HERE ARE four reasons why the Jets will go deep into the 2005 playoffs:
•Chad Pennington is back and throwing. Not only that, he's throwing to his favorite receiver again, Laveranues Coles. Two years ago Coles went to the Redskins in free agency and no one groaned louder than Pennington: Of his 39 third-down passes to Coles in 2002, 28 were caught--all for first downs.
Also, Pennington will be working out of new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's system, which allows, according to the quarterback, "more audibles, more freedom to control the game. No knock on [former coordinator] Paul Hackett, but his idea was to let the system work for you."
For a guy like Pennington, who's brainy as well as courageous, it's a perfect setup. The club also has longtime Dolphins starter Jay Fiedler as backup, the best for the Jets since, oh, how about Babe Parilli?
•The offensive line is the finest in the division. Nothing undermines a team's production more than a shaky O-line. Kevin Mawae is the best center in the league. Left guard Pete Kendall brought the running package together last season. There's a new right tackle, second-year player Adrian Jones, a streamlined 303-pounder with dancing feet.
•Curtis Martin, who ranks fourth on the NFL career rushing list, is showing no signs of slowing down. He has run for more than 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons in the league. At this rate he'll break Emmitt Smith's record of 18,355 yards in '09. At age 36.
•Impassioned defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson has lit a fire under his unit. End Bryan Thomas, a 2002 first-round draft choice once considered a bust, proved to be a highly skilled and technically proficient run-stopper in the base 4--3, so much so that Henderson is considering starting him and turning a Pro Bowl player, John Abraham, into a situation rusher. At the other end is Shaun Ellis, a pocket collapser and another Pro Bowler. Jonathan Vilma was an explosive and instinctive middle linebacker as a rookie last year. And in August the Jets added another reliable pro to the roster, cornerback Ty Law.
Here are four reasons why the Jets won't go deep into the 2005 playoffs.
•Pennington will tell you that his throwing shoulder is fine after off-season surgery, but nobody knows for sure. He toughed it out through the playoffs last season with a torn rotator cuff. "It wasn't that it hurt so much," he says. "It's just that every throw felt different, one great, one not so great. Fighting the doubt and inconsistency, that was the biggest challenge."
•There are additional medical concerns. Let's face it, Law's a gamble, coming back from a broken foot that sidelined him for the second half of the Patriots' season in 2004. That's why the club built all those provisions into his contract. Then word got out that promising third-year defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson has an arthritic left knee. There's little or no cartilage; it's bone against bone. The team's position is that everyone knew about it before the Jets traded up in the first round of the '03 draft to get him. "No big deal," coach Herman Edwards says. "I played with the same thing." Yeah, Herm, but you weighed 194 pounds and Robertson goes 315.
•The Jets won't be the same without nosetackle Jason Ferguson, a free agent who left for the Cowboys. He's one of the league's best. He kept blockers off the undersized Vilma. "He did the dirty work," Vilma says. "I got the glory." The dirty work will be done by committee now.
•The Jets will struggle with clock management. Last year they were so concerned about it that they turned one of their assistants, Dick Curl, into a clockologist, a time-study specialist. He stood next to Edwards on the sideline, and they still butchered the clock. They also made some weird crunch-time decisions, most of which involved playing it safe, being satisfied with a field goal rather than trying to win a game boldly, aggressively, the way a young team should. In the divisional playoffs against the Steelers, the Jets took a knee to set up a 43-yard field goal--and missed--instead of going for the winning touchdown, or at least a closer shot for their kicker. Whew!
The Jets can't help but be good, given their personnel. But which is it going to be? Very good, or pretty good? --P.Z.
Adrian Jones, a fourth-round draft pick in 2004, wasn't part of the offense last year. But after free-agent right tackle Kareem McKenzie left for the Giants in the off-season, Jones was plugged into that spot. "Really light on his feet," center Kevin Mawae says of the 6'4", 303-pound converted tight end. "His toughness? Well, every day in practice he goes against Shaun Ellis, and that'll toughen a guy up in a hurry." Says Jones, "I'd rather protect the quarterback than catch his passes."
AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW
They haven't drafted a player or acquired a free agent who's gone on to the Pro Bowl since the Bill Parcells era, which ended four years ago. Yet they keep making the grandstand play--trading way up for Dewayne Robertson two years ago, signing Ty Law this year. Law was a gamble they had to take, but he's old and he's coming back from a very bad injury for a cornerback. He's the ultimate mercenary, but when he's on the field, he plays his butt off.... Let's not be too critical. They've done a good job picking up talent at the second level and coaching it up to where some of those guys are really playing well.... I think Chad Pennington's shoulder will be O.K., but I'll bet early on they stay away from plays where he has to make a hard throw, such as a sideline route. The long throws down the middle aren't as tough on the arm.... I like their offensive line. Losing right tackle Kareem McKenzie wasn't as big a deal as some people think.... Victor Hobson and Eric Barton played better than I thought they would last year, and the Jets' secondary will be better now that they stopped kidding themselves with Terrell Buckley as their nickelback. He simply killed them.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 10--6
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL): OFFENSE 3/22/12 DEFENSE 5/14/7
COACH: HERMAN EDWARDS; FIFTH SEASON WITH NEW YORK (35--29 IN NFL)
LAVERANUES COLES [NEW ACQUISITION]
DOUG JOLLEY [NEW ACQUISITION]
MIKE NUGENT (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
XPs MADE 30
XPs ATT. 30
FG MADE 24
FG ATT. 27
SACKS 9 1/2
LANCE LEGREE [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 2 1/2
TY LAW [NEW ACQUISITION]
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year) PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
11 at Kansas City
2 at Baltimore
9 TAMPA BAY
16 at Buffalo
24 at Atlanta (M)
30 Open date
6 SAN DIEGO
13 at Carolina
20 at Denver
27 NEW ORLEANS
4 at New England
18 at Miami
26 NEW ENGLAND (M)
NFL rank: T3 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .535 Games against playoff teams: 7