THE BELIEF Looksgrim, folks, but there's a 35-year-old coach, Eric Mangini, one of the cumlaude graduates of the Bill Belichick system, and he's switching the defense toa 3-4 with lots of variations. The Jets are going to be smart and versatileand, hopefully, respectable.
THE REALITY Whereto start? for a while, nobody was sure who the quarterback would be. Thefeatured running back looks like a memory. The offensive line is minus its ProBowl center (Kevin Mawae, gone to the Titans). The defensive line is withoutits leading pass rusher (John Abraham, off to the Falcons). There is noprototype 3-4 nosetackle to eat up gaps and blockers.
O.K., let's startwith Mangini. His finest moment came in 2004, when he was New England'ssecondary coach and everyone was getting injured. He turned a wideout, TroyBrown, into a nickelback; started a linebacker, Don Davis, at free safety; andfilled in spots with a pair of street free agents. The end product was thePatriots' third Super Bowl victory. "We were scrambling, and we gotlucky," Mangini says. "You can do stuff like that in an emergencysituation, but not for a whole season."
Chad Pennington,the quarterback, has suffered a serious shoulder injury in each of the last twoseasons. He has been carefully scrutinized on every throw and has delivered theball with a more relaxed motion than last year-not trying to drill it."I've always been a passer, not a thrower," he says. "Besides, theshoulder has had four more months to heal this year."
Curtis Martin wasthe team's emotional leader. He's also 33, and only two runners in NFL history,Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, have carried the ball more. He dragged a badknee through most of last season, finally undergoing surgery in December. Hewas inactive in training camp, and when asked about the knee, he said,"It's hard to talk about it." The Jets picked up Kevan Barlow from the49ers, but without a healthy Martin, there is no serious running game. Andright now there is no healthy Martin on the horizon.
Abraham wastraded for a first-round choice. At the time the move looked bad. Now it looksgood. Kimo von Oelhoffen, the 300-pounder the Jets brought in to replace him,is a typical 3-4 end; Abraham isn't. And the draft choice turned out to be NickMangold, a promising center.
The Jets'defensive star is middle (now inside) linebacker Jonathan Vilma, active andfar-ranging, but undersized at 230. Former first-rounder Dewayne Robertson isthe nose man. He can shoot the gap but has never been called on to control it.That's where coaching comes in.
Mangini, whocoached for 10 years in Belichick's 3-4, isn't stupid. There are a lot ofthings one can do with the inside linebackers, and forcing the 230-pound Vilmato stand tall while the 320-pound guards draw a bead on him is not one of them."He'll figure something out," Vilma says. "The system isn'tinflexible."
Nobody isexpecting great things from this team, which lacks gamebreakers on both sidesof the ball-just stability from the new coaching staff, the right players inthe right spots and concerted effort. It's a rebuilding year. A 7-9 recordwould be good, anything better than that remarkable.
24 at Buffalo
12 at NewEngland
3 at GreenBay
25 at Miami(M)
NFL rank 28
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .465
Games againstplayoff teams 5
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE JETS
> I like twoof the off-season moves, signing Kimo von Oelhoffen to play defensive end anddrafting two offensive linemen, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, in thefirst round. When you have as many holes as the Jets, it's best to start fromthe ground up, with the meat-and-potatoes players, not the flashy ones.
> I don'tthink Curtis Martin will be back, and if he is, he'll be far from the oldMartin. They don't have the kind of receivers to give them the big strikedownfield, and who knows when Pennington's arm will be right, if at all. Theyneed to establish some kind of ball control.
> Theirstrongest position is inside linebacker. Jonathan Vilma's probably their bestplayer, but Eric Barton, whom they moved inside, will surprise everyone in hisnew position.
They can't haveChad Pennington go down. Patrick Ramsey is just a backup; rookie Kellen Clemensisn't ready.
The 2004fourth-round pick from North Carolina State made a name for himself on specialteams as a rookie, and last year he started gaining note as a receiver."I'd be breaking down Jets films," says coach Eric Mangini, thePatriots' defensive coordinator in 2005, "and I could see him start toemerge in their offense. When I got here, he caught my eye again for his workin our off-season program. If he keeps working like he did, he's going to be animportant guy in our offense."
COACH ERICMANGINI (0-0 in NFL), first season with New York
D'BRICKASHAWFERGUSON (R) -- NEW ACQUISITION
NICK MANGOLD (R)-- NEW ACQUISITION
ANTHONY CLEMENT-- NEW ACQUISITION
SACKS 2 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
KIMO VONOELHOFFEN -- NEW ACQUISITION
ANDRE DYSON --NEW ACQUISITION
SACKS 3 1/2
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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DAMIAN STROHMEYER (VILMA)
¬†INSIDEJOB Vilma excelled in the middle of the 4-3, and Mangini will school him to bejust as effective in the new 3-4.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ