There have been signs, albeit subtle ones, that point toward a
New York Jets turnaround in 1996. Sure, there are the obvious
improvements, such as the additions of free-agent quarterback
Neil O'Donnell and the team's No. 1 draft pick, all-everything
receiver Keyshawn Johnson. But consider the job status of backup
linebacker Kyle Clifton.
At the end of the '95 season, the 13-year veteran won the Dennis
Byrd Award, which is given annually to the Jets' most
inspirational player. In past years this honor seemed to carry a
hex. The team opted not to re-sign the last two recipients of
this award--safeties Lonnie Young and Ronnie Lott--following
their prizewinning seasons. Clifton, a seldom-used linebacker
who excels on special teams, had a contract that expired at the
end of the year. But times are changing in New York. In April
the front office decided that keeping around the team's locker
room leader wasn't such a bad idea and invited Clifton back for
Finally the Jets are learning from their mistakes. In 1995,
after the team became the first in NFL history to average less
than 9.5 yards per completion, Jets president Steve Gutman
persuaded coach Rich Kotite to release offensive coordinator
Zeke Bratkowski and hire Steelers mastermind Ron Erhardt. Armed
with Kotite's assurances that he wouldn't interfere with play
calling, Erhardt brought instant credibility and optimism to the
woefully inept offense.
Within four weeks of hiring Erhardt, the Jets landed the coach's
prize pupil in Pittsburgh, signing O'Donnell to a five-year,
$25 million contract. Having already picked up free-agent
tackles David Williams and Jumbo Elliott, the Jets' offense was
turning so much fat into muscle that Cindy Crawford would have
been jealous. "Suddenly it's a little bit different around
here," Clifton says. "You see guys who have done well in the
league. The experiences they've had should influence everybody
Erhardt's influence will be most obvious on passing downs. Last
year he helped redesign the Steelers' bland offense,
incorporating a five-receiver set. New York will employ the same
formation--Kotite's experimental, two-tight-end set is a thing
of the past--with new wideouts Johnson, second-round pick Alex
Van Dyke and free-agent pickup Jeff Graham lining up alongside
second-year players Kyle Brady and Wayne Chrebet. Graham, who
played with the Bears the last two seasons, was O'Donnell's
teammate in Pittsburgh from 1991 to '93.
There's no doubt the work ethic at the Jets' complex on Long
Island has been affected by the new arrivals. Erhardt arrives by
7 a.m. almost every day to study film and explain his schemes to
any skill players wandering the hallways. Team officials
estimate that 95% of New York's predraft roster participated in
the off-season workout program, the highest turnout in team
history. "I think we have reason to be excited," says Kotite.
"We have to make it happen, but I think we have the resources to
do it." Credit Kotite with having the confidence to hand over
the offense, his former specialty, to Erhardt. Kotite appears to
have learned--a common theme these days for the Jets--from his
hands-off approach with the defense last season.
Defensive coordinator Jim Vechiarella installed an attack-style
scheme in training camp last year that seemed to baffle most
Jets early in the season. The defense's problems were further
compounded by the absence of middle linebacker Marvin Jones, who
missed the first six games with a badly sprained right ankle.
But with Jones filling the gaps over the last 10 games, New
York's pass defense ranked first in the league.
Jones, Mo Lewis and Bobby Houston make up the best linebacking
unit in the AFC East. ("Let's say we have the potential to be
the best in the league," says Lewis.) With NFL Defensive Rookie
of the Year Hugh Douglas looming up front at defensive end and
feared cover man Aaron Glenn roaming the secondary, the defense
will keep the team in plenty of games while the offense gets
In New York, the Jets are known as a spring team. Buoyed by a
decent free-agent signing or two and some high draft choices
five months before the first snap, the Jets annually convince
themselves that they have a chance. Then they fall on their
faces when the weather turns cold.
This autumn, however, the Jets may prove that at last they've
learned their lessons well.
COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/ROSATO PHOTO INSET [REGIONAL] Can Neil O'Donnell fire up New York?
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Douglas, with 10 sacks in '95, heads the Jets' top-ranked pass defense. [Hugh Douglas]
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 79.9 (30) 174.3 (28) 254.2 (30)
DEFENSE 126.0 (25) 171.3 (1) 297.3 (6)
A Flying Start
Last year, as an undrafted rookie from Hofstra, Wayne Chrebet
started all 16 games and led Jets wideouts in receptions, with
66. (No other undrafted rookie even started the season opener
for his team, much less every regular-season game.) In 1980 San
Francisco running back Earl Cooper set the alltime NFL rookie
record for receptions, with 83; Chrebet's 66 catches were the
fifth most by an NFL rookie wideout.
Most Receptions by a Rookie Wide Receiver
1960 Bill Groman, Oilers 72
1967 Jack Clancy, Dolphins 67
1981 Cris Collinsworth, Bengals 67
1995 Joey Galloway, Seahawks 67
1995 Wayne Chrebet, Jets 66
PLAYER TO WATCH
Last December, soon-to-be-free-agent Adrian Murrell was asked
whether he thought he would be playing in New York in '96.
Before Murrell could answer, fellow running back Ronald Moore
beat him to the punch. "They have to sign him," said Moore.
"Adrian's the franchise." Although Murrell, a '93 fifth-round
pick, started only nine games last year, he led the team in
yards rushing and receptions. Even with the many additions to
the Jets' offense this off-season, Murrell, who signed a
four-year, $6 million deal in April, will still be the main man
in New York's backfield.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Head coach: Rich Kotite
QB Neil O'Donnell[*] 416 att. 246 comp. 59.1%
2,970 yds. 17 TDs 7 int. 87.7 rtg.
RB Adrian Murrell 192 att. 795 yds. 1 TD
FB Brad Baxter 85 att. 296 yds. 1 TD
TE Kyle Brady 26 rec. 252 yds. 2 TDs
WR Keyshawn Johnson (R)[*] 90 rec. 1,218 yds. 6 TDs
WR Jeff Graham[*] 82 rec. 1,301 yds. 4 TDs
WR Wayne Chrebet 66 rec. 726 yds. 4 TDs
LT Jumbo Elliott[*] 6'7" 308 lbs.
LG Roger Duffy 6'3" 305 lbs.
C David Alexander 6'3" 285 lbs.
RG Matt O'Dwyer 6'5" 294 lbs.
RT David Williams[*] 6'5" 300 lbs.
PK Nick Lowery 24/24 XPs 17/21 FGs
LE Marvin Washington 6 sacks 0 fum. rec.
LT Erik Howard 2 1/2 sacks 1 fum. rec.
RT Matt Brock 5 sacks 2 fum. rec.
RE Hugh Douglas 10 sacks 2 fum. rec.
OLB Bobby Houston 3 sacks 0 int.
MLB Marvin Jones 1 1/2 sacks 0 int.
OLB Mo Lewis 5 sacks 2 int.
CB Aaron Glenn 1 int. 0 sacks
SS Victor Green 1 int. 2 sacks
FS Gary Jones 2 int. 0 sacks
CB Otis Smith 6 int. 0 sacks
P Brian Hansen 99 punts 41.3 avg.
PR Jeff Sydner 17 ret. 10.5 avg.
KR Ron Carpenter 20 ret. 27.7 avg.
[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)