After an ugly loss in the season opener to the Baltimore Ravens that was all too reminiscent of many close games from last year, a familiar phrase could be heard from the mouths of Jets fans as they piled out of the New Meadowlands Stadium: “Same old Jets.” After an off-season of almost unprecedented national media attention, New York’s Monday night debacle raised serious doubts about a team Rex Ryan proclaimed “Super Bowl bound” only a month earlier. But since the disappointment of opening night, the Jets appear to have righted the ship. Thanks to a more confident Mark Sanchez, a rejuvenated LaDainian Tomlinson and timely plays by their defense, a five–game winning streak has placed them alone at the top of the NFL standings, and the Jets appear to be back on course.
In the three weeks following the loss to Baltimore, the Jets managed to knock off all of their AFC East rivals – the Patriots, Dolphins, and Bills – with relative ease, but wins in Week 5 and Week 6 would not come so effortlessly. The Jets faced serious fourth quarter adversity in each game and yet somehow managed to pull out the victory. In postgame interviews after beating Minnesota and Denver, several players reiterated the point that these were games that could not have been won as recently as last year. Mark Sanchez, for instance, claimed the win against the Broncos, “definitely couldn’t have [happened] last year. I know that for a fact.” Right guard Brandon Moore furthered that sentiment, adding that against Denver, “Guys were excited in the huddle. I don’t think it was like that in the past. There was always maybe a little doubt, like, ‘Can we get it done?’ This time, going into the huddle, I felt something was going to happen.”
In other words, Sanchez and Moore essentially admitted that if the Jets fell behind last year, the game was about as good as over and everyone knew it. Despite having the top rushing attack in the league, opposing defenses were content to load the box with defenders, daring Sanchez to beat them through the air. When the offense did manage to get a lead, the Achilles’ heel of the ’09 Jets was the defense’s tendency to shut down the opposing offense the entire game up until it really mattered: the last drive of the game. In losses to Jacksonville, Buffalo and Atlanta – all inferior teams – Ryan’s vaunted defense was able to hold each offense in check all game, only to wear themselves out and eventually allow a game-winning, fourth-quarter score.
So, despite the fact that the loss to the Ravens had Jets fans feeling like it was “déjà vu all over again,” in more recent weeks the 2010 Jets seem to have addressed the glaring deficiencies that held them back in the past. Last season the corner playing opposite Darrelle Revis was routinely abused, so New York traded for Antonio Cromartie, who is having a Pro Bowl season. After Week 1, Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer decided to abridge the playbook and simplify the game plan for Sanchez, which has enabled him to gain a better command of the offense, avoid the confusion that led to hesitancy and turnovers and play with confidence. And, finally, they acquired future first-ballot Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, who seems to have discovered the fountain of youth in the swamps of New Jersey. LT already has more touchdowns than he had all of last year and is averaging a healthy 5.3 yards per carry.
These personnel upgrades at three of the most important positions on the field are all examples of slight roster tweaks that have worked out brilliantly for the Jets, helping the team to build cohesiveness and bring about team-wide improvement. This year, when the defense hasn’t played up to form, the offense has been there to bail them out and when the defense has needed a big stop, they have gotten it. Against Denver, Sanchez recorded the first fourth-quarter comeback of his young career. The weekend prior, just when it seemed like the wheels were coming off as Brett Favre and the Vikings mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback, the defense instead maintained their collective cool and waited for Favre to throw one of his signature late-game interceptions. As defensive end Shaun Ellis explained, “We said, ‘Let’s just keep playing, he’ll throw us one. We were just waiting for him to show up.” And when he did, the Jets were ready to pounce on the mistake. Dwight Lowery, the fourth cornerback on the roster, recognized the Vikings’ formation from film study and stepped up to make a play on a quick throw, picking off Favre and taking it back to the end zone to seal the game. In this way, small improvements have translated into big-time wins for the Jets, who have now upgraded their status from that of a mid-level playoff team to legitimate Super Bowl Contender.
When Ryan took over the team in February of 2009, he made it clear that his number one priority was to change the losing atmosphere that plagued the franchise. The Jets have long been known for the 40-year drought since their last Super Bowl appearance and their alleged second-class status in New York behind the Giants. But in year two of the Rex Ryan era, with the Jets at 5–1 and brimming with confidence, this finally appears to be changing. Jets fans can only hope the team recognizes what has gotten them to where they are now and continues to take the season one game at a time.