WHEN A team underachieves, poor chemistry is often to blame. So it was with the Jets in 2011, the first season in Rex Ryan's three-year coaching tenure in which New York failed to reach not only the AFC Championship Game but even the playoffs. The Jets finished 8--8 amid tales of locker room bickering. And that has led the Jets to look in the mirror. "Winning cures a lot of things," says 11th-year linebacker Bart Scott. "We lose, it's like, Man, you have to go analyze why you didn't win, why you didn't reach your goal."
The self-examination started with the formerly outspoken head coach. In an attempt to set things right, a chastened Ryan has changed, most obviously physically: As of midsummer he'd lost some 105 pounds. But Ryan has also changed stylistically. For one, he is not publicly predicting a Super Bowl win for his team. "I thought it would come down only on me, not my players," he says of those past pronouncements, which sounded to many like braggadocio. "When I found out it came down on them as well as me, that's not the way I wanted it." Ryan has enlisted a mysterious mentor, whom he identifies only as his "little sensei," to help him improve his managerial techniques.
And according to Scott, who has spent his entire career being coached by Ryan (first in Baltimore, now in New York), the coach redoubled his day-to-day involvement in every facet of the team. "It's a change from last year," Scott says. "Sometimes you don't want to micromanage, be all in your coordinators' behinds and stuff like that. He's again, like, I'm going to have more input."
The question, of course, is, Will it have any impact? The Jets' defense, Ryan's hallmark, was not at fault in 2011. It was fifth in yards allowed—not quite to the standard of the coach's first two units in New York, which ranked first and third, respectively, but good enough—and, says Scott, its members were unaware of any bickering. "One of the most overreported things last year was about how our locker room was in flux," he says. "I didn't even know anything was going on."
No, the team's problems, and most of the sniping, came from the offense, which generated just 311.8 yards per game, the NFL's eighth-worst average. To inject life, the Jets brought in former Dolphins coach Tony Sparano as offensive coordinator; traded for Tim Tebow, who is likely to run upward of 15 plays per game out of the Wildcat formation and otherwise serve as a backup to fourth-year starter Mark Sanchez; and vowed to return to a hard-nosed, rushing-based style—"ground and pound," in Ryan's parlance. "Ground and pound is more a mentality and a philosophy than 'We're going to run it 50 times a day,'" says Ryan. "That may or may not happen. But when you play us, the first thing we want you to think about is stopping the run."
If that approach seems retrograde when the best teams employ ever more dynamic aerial attacks, it should. "With our personnel, we're a more physical team," Ryan says, which might be viewed as an admission that the Jets' offense simply does not have the elite talent, particularly at the skill positions, to credibly play any other way. Sanchez, beleaguered as he is, has quantifiably improved from his rookie season—his completion percentage has gone from 53.8 to 54.8 to 56.7—but a chasm still exists between him and the league's best quarterbacks, who complete about 65% of their throws. Santonio Holmes is a good wide receiver, but not so good that he can get open and make plays all by himself, as he showed last year, when he had a career-low 654 receiving yards and spent the fourth quarter of the final game sulking on the bench, a symbol of the Jets' frustrations. Tebow is a skilled scrambler, but if an NFL team can win in today's game with a 47% passer behind center—either in some combination with Sanchez, or by himself, if it comes to that—it would be a first.
All in all, the Jets' still-sturdy defense won't allow them to be bad, but unless several players on the other side of the ball make leaps in performance, they won't come close to that no-longer-guaranteed Super Bowl. The result could be more locker room unhappiness and, next off-season, even deeper changes.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 25
. Of course we want sacks, but your opponent has a lot to say about it. When they know you're blitzing, they're going to get the ball out quick, and it might be an incompletion instead of a sack." The 2011 Jets also had 35 sacks (tied for 17th) but would benefit from putting more intense pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Much of the Jets' pass-rushing onus will fall on the 6'4", 315-pound Wilkerson, a 2011 first-rounder. Wilkerson, 22, had further to go than many rookies, having played at non-BCS Temple, and with the lockout he had no off-season programs and an abridged training camp. He didn't to get up to NFL speed until late in the year as the Jets were crumbling. During New York's 1--3 finish, Wilkerson had 19 of his 49 tackles and two of his three sacks. "I expect him to have a huge year," says Ryan. "I don't want to say, 'He's going to make 10 sacks.' I could care less how many sacks he gets. Just be a dominant football player."
League-low yards per carry against substitute defensive packages in 2012. No team exploited sub packages less effectively with their run game than the Jets.
Average seconds per drop-back spent in the pocket by Mark Sanchez. Tim Tebow averaged 3.7 seconds with the Broncos last season.
Percentage of passing plays on which Bart Scott rushed the quarterback, highest in the league among inside linebackers.
MATTHEW EMMONS/US PRESSWIRE (TEBOW)
Tebow will see time as a Wildcat quarterback, part of Ryan's "ground-and-pound" plan.
TOM DIPACE (WILKERSON)