AFC secondarys are going to discover, there’s a big difference between a ball thrown your way by Brooks Bollinger and one by Chad Pennington. The one thrown your way by Pennington is much closer to your way.

This coming Sunday it’s pupil versus master when the Jets play the Patriots at the Meadowlands. Then we’ll see if the two coaches are really in the same fraternity.

Mr. Barra is the author of “The Last Coach: A Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.”

The New York Sun

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