Behind their ground game and defense, the Jets become bolder and better each step of the way
As the Jets' buses rolled up to the team's San Diego hotel last Friday night, a feeling of dread came over assistant head coach Bill Callahan. The Hyatt Regency La Jolla, he was thinking, the same place the Raiders stayed seven years ago when I coached them in the Super Bowl.... Callahan was flashing back to the week when Oakland center Barret Robbins, battling depression, went AWOL and wound up in a drug- and alcohol-induced stupor in Tijuana, and the rattled Raiders lost 48--21 to Tampa Bay. The franchise has never recovered. "Bad karma," Callahan said later of his feelings on the bus. "I thought, We may have to do an exorcism."
No, they didn't. The Jets entered their AFC divisional playoff against the Chargers with a running game—built by Callahan—that had become the envy of the league in the second half of the season. That would drive the demons away.
At Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday his backs and blockers followed the instructions he had given them all season—"keep hammering away and eventually the dam will break"—and the specific order he repeated about 100 times last week: "Block the backside pursuit." Meaning the speedy San Diego defense flows to the ball so well that his troops have to beware of linebackers and safeties coming from out of the picture to make plays. Though the best running team in the NFL slammed into the Chargers' line 30 times and gained only 99 yards through the first 52 minutes of the game, the strategy was effective and was about to pay off. With New York nursing a surprising 10--7 lead and in possession at its 47 with first-and-10, left guard Alan Faneca deflected San Diego defensive tackle Ian Scott into traffic, then moved inside linebacker Brandon Siler out of the way to clear a path for rookie Shonn Greene, who burst through the stacked defense and into the clear. Greene's 53-yard touchdown gallop helped prolong one of the strangest seasons in Jets history, propelling them to a 17--14 upset and into the AFC Championship Game against the Colts on Sunday in Indianapolis.
Rookie head coach Rex Ryan's decision a year ago to retain Callahan from the staff of fired coach Eric Mangini is one of the reasons New York is one victory from the Super Bowl. True, the Chargers played like a team on an 11-game losing streak instead of an 11-game winning streak (10 penalties, no home runs from premier downfield passer Philip Rivers and three missed field goals by the most accurate kicker in NFL history, Nate Kaeding), but the Jets have quickly developed into a pesky, confident team in Ryan's likeness that excels in the elements most important to playoff football: Control the clock with the running game, avoid turnovers and, on defense, maximize the benefits of having a shutdown cornerback. Against San Diego, that corner, Darrelle Revis, allowed only one completion on passes thrown into his coverage, for minus-four yards.
"We're coming," said linebacker Bart Scott, the leader and mouthpiece of the league's No. 1 defense (252.3 yards allowed per game). "We know everyone wants to see Favre and Manning in the Super Bowl, but we're the party crashers. Watch out."
Rarely does a team in transition—in addition to Mangini's departure, Brett Favre and four other starters left or were jettisoned after a 9--7 season—make so many right moves in the off-season, but Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum did that in laying the foundation for this improbable run. First, Ryan retained the core of the offensive brain trust in Callahan and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. He likes to bounce ideas off Callahan, the only former NFL head man on the staff, and calls him "invaluable." Callahan is regarded as such a good schemer that respected Saints line coach Aaron Kromer watches tape of Jets running plays each week to get ideas.
Schottenheimer's main contribution has been as a tutor and calming influence for rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, especially in coaxing him back from two three-game losing streaks. Ryan, who likes to say, "I want coaches to want to coach here, and I want players to want to play here," was repaid last week for his decision to keep Schottenheimer. Buffalo asked the Jets for permission to discuss its head-coaching vacancy with Schottenheimer, and Ryan told the coordinator he could pursue the job. "I don't want to take the interview," Schottenheimer said. "I'm happy here. What's wrong with wanting to be somewhere you're happy?"
Four days later, at the team hotel on Saturday, Ryan was still in disbelief. "Shocked is the word," he said. "I get emotional thinking about it. Maybe it's a sign we're doing things the right way."
The play of Greene and Sanchez was also a sign that New York was on the right track. On draft day in April, Tannenbaum traded first- and second-round picks and three players to Cleveland to move up 12 spots and pick USC product Sanchez at No. 5. Then, when Greene, the Iowa running back whom the Jets had rated 19th on their draft board, was still available at the start of the third round, Tannenbaum dealt third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks to Detroit to get him. The G.M. wound up with only a three-man draft—the remaining sixth-round pick was spent on Nebraska guard Matt Slauson—but who's questioning him now? Sanchez has one turnover (an interception against San Diego) in two playoff games; Greene is the first rookie back in NFL history to rush for 125 or more yards (135 against the Bengals and 128 against the Chargers) and a touchdown in each of his first two playoff games.
"Before Ed Reed was Ed Reed and Ray Lewis was Ray Lewis, they were young players trying to make names for themselves," Scott says of his former All-Pro teammates in Baltimore. (Scott, one of six free-agent pickups who became major contributors, was another bingo acquisition by Ryan-Tannenbaum.) "That's where this team is now."
At 23, Sanchez is earning his teammates' respect as a leader with his improved performance on the field. The patience he showed on a rollout two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dustin Keller—roll, roll, slower, slower, wait for Keller to get open by a sliver while avoiding pressure, then throw—was the kind of smart, fearless play Sanchez has been making consistently for the last month.
And at 47, Ryan is proving to be the right coach in the right place. During a team meeting on Jan. 5, he revealed the Jets' itinerary through Tuesday, Feb. 9, two days after the Super Bowl: PARADE, the players read. "We thought he was crazy," guard Brandon Moore says. "But Rex was saying, You're this close to going down the Canyon of Heroes [site of ticker-tape parades in Manhattan]. Let's do it."
PETER READ MILLER
ON THE RUN Greene (above) and Thomas Jones (20) accept all handouts from Sanchez (6).