Thursday May 13th, 2010

I thought I heard him laugh a bit under his breath when I posed the question, but who in the NFL would you rather be right now than Mike Tannenbaum, general manager of the news-making New York Jets?

There's a new billion-dollar Meadowlands stadium to open in the fall, to go with the new, Jersey-based team complex that went up less than two years ago. There's the galvanizing and surprising trip to the AFC Championship Game last January to build off, the bold-talking but goods-delivering head coach who took the league by storm after you hand-picked him, the first-round franchise quarterback who has been worth every dime of the investment, and all the buzz and momentum generated by the perception of New York as a young and exciting team on the rise that seemingly everyone wants to play for.

Short of getting the big confetti shower and shiny silver trophy after your final game of the season, that's about as good as it gets in the NFL these days. And that's what Tannenbaum presides over as he winds down a whirlwind offseason that kept his risk-taking Jets in the headlines and made them the talk of the town and the league.

"My approach to my professional life has always been choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life,'' Tannenbaum said by phone Wednesday evening, en route home after conducting some business in New York City. "I'm lucky enough to have a job leading an NFL team in New York City, and what we're most excited about is having a locker room full of guys that care deeply about winning. We're pretty fortunate. I love the environment we have right now, because I'm surrounded by a lot of great people.''

And a lot of new people. Has any organization ever undergone a faster, starker 180-degree change in personas than the Jets, who just 17 months ago still reflected the style and demeanor of then-head coach Eric Mangini's button-downed ways, just as much as they now reflect Rex Ryan's brash, never-back-down approach. It's just that leaning forward mindset that has infused this Jets' offseason, prompting them to resist any urge to stand pat and interpret last January's charmed playoff run as a validation of the status quo.

You need a scorecard to keep track of all the changes New York has made, but on the inbound train are cornerback Antonio Cromartie, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, linebacker Jason Taylor, receiver Santonio Holmes, safety Brodney Pool, kicker Nick Folk, cornerback Kyle Wilson, offensive lineman Vladmir Ducasse and running back Joe McKnight. The outbound train has carried away productive veterans like Thomas Jones, Alan Faneca, Leon Washington, Jay Feely, Kerry Rhodes, Lito Sheppard and Marques Douglas.

And to think that this offseason started with the wildly erroneous conventional wisdom that the Jets would be largely sitting this one out as a team that could do very little in a salary cap-less free agency period thanks to their trip to the league's final four last season.

Through trades, the draft and some veteran signings that did not fall under the auspices of typical unrestricted free agency, Tannenbaum and the Jets skinned the cat about every which way imaginable. And the result was the NFL's version of a shock and awe campaign designed to impress and maybe demoralize New York's opponents when it comes to the personnel-acquisition phase of the game. Or as Jets fullback Tony Richardson recently told the New York Times: "Our roster doesn't even seem real. Look around. We've got an all-star lineup right now filled with Pro Bowlers, past, present and future.''

That's not an inaccurate assessment of the talent New York has stockpiled in the Tannenbaum-Ryan era, a push that started with the signing of Bart Scott in 2009 free agency, the drafting of quarterback Mark Sanchez in last year's first round, and the midseason trade for receiver Braylon Edwards in October.

"Given the final-eight rules that were in effect in free agency this year, we had to get creative and find different ways to help this team,'' Tannenbaum said. "And I think we did that. We all had some good ideas of how to get that done. Regardless of the rules or complications we have to deal with, we looked at the opportunities and tried to be strategic.

"With the resources we have available, we're going to be extremely aggressive and pursue every opportunity to improve the roster. In a position of leadership, you have to bring a relentlessness to this job, a passion to improve the team, and you have to bring it every day. When you have an opportunity to improve, you have to do it.''

Tannenbaum is cautious by nature, but there was absolutely no aversion to risk shown by the Jets the past three months. Convinced they have a team ready to win now, Tannenbaum and Ryan pushed the envelope by dealing for character-issue players like Cromartie and Holmes, and last go-round veterans such as Tomlinson and Taylor. Subtracting respected locker-room leaders like Jones, Washington, Faneca and Feely also took moxie of a slightly different kind. Love or loathe the Jets' many moves, they're going for it, and every third sentence that tumbles from Ryan's mouth mentions the Super Bowl as the goal. And we're not talking about New York's bold bid to host the big game in faraway 2014.

"I felt like in a lot of these cases, especially with Cromartie and Holmes, the risk and the price has to be reasonable and manageable, and we think it was,'' Tannenbaum said. "I think you want to take risks, but you want to do it in a way that if it doesn't work out, it's not catastrophic. You hedge within reason. You have to be judicious with both money and draft picks because you have a finite amount. But in a deal like the one for Holmes, once we found out he was available, we tried to get it done right away because we thought the cost [a fifth-round pick] made it very reasonable.''

When I look at the Jets, I see an organization willing to take risks in part because they've been working out so darn well of late, imbuing the franchise maybe with a belief that it's on a hot streak and should ride this wave as far as possible. Since the great Brett Favre experiment went down the tubes and took Mangini with it at the close of the 2008 season, the Jets have gambled on hiring Ryan and won big. They've gambled on Sanchez and traded up in the draft for running back Shonn Greene and were immediately the better for it. And their moves to bring in headline players like Scott and Edwards largely paid off last year as well.

So why stop now, even if it means you have to advance Cromartie $500,000 of his 2010 salary to pay off his mind-boggling child support debts, or deal with Holmes being suspended for the first four games of 2010, or struggle to explain how paying Tomlinson but not the more-productive Jones makes the Jets better overall? After all, the Jets were only 9-7 last regular season -- the same as Mangini's last year in '08 -- and made the playoffs in part because the Colts and Bengals had little to play for in Weeks 16-17. There was no real reason to read last season as the start of a dynasty in the AFC East.

"We did some good things late in the year, but it wasn't good enough,'' Tannenbaum said. "I like to think this will be a good team in 2011 and 2012, so it's not just all about this year. But we looked at everything and decided these were good risks and the price tags were reasonable, so why not try to improve this team for right now? These guys could help us win this year and then we'll assess where we are next year. You take a good foundation and then add to it every year.''

I asked Tannenbaum which headline move of the offseason made for the toughest trigger to pull, and which deal was the easiest? His answers were candid and enlightening.

"The hardest in some ways was with Santonio, because Pittsburgh has a great organization, and for him to be available you start asking yourself why he's available?'' Tannenbaum said. "It makes you think twice. But in the end, we felt like the deal was a calculated risk where the risk was manageable.

"And the easiest was Jason Taylor. I've admired him his whole career, just watching the guy play with so much passion year in and year out. Getting someone of his football character was a great addition to our locker room.''

The Jets this offseason have already heard plenty about their locker room in 2010. There was grumbling by offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold and Damien Woody when the team released Pro Bowl guard Faneca on draft weekend, and days after he was traded to Seattle, Washington said some of his former teammates question if there will be chemistry issues with all the big-name additions and new faces coming to New York? Some have even likened the Jets to a 10th anniversary edition of the ill-fated 2000 Washington Redskins, that big-spending team that turned out to be one of the worst money could buy.

Tannenbaum doesn't chafe at the suggestion. Far from it.

"The reason to ask those questions are very fair,'' he said. "The concern is a fair one. But it goes back to Rex and the first thing he said to [owner] Woody Johnson and I when he walked through the door. He said 'I'm all about the team and it's always going to be about team with me.'

"Rex said at the start of training camp, you may look at the parking lot and see 40 players get there in 40 cars. But by the end of camp, if we have 10 cars out there, then you know we have a team. We're betting on Rex's expertise to mold a team, which is something he does very well. Maybe it won't happen from day one when we get to [camp] this year. But when we leave, we believe we'll be ready to go as one.''

Oh, and don't forget, HBO's cameras will be there in camp to record it all, what with the Jets being the subject of this year's Hard Knocks reality-show series. Suddenly, almost everybody loves Tannenbaum's team and believes its moment has arrived. As the promise of 2010 looms, could there be a better time to be him, and to wear the green and white?

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