Boston Sports Forum Commentary
Del N. Jones
The Patriots are the safe pick. Once again the Bills are the sexy pick, while the Dolphins are the sentimental pick.
Try the forgotten pick.
The New York fly boys have been under the NFL radar this preseason as most prognosticators feverishly measure who will do what in the AFC East in 2004. The gritty division that houses the Super Bowl champion Patriots as well as the imploding Dolphins, can yield an easy winner or a tough choice.
The Jets are trapped somewhere in the middle of those predictions, because of a disappointing 6-10 season in 2003 after making the playoffs the previous two campaigns.
But with a emerging star at quarterback fully recovered from a major injury and a defense injected with more youth and speed, the Jets may surprise some people in the AFC this year.
"Camp is going well," Jets head coach Herman Edwards recently told reporters. Edwards will try to guide his team to the playoffs for the third time in four years. "The young guys are starting to feel a lot more comfortable with what weíre asking them to do on offense and defense, and guys are starting to flash and make some plays. Itís become a competitive camp on both sides of the ball, and thatís what you want."
The Jets are considerably better this year by merely getting their best player completely healthy for the start of the season. Quarterback Chad Pennington returned to training camp with no further problems from the broken left wrist he sustained last August. Pennington was ready for a big season last year after leading the Jets to the division title and a playoff win in 2002, but when he fractured and dislocated his left wrist against the Giants they loss the first five regular season games under Vinny Testaverde and never recovered.
Pennington threw for 3,120 yards and 22 touchdowns versus only six interceptions for a 104.2 quarterback rating in 2002. He resembled Tom Brady in terms of pure talent and intangible winning qualities, but Pennington never got totally comfortable in the final 10 games of 2003.
Right now the 28-year-old Marshall product is trying to regain the form that made him one of the best young QBs in the league.
"I feel good about everything and I feel like we keep making progress," said Pennington, who looked sharp in the Jets' preseason opener, going 3-for-5 for 32 yards in a 10-play drive that resulted in a field goal during New York's 23-13 loss at New Orleans.
While Pennington's full recovery is a plus, the Jets need a much better performance by their defense to be taken seriously in the AFC East and beyond. A slow-footed bunch finished the 2003 campaign 28th in the league against the run and 20th in overall defense. Those numbers compelled Edwards to fire defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and split company with veteran linebackers Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones, and defensive backs Aaron Beasley and Sam Garnes.
This year's defense will be run by newcomer Donnie Henderson, a defensive innovator. Henderson, the former defensive backs coach in Baltimore, has already shown a Bill Belichick/Romeo Crennel flair in the strategy department and will work from both a 4-3 and a 3-4 alignment this season. New York hopes that will take advantage of the play-making skills of rookie linebacker Jonathan Vilma (Miami) as well as the raw talent of second-year defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson (Kentucky), taken with the fourth overall pick in last year's draft.
Henderson also plans to experiment with defensive end John Abraham by putting him at linebacker in certain packages, and using the overall speed of a much younger defense.
Apparently the Patriots aren't the only ones trying to be creative with personnel.
"I tell them, 'Try to not let the ball go where it is designed to go,' " Henderson said of his general philosophy. "So, if it is designed to go inside, make it go outside, and if it is designed to outside, make it go inside. If we can do those things, we will be O.K."
Once again Curtis Martin (1,308 yards on 4.0 yards per carry in 2003) will be the primary ball-carrier for the Jets on offense behind an offensive line that added guard/center Pete Kendall to help Martin get into the end zone more than just two times a year ago. New York ranked 25th in rushing offense.
Wide receivers Santana Moss (74 catches, 1,105 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Wayne Chrebet will be joined by Justin McCareins, who came over from the Titans to become another target for Pennington and a group that finished the season as the 14th-best passing offense in the NFL.
When healthy New York clearly has the weapons to win games, but if the Jets are to be real contenders they will have to stop the run consistently. It's a focus that the team understands, but it won't be its only point of emphasis.
"It took the cowboys a long time to go from the East to the West on the wagon train, and all of a sudden, they discovered the airplane," said Edwards. "That's what happens in pro football. You sit up there with the wagon train trying to stop all those gaps, then all of a sudden that jet starts flying over you and big touchdowns start happening to you. That can get ugly."
If things come together for the Jets, they could make things ugly for their neighbors in the AFC East.
NEW YORK JETS
*Last Year's record: 6-10
*2002 record: 9-7 AFC East Division Title
*Key Players: CHAD PENNINGTON, CURTIS MARTIN, SANTANA MOSS, JONATHAN VILMA (rookie), DONNIE ABRAHAM
*Toughest games: at Miami (Oct. 3), at New England (Oct. 24), at Buffalo (Nov. 7), Baltimore (Nov. 14). New England (Dec. 26)
This is Part One of a four-part Preview of the AFC East for 2004. Next Monday BSF will preview Buffalo (Aug. 23) followed by Miami (Aug. 30) and the Patriots (Sept. 6)
Commentaries by Del N. Jones are posted on Boston Sports Forum every Monday. His weekend columns can also be read in the Saturday/Sunday edition of The Patriot Ledger or at patriotledger.com.