The NFL

November 20, 2006

Sonic Boom

Having delivered a blow to the Patriots, Eric Mangini's new-style Jets are playing with the confidence of a contender

VISITORS TO the Jets' training facility at Hofstra University on Nov. 8 might have been a bit puzzled by what they saw. In a driving rain, players and coaches splashed through their drills as loud music blared from speakers along the sidelines. For a few sessions the Jets even moved from the FieldTurf to the muddy grass. All the while the team's warm, dry indoor practice field stood in the background, unused.

As has been the case since he took the New York job last January, rookie coach Eric Mangini saw value in unconventional methods. And after the Jets had upset the Patriots, 17--14, in similarly ugly weather in Foxborough on Sunday, all that sloshing around earlier in the week suddenly made sense. "It didn't really seem like it was raining out there," said Jets wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery after the win. "Even in warmups, all the receivers were just focusing on catching the ball, just like it was any other pregame."

While the shock of the victory over New England—the Jets' first since 2002—may be subsiding, what remains is the surprise over the performance of a team that was 4--12 last year. Considering that the defense is ranked next to last in the NFL, the running game has been inconsistent and special teams have suffered serious breakdowns, this is easily the league's least likely 5--4 team. What's more, the Jets are only a game behind the Pats in the AFC East.

Much of the credit goes to Mangini. Though the league's youngest coach, at 35, he has won over his players with his no-nonsense approach and his demand for accountability. He makes players run laps for their mistakes in practice and has pop quizzes on strategy during team meetings. Just as important is how Mangini has built team unity. He has no favorites and isn't afraid to mix up his lineups to get better results. In the first six games, 32 players got a chance to start on offense or defense. "We've always said the best players are going to be playing," says general manager Mike Tannenbaum. "We go by what we see in practice, and we don't care if it's a high-priced free agent or a sixth-round pick."

Not that the Jets haven't struggled at times. Among their losses were a 41--0 beat-down by Jacksonville and an embarrassing, momentum-killing 20--13 defeat at Cleveland after they'd won two straight to get to 4--3. Until Sunday it was hard to tell whether New York was an inconsistent, immature team bound for a second-half flameout or one just beginning to find itself after some growing pains. Now it's apparent the Jets clearly fall into the latter category.

On defense their constant presnap movement and heavy blitzing kept New England's blockers off balance, resulting in four sacks of Tom Brady. On offense the Jets exploited the absence of injured Pats mainstays such as defensive end Ty Warren and strong safety Rodney Harrison. Quarterback Chad Pennington picked apart a passive secondary with short passes, completing 22 of 33 throws for 168 yards and a game-winning TD to Cotchery between two defenders. When the game ended, the Jets couldn't contain their joy over finally beating Brady & Co. "We had the feeling throughout the week that enough is enough," said fullback B.J. Askew. "It was time to go to Foxborough and get a win."

The team's resurgence under their youthful coach wasn't being taken well in New England. For the second time this season Mangini—who was Belichick's secondary coach for five years before becoming the Pats' defensive coordinator in 2005—was treated coldly by his former boss. When the two met at midfield for the postgame handshake, Mangini reached out to say a few words, but the Pats coach quickly pulled away and stalked off. No wonder. The sight of an up-and-coming coach whose team is gaining confidence for a second-half playoff run would be enough to put any AFC East rival in a lousy mood.

JACKSONVILLE QBS

Garrard Jostles For the Job

David Garrard trudged out of Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium on Sunday with a stoic look on his face, adhering to the philosophy Steve Logan, his college coach at East Carolina, taught him years ago: Never let 'em see whether you've won or lost. Out to prove he can be a full-time NFL starter, the five-year veteran Garrard couldn't let his four-interception, no-touchdown performance in a 13--10 loss to the Texans deflate him. "We didn't have our lucky rabbit's foot today," he said, summing up his team's offensive failings. Two of his four picks were on passes that went through the hands of wideout Matt Jones, and there were other costly drops.

Still, Garrard has played well enough to stoke a quarterback controversy when starter Byron Leftwich returns from the sprained left ankle that sidelined him on Oct. 29. Over the last two years Garrard has won six of eight starts, including four of five in '05, while impressing opponents with his athleticism. "[Leftwich and Garrard] are like night and day," says Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. "Leftwich has a big arm, but he might be the slowest [quarterback] in the league. Garrard can throw and run."

The question is which one coach Jack Del Rio will choose once Leftwich is healthy. Leftwich says his ankle is 80% to 90% healed, but he didn't suit up on Sunday and no date has been set for his return. In the meantime Garrard, who was Jacksonville's fourth-round pick the year before the Jags chose Leftwich in the first round of the 2003 draft, will try to prove to Del Rio that he deserves to lead the 5--4 Jaguars in their fight for a wild-card berth. For instance, in an attempt to cut down on the number of dropped balls, Garrard vowed to spend more time this week throwing to his receivers after practice. Said the QB, "I'm sure they're as hungry as I am to go out and make plays next week."

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Jeffri Chadiha goes Inside the NFL every Tuesday at SI.com/nfl.

Dispatches

Former Vikings wideout Nate Burleson, who signed a $49 million deal to return to his hometown of Seattle, finds himself a No. 4 receiver, behind Darrell Jackson, Deion Branch and D.J. Hackett. Burleson (right), who has just eight catches, is likely to see even less of the ball once Bobby Engram returns from a thyroid ailment, but he did deliver a 90-yard punt return for a TD in Sunday's 24--22 win over St. Louis.... The Colts' Marlin Jackson, a 2005 first-round cornerback, has been so impressive as a replacement for injured free safety Bob Sanders that coach Tony Dungy thinks Jackson may have a future at the position.... How to explain the surge in production from Green Bay defensive end Aaron Kampman, who has a league-best 9 1/2 sacks, three more than his career high? "He's not real athletic," says one scout. "He's not real fast. He's just always around the ball."

PHOTOGREG M. COOPER/US PRESSWIRE (BARLOW)MUDDERS Mangini (inset) is 5--4 despite a makeshift run game featuring Kevan Barlow. PHOTOJIM ROGASH/WIREIMAGE.COM (MANGINI)[See caption above] PHOTORICK BOWMER/AP (BURLESON) PHOTOBILL FRAKES (GARRARD)DIAL 9? Garrard (above) is 6--2 as a starter and offers more mobility than Leftwich.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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