Monday December 29th, 2008

Thirty-six days. That's all that passed between the time the New York Jets were being touted as the AFC's new Super Bowl favorite and the lowering of the boom on third-year head coach Eric Mangini on Monday. A scant five weeks and one day.

Coming off their dominating Week 12 road upset of undefeated Tennessee, the Jets were 8-3 and seen as a team that had gambled big -- and won -- in terms of their blockbuster offseason and preseason personnel moves. Bringing Brett Favre to town to replace Chad Pennington was hailed as a master stroke. Signing Alan Faneca, Damien Woody and Calvin Pace in free agency were clear-cut upgrades, and the trade for nose tackle Kris Jenkins was considered nothing shy of a grand slam. There were high-fives and kudos all around for a Jets team that looked it had spent $160 million to transform itself into the story of the year in the AFC East.

But here we are on Dec. 29, and it was those high-profile moves that upped the ante in New York this season, and wound up costing Mangini his job when his Jets swooned from 8-3 on Nov. 23 to 9-7 and out of the playoffs by season's end. That's the nature of the expectations game in today's NFL. A quick rise often gives way to one heck of a precipitous drop.

With those acquisitions changing both the perception and reality of how Mangini and his team would be judged, a five-game improvement from 4-12 in 2007 to 9-7 this season felt like a disappointment. It's easy to forget of course that those numbers nearly matched the six-game jump New York took from 2005 to 2006, when the coach they called "Mangenius'' posted a 10-6, playoff-qualifying season in his first year in town.

But even beyond the heightened expectations and the letdown that followed, the worst of all outcomes occurred this year for Mangini and his Jets when lowly Miami -- with Jets' cast-off Pennington playing quarterback -- won 10 more games than last season and stormed to the division title that looked to be New York's destiny. If anyone was supposed to dethrone the mighty Patriots this season, it wasn't supposed to be these rebuilding-phase Dolphins, who in the preseason would have been thrilled at the prospects of a .500 record in 2008.

I can remember sitting in the office of Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum during my visit to New York's final training camp at Hofstra last summer, and listening as he acknowledged his own nervousness before he pulled the trigger on all the Jets' major offseason moves (except for Favre, which was still a few chaotic days away). There were Monopoly-money dollar amounts involved, and Tannenbaum said he could feel his pulse race every time he picked up the phone to call an agent and seal another deal. It turns out his apprehension was both understandable and well-deserved.

The Jets this season were like the power hitter who always swings for the fences, and they managed to hit some very loud foul balls along the way that drew more than a few oohs and aahs. But ultimately they struck out, and had to slink back to the bench along with the rest of those who had failed. And in this case, that failure goes squarely on Mangini's record, even though he had two winning seasons in his three-year stay in New York.

I'm fairly certain that New York's 2008 season will wind up a cautionary tale that will only make other teams in the NFL that much more risk-adverse, much less willing to go for the biggest and boldest of moves, at least all at once. Remember the Jets, people will say, as a way of meaning that a team shouldn't go for broke, because the potential downside is too steep and might not be survivable. Just ask Mangini. Players like Favre and Jenkins were hailed as heroes in November, but slumped noticeably down the stretch and were key components in the biggest collapse in Jets history.

I'm sure everyone from Tannenbaum, Mangini and Jets owner Woody Johnson was on board with all of New York's big moves back when the decisions were being made, but the only one who's paying for it today is the team's new ex-head coach. Mangini's taking the blame, and he undoubtedly deserves his share. But the Jets went all-in this season all together, and in the end the gamble didn't pay off. I wonder if everyone involved still feels like the roll of the dice was worth it?

• So where do the Jets turn in their nascent head coaching search? Well, if we can take Bill Cowher at his word that he's not returning to the sidelines in Cleveland or anywhere else in 2009 -- and when have we ever known an ex-coach-turned-TV-analyst to fudge on that question? -- the logical leader in the clubhouse at least shouldn't cost much in terms of transportation costs for the interview process.

Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is both handy to the Jets' New Jersey team complex and available this week, given that top-seeded New York has a first-round playoff bye before its NFC divisional playoff on Jan. 11. The Jets can interview him before he's off limits next week, and there's not going to be a more sought-after head coaching prospect among the ranks of league coordinators.

Spagnuolo and Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz would both be solid hires, but given Spagnuolo's track record of success with the Giants, he would walk into the job with a high level of familiarity with coaching in New York and instant credibility with Jets fans. Forever the step-child to the older, more established Giants, the Jets would also be striking a blow for themselves in the never-ending competition with their cross-city (read intra-state) rivals.

If there's one scenario I can't foresee the Jets pursuing it's making an attempt to hire Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels away from New England. No offense to the highly thought of McDaniels, but getting a young, lightly experienced Patriots coordinator to run the show in New York would definitely qualify as been there, done that.

• Any way you cut it, there's not going to be anywhere near the number of NFL head coaching vacancies as we expected most of the year. Just consider the number of hot-seat candidates who have shored up their job security recently:

-- Philadelphia's Andy Reid made the playoffs and isn't going anywhere.

-- Minnesota's Brad Childress made the playoffs, saving his job.

-- San Diego's Norv Turner made the playoffs, likely assuring himself a third season leading the Chargers.

-- Dallas owner Jerry Jones keeps telling any one who will listen that Wade Phillips is coming back (for a make-or-break season) in 2009.

-- Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis wasn't a likely firing anyway, but he removed almost all doubt with that three-game winning streak to end the season.

-- Houston's Gary Kubiak rallied to 8-8, buying himself another year.

-- Washington's Jim Zorn staved off job elimination, despite going 2-6 in the second half after the Redskins' 6-2 first half.

-- San Francisco's Mike Singletary finished strong as an interim and got his team's full-time gig, which is a fate I think will be duplicated by Tom Cable in Oakland.

Who does that leave in jeopardy? Jim Haslett in St. Louis is almost certainly gone. The fate of Herman Edwards in Kansas City hangs in the balance, awaiting the outcome of the team's general manager search. And Buffalo's Dick Jauron is in some danger, given his team's putrid second half.

And then there are the Teflon Twins: Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden and Denver's Mike Shanahan. They're both quality coaches and longtime winners who are bit shy of recent playoff success. But I don't think either one will have to face the music this offseason. Also, Tony Dungy could choose to retire in Indianapolis, but Jim Caldwell is already on hand to take over. Same goes for Seattle, where Mike Holmgren has now officially given way to Jim Mora.

• If I'm a Lions fan, I'm smacking my own forehead repeatedly today. Sure, Detroit owner William Clay Ford did the expected and put Lions head coach Rod Marinelli out of his misery after that just-completed and historic 0-16 season. But once again, the Lions didn't go nearly far enough with their moves.

With all eyes on the coaching front, Ford also announced that Tom Lewand had been promoted to team president and Martin Mayhew had the interim removed from his general manager position. While I have respect for Mayhew as one of the brighter young minds in the game, Detroit's thirst for the status quo is unfathomable.

If ever there was a time to blow up a front office and start over, you'd figure 0-16 would be a decent impetus. But no, not the Lions. They're too smart for that. How on earth can you not throw the kitchen sink at the Patriots' Scott Pioli if you're W.C. Ford? It's these kind of decisions that have kept Detroit trapped it its cycle of defeat for the entire decade.

• Cleveland owner Randy Lerner making both general manager Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel accountable for the team's collapse this season is the right move, because to affix all the blame on just one of them would be unfair (kind of the way Jets owner Woody Johnson went about things with Mangini going and Tannenbaum staying).

If there was an early favorite to land Pioli, I'd have to believe it's Lerner's Browns, who have quite the complicated mess on their hands at the moment. That should make Lerner motivated to throw a ridiculous salary number in Pioli's direction. Whether or not Pioli sees Cleveland as a potential winning situation is a question still to be determined.

• Speaking of McDaniels and Crennel and Mangini, the whole idea of hiring an ex-Patriots coordinator as your head coach isn't working out all that well, is it? Crennel made it just four seasons in Cleveland, never making the playoffs. Mangini got the boot in New York after going 23-26 in three seasons, and last I checked, they're not building any statues of Charlie Weis at Notre Dame.

• Oh, good. We potentially get to follow the simultaneous day-to-day developments of the Brett Favre and the Bill Parcells re-retirement watch. Because one chronic, serial retirement candidate is never enough in this league.

• I can't remember a season when there was ever more collapses down the stretch. The Bucs were 9-3, but became the first team since the 1993 Dolphins to have that record after 12 games and still miss the playoffs. The Jets were 8-3, won just once more and missed the postseason at 9-7. The Cowboys had their 1-3 December to doom their season, while the Broncos coughed up a historic three-game lead with three weeks remaining.

Buffalo was 5-1 and finished 7-9, and Washington wound up 8-8 after starting 6-2. And then there were the Cardinals, who collapsed but were still forced to make the playoffs out of the mild, mild NFC West.

• Here's a word of caution to all 12 of this year's playoff teams: Don't take it for granted. Last year's two top-seeded teams were New England and Dallas, who combined to go 29-3 in the regular season, and 31-5 overall. Neither made the playoffs this year.

All told, seven of the 12 playoff teams this season were non-repeaters. In the NFC, only the No. 1 Giants returned to the postseason. Carolina, Minnesota, Arizona, Atlanta and Philadelphia all finished at 8-8 or worse in 2007, and none made the playoffs. The AFC field is more familiar, with four of six teams returning. But the newcomers are some real doozeys, with Miami going from 1-15 to 11-5 and the AFC East crown, and Baltimore rebounding from 5-11 to 11-5 and a wild-card berth. Tennessee, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Indianapolis were all 2007 playoff qualifiers.

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