SAN DIEGO — Even in these worst of times, in what might be his final days as head coach of the New York Jets, Rex Ryan can still crack a joke. “I want to apologize to the fans,” the head coach told reporters after Sunday’s 31-0 loss in San Diego, “… those that are left.”
Nobody laughed. Ryan didn’t even manage a smile. At 1-4, and with a quarterback controversy born out of a dearth of options, all Ryan has left is his subtle wit and a renowned ability to motivate football players.
Say this for the Jets: They didn’t give up. Down 31 with eight minutes left, there was backup quarterback Michael Vick on fourth down at the Chargers’ 16, scrambling left, buying time, time and more time while receivers scrambled across the end zone. After an eternity, Vick found Greg Salas dragging towards the goalpost. Not only had the Jets crossed the 50-yard line for the first time all game, but they actually put points on the board. Progress?
Nope. Vick had crossed the line of scrimmage. The tiniest sliver of silver lining, dashed.
“The whole game was disappointing, including that,” Salas said later. “There’s not much more you can say about it. We just got dominated for 60 minutes.”
Was it as bad as it looked?
“Could be worse,” Vick said.
It could always be worse, as Vick well knows. The team could’ve quit, for starters. But they didn’t. Receivers jostled for position in the end zone on busted plays, linemen finished blocks for their impotent quarterbacks, and an undermanned defense pushed back against an offensive tidal wave.
“That’s a team that plays hard the whole game, no matter what,” said Chargers offensive tackle King Dunlap. “With Rex, that’s their mentality. Maybe it looked like they weren’t finishing, but they were.”
If sixth-year coach Rex Ryan gets fired, it won’t be because he lost this team from an emotional standpoint. There’s friction, with linebacker Demario Davis saying Sunday, “I don't see a lot of guys putting a lot of effort into film study." But this is far from a mutiny. Ryan blamed himself, as he is wont to do, saying he got out-coached by Mike McCoy. There’s an element of truth to that. But what the slimmed-down Ryan ought to be feeling is hungry.
To borrow a line from Rounders, this is a team with the table set up, the fork, the knife, the A1 sauce… and no steak. Where’s the talent? With the exception of 2013 first-round pick Sheldon Richardson, John Idzik has failed to keep the roster competitive over two offseasons as GM (Daily News reporter Manish Mehta details Idzik’s failings here).
Jets fans will remember the Buttfumble of 2012 for decades as a low point in the Rex Ryan Era, but that was just an embarrassing stumble in an otherwise mediocre season. This is something different.
Know this: Of Idzik's 12 draft picks from May’s draft, eight are still on the roster, combining for 350 snaps over the season’s first month. By contrast, Dallas (another 8-8 team in 2013) selected nine rookies who have played a combined 478 snaps. For New York, none of those meager contributions have come from wide receivers, despite drafting three. Free agent pickup Eric Decker has been a part-timer with a bad hamstring. Meanwhile, the passing game, easily Ryan’s biggest problem, has languished with Geno Smith throwing to the likes of David Nelson and Jeremy Kerley.
On defense, having a lockdown cornerback to scheme around has long been Ryan’s signature, going back to his first NFL coordinator job in 2005 with the Ravens and two-time All-Pro Chris McAllister. That tradition continued in New York with Darrelle Revis, allowing Ryan to fashion elaborate blitzes and leave his corner on an island, but Revis tore his ACL in 2012, and without waiting to see if he could recapture his old form the Jets dealt him for the pick that became Richardson. I’d argue the Jets won that deal, yet failed to capitalize on the subsequent salary cup surplus.
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Despite having more than $20 million available, the Jets didn’t land a top-tier free agent cornerback (and Revis was available) and let last year’s best cover man, Antonio Cromartie, walk. With 2013 first-rounder Dee Milliner battling ankle and leg injuries, Ryan had been stuck with converted safety Antonio Allen as his top cover man (Milliner returned on Sunday, pushing Allen back to safety). The other starting spot has belonged to fifth-year reserve Darrin Walls, who has never played 300 defensive snaps in a season but is already at 253 this year. In August, Idzik responded to criticism of the apparent lack of talent at corner, telling fans, "We did some things at the position. Let it play out."
Five games into the season it has played out, predictably. And the Chargers, like everybody else, have taken notice.
“What they were doing on defense wasn’t that crazy,” said Chargers offensive tackle D.J. Fluker. “They blitz a lot, and when you do that, you can get exposed.”
Especially when your cornerbacks are Allen and Walls.
Take the bite out of a defensive scheme, and you get what happened Sunday in San Diego—the Jets dropping to 1-4 and uncharacteristically giving up 162 yards on the ground, plus 288 passing yards and three touchdowns to Philip Rivers, who was orchestrating San Diego's blitz pickup as if he were directing traffic in Centre City.
“It was a complete ass-whuppin’,” Ryan said. “And it was me that was getting my ass kicked.”
Ryan can try to isolate the blame on himself, but these problems aren’t going away with better practices and game plans. Jets fans will remember the Buttfumble of 2012 for decades as a low point in the Rex Ryan Era, but that was just an embarrassing stumble in an otherwise mediocre season. This is something different. This is a nadir. This is the beginning of the end.