Tomlinson will have extra incentive when Jets take on Chargers
First, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan said he would probably have two Super Bowl rings by now had he gotten the job of coaching the "loaded" (his words) San Diego Chargers back in 2007 when he interviewed for the post as Baltimore's defensive coordinator.
Seriously? How was anyone not going to interpret that as a shot at Norv Turner, the man who eventually got the job?
Turner, indeed the overseer of one of the league's more talented teams (and some might say underachieving) the last few years, returned serve by wondering of the whereabouts of all those Super Bowl rings Ryan has promised since being hired by the Jets in 2009.
That would a 10 on the "Touché Meter."
Ryan admitted as much.
"I think we're even," he said.
Ryan telephoned Turner to clear things up and also tried to backtrack from his latest foot-in-mouth episode with the New York media. Too late. It'll come up a few times Sunday, rest assured.
That's one subplot.
That LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Cromartie once played for the Chargers -- and were first-round draft choices by the club -- may come up, too.
The game will mark the first meeting for "LT" against the team he logged 12,490 rushing yards and 138 touchdowns over nine years (2001-09) before bolting the Bolts as a free agent in 2010. The same team Cromartie intercepted 15 passes for from 2007-09, before being traded in 2010 for a third-round draft pick.
"People thought I was starting to complain too much, you know, when I wasn't running the ball that much and the identity of the team was changing," said Tomlinson, who set an NFL single-season record with 31 touchdowns in 2006. "People thought I was complaining about that, but in fact, I started to see the beginning of the end to my career in San Diego. ... At the time, it was hard to deal with, hard to come to grips with the fact that I wouldn't be a Charger for life. But I'd seen Junior [Seau], seen Drew Brees go through it, seen Rodney Harrison go through it. So I knew it was a possibility."
Tomlinson's role had been reduced by Turner, especially as the Chargers morphed more into a passing team. His exit became inevitable.
"I'm not a guy that holds any kind of ill feelings toward anybody," Tomlinson said. "Honestly, I have no bones toward any of the guys there in that locker room that I played with. I certainly felt like I had great teammates I played with, great coaches. That organization was good to me. They drafted me in the first round and really gave me the ball as much as I could take it."
Added Cromartie: "There are no hard feelings now."
Maybe no hard feelings, but plenty of added incentive come Sunday.
Finally, you'll probably hear a little bit about how Jets wideout Santonio Holmes took his offensive line out at the knees earlier this week, basically saying the team's offensive woes (29th overall, and next-to-last rushing the ball) are the root of a 3-3 record.
"I may be criticized again for saying it, but it starts up front," Holmes told ESPN New York. "If you can't protect the quarterback for four or five seconds, there's no point in dropping back seven yards to throw the football if he doesn't have enough time. We pretty much have to roll with the way our offense is rolling right now."
When they're not rolling over each, that is.
Hey, it's the Jets. And it's New York.
In a talented and deep backfield, rookie tailback Joe McKnight didn't get many chances for the Jets last season. And though a kick-return specialist most of his football life, McKnight got only three cracks at fielding kicks for New York in 2010 because of a guy (a very good guy) named Brad Smith, who left via free agency for Buffalo last summer.
"I saw an opportunity to get on the field some more," McKnight told SI.com.
And he seized it. McKnight leads the NFL in kickoff returns with a 44.1-yard average. That 107-yarder for a touchdown against Baltimore in prime-time Sunday night has a lot to do with that fat number, but McKnight has three other returns of 40-plus yards for a Jets unit that also ranks No. 1 in the league with an average start of the 28-yard line.
So much for those kickoff rules taking the thrill of the return out of the game, right?
"Pretty much, anything I catch in the end zone, I'm bringing it out," McKnight said. "I have a great kickoff return team in front of me. I have the easy part. All I have to do is read my blockers."
The Chargers rank 29th in kickoff defense, but they're special teams are light-years ahead of the abomination of last year's, thanks to the arrival of coordinator Rich Bisaccia, by way of Tampa Bay. San Diego's kicking games are sounder across the board relative to the 2010 Chargers circus that featured four blocked punts, four kicks returned for TDs and one eventually fired special teams coach (Steve Crosby). This year, one kickoff has gone back and no kicks have been blocked.
Neither the normally high-powered Chargers offense nor the attacking, sacking and turnover-forcing Jets defense that's become a trademark of Ryan's have played up to their respective potential this season.
Curiously, both units have done their jobs well as far as staying on the field (Chargers) or getting off it (Jets) on third down. San Diego leads the league in third-down conversion rate at 56.5 percent. Quarterback Philip Rivers has hit nearly 67 percent of his passes on third down and is one of seven in the league averaging better than eight yards per completion on third down. He's thrown two touchdowns and two picks on third down and has an 88.3 passer rating on third down, which is good, not great. What it says is that the Chargers are usually in manageable third-down situations, where Rivers likes to check down to situational back Mike Tolbert (eight third-down receptions for 77 yards).
The Jets, meanwhile, lead the league in defending third down, thwarting opponents for just 28.6 percent conversions. It's that back eight, thank you, led by Darrelle Revis, who electrified the Monday night audience with a 100-yard interception return against the Dolphins.
Worth noting: Since Ryan took over the Jets defense in '09, opposing quarterbacks have completed just 51.7 percent of their throws, the lowest in the NFL during that time. This season, quarterbacks have hit just 54.8 percent against the Jets to go with only three touchdowns compared to nine interceptions and a 62.1 passer rating.
Third-and-longs are tough against any teams; they're really tough against the Jets. And with wide receiver Vince Jackson dealing with a hamstring problem and tight end Antonio Gates questionable with a foot injury, Rivers has to hope for more manageable "money down" situations; the kind where the threat of the run is real. The Jets have not been good stopping the run this season, ranking 28th in the league (allowing 132 yards per game and 4.3 per carry).
San Diego's fifth-year safety out of Utah and defensive co-captain has a pair of game-sealing interceptions this season (against Kansas City and Miami) and has helped the Chargers to a No. 2 ranking in pass defense -- not to mention first place in the AFC West. Maybe it's that Mohawk haircut he's sporting this season. Here are excerpts of Weddle's chat with SI.com.
"You know, I did it for the first time ever last season; for the season finale at Denver. I ended up getting a pick in that game -- and we won the game. I told my teammates I'd do it at the beginning of this season too. And I got another pick, so I kept it."
"That's the plan."
"We're playing together. There are still areas we need to get better, but as a secondary, we pride ourselves on not giving up the big play; the deep ball. The quickest thing for an offense to get in rhythm is to give up big plays. We're making teams drive the ball on us and making them work for it. ... [The Jets] present some challenges. They're not hitting on all cylinders now, but they've got talented guys. They may go three or four series with three-and-outs, but when they get in a rhythm they'll do it for several drives in a row. We know what they're capable of."
"That's why we came into this season with a 'whatever it takes mentality.' Losing last year was extremely frustrating for us. It hurt us. Coming back this year, we've committed to doing anything to get a win; offense, defense or special teams. The mentality has changed. We don't care who gets the glory or the press. We care about winning and getting better. It's a great atmosphere, a great locker room family and a great feeling of camaraderie. We have things to improve on, for sure, but it's that whatever-it-takes thinking that drives us."
"LT, man. It's going to be a little surreal. I was around him for three years. He was a great teammate and a great person. But other than that, we're about winning the game. He plays for the Jets now. We're doing our thing, he's doing his. On the field, everything from the past goes out the window. It's about doing our jobs. ... I'm happy for 'Cro' and his family. Wish him the best. Other than that, it's irrelevant how he plays or what he does. No animosity. Wish him the best. But, again, whatever it takes."
Norv Turner loves to throw to running backs. Always has. And during his five seasons in San Diego, he's had a bunch of great ones to throw to -- LaDainian Tomlinson caught 100 passes in his 2003 season and Darren Sproles led the Chargers with 59 catches last year -- and this season he's got a handful of options out of the backfield.
Given the banged-up receiving corps, it could be one for the record books. At their current pace, Ryan Mathews (20 catches for 261 yards) and Mike Tolbert (28 catches for 231 yards) will catch more passes for more yards in a season than any pair of running backs with a minimum of 100 carries in NFL history.
(Note: The '85 Chargers had a third running back, Tim Spencer, who also had at least 100 rushing attempts. His 135 yards combined with James' totals would rank third on the current list, at 1,162).
The Jets haven't played well this season, and beating the lowly Dolphins without much going right on offense hardly was evidence that Mark Sanchez and friends have turned the corner. The Chargers, meanwhile, have some nice numbers, but no really impressive victories yet, either. It'll be interesting to see if Rivers and his fellas still feel compelled to chuck it around the Meadowlands against a defense that's been very vulnerable to the run.
Pick: NY Jets 23, San Diego 20
Last week's pick: Detroit 23, San Francisco 15
Season record: 5-1