Of all the things the NFL does well — and that list is long — selling hope is probably what it does best. The idea that your team is a tipped pass here, a made field goal there away from a playoff appearance. After all that, once you’re in, who knows? Just listen to your local sports-radio station and listen to New York Jets “super fans” talk themselves into expecting wins on the upcoming schedule: “I mean, we’re not losing to the Bills at home, and we get the Pats late… They may have clinched by then! I gotta tell ya’, I think we can get to 10 EASY.”
With the Jets, don’t be that guy.
Not this year, anyway.
To be honest, we can count on one hand the amount of times we have went into a season and thought “Oh yeah, they’re good. People need to look out for the Jets this year.” The Parcells years — right up until Vinny Testaverde blew out his Achilles — brought with them that sense. And the 2010 offseason, where Woody Johnson finally got to spend like a proper New York owner (no salary cap) and brought in LaDainian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie to add to a squad that shocked just about everybody the prior year in making it to the AFC Championship game.
The mantra of “Play Like a Jet!” didn’t just seem like nonsense fan bluster (in heavy supply, despite their sad history), it seemed real.
But, of course, it wasn’t.
It never really is with the Jets.
Now, three years removed from that spending spree, the check has come due, and left in its wake a team with little hope on the offensive side of the ball, and little depth all around.
The sticking point with the 2013 Jets is that the perception of them will be much worse than the actual product that takes the field in Week 1 vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thanks to Mark Sanchez’s oftentimes comedic struggles (insert Buttfumble gif), and a memorable season of Hard Knocks that makes it appear as though head coach Rex Ryan is more Blutarsky than Belichick, the overriding theory on the Jets is that they will Keystone Kops their way to a 2-14, 3-13 campaign.
Yet, the reality is probably worse than even that. As in most sports, you really don’t want to be mediocre. You want to be at the mountaintop, or in the cellar, so that you might start a quick rebuild. The fact is that the Jets defense is probably going to be very good, with Ryan taking back primary control of the unit, and front seven that boasts emerging star Muhammad Wilkerson up front, along with explosive second-year players Kenrick Ellis and Quinton Coples, means teams expecting to move the ball on the ground will find that task fairly difficult.
The big question here is in the secondary, where the Jets need Anotonio Cromartie to continue his Pro-Bowl play and rookie Dee Milliner has to adjust to life in the NFL faster than current nickelback and 2010 first-rounder Kyle Wilson did. If Milliner lives up to his billing, and Sanchez isn’t giving them short fields to defend all season, this unit could shine.
But has there ever been a bigger “if” in recorded history? Even if Mark Sanchez finally takes the leap and justifies all the press he’s received, justifies the huge extension given to him by now departed GM Mike Tannenbaum, justifies the attention gifted to him by simply existing as a quarterback in New York, he’s still surrounded shaky skill-position players and an offensive line that no longer boats four Pro Bowlers.
Yes, Mark Sanchez could become a decent NFL quarterback and we might never even know it.
A proposed running back committee of Mike Goodson, Chris Ivory and Joe McKnight could feature none of them due to injuries or legal issues, respectively. Instead, Billal Powell — a fan favorite but hardly an every-down NFL back — could be your opening day starter. Throw in a wide receiver corps unsure if it will get Santonio Holmes back from his Lisfranc injury, Stephen Hill who has battled injuries and an inability to consistently catch the football (sort of a big deal for an NFL wide receiver), Braylon Edwards whose best days are behind him, and you’re looking at Jeremy Kerley or Clyde Gates attempting to shake Darelle Revis (of all people) in Week 1.
Not to mention that Sanchez’s favorite target, tight end Dustin Keller, has fled to Miami and yes, folks, this offense could be a dumpster fire.
So where does that leave us? A team that won’t do much scoring, but won’t surrender much either — at first. No matter how talented the staff on Rex’s defense may be, no matter how exotic the blitz schemes he draws up, nobody is going to stop the offenses in today’s NFL for 60 minutes. The potential for dreadfully boring football games looms. Seventeen weeks of 13-9 football games is nobody’s idea of fun Sundays in the Fall.
So what of “hope”? What’s a perfect world for Jets fans in 2013? Sanchez relieved of duty by rookie quarterback Geno Smith? Who then inherits a unit with both proposed running backs and Santonio Holmes intact in time to lead them on a miraculous playoff berth, only to (best case) be thumped by the Broncos in the second round?
Or is it the other way? Sanchez remains, does Sanchez things all year, the defense is hit with key injuries and the Top-10 Worst Teams Countdown on NFL Network gets a new applicant, which leads to a new coach, Jadeveon Clowney and the cycle begins anew?
Sadly, what will actually happen will fall somewhere in the middle. Not good enough to challenge the Pats in the AFC East, but not bad enough to score a once-in-a-lifetime stud like Clowney. Good enough to keep Ryan around for one more year, but bad enough that Geno Smith gets the keys somewhere around Week 5 and Sanchez is probably out of football this time next year. And maybe by then the brainstrust of Johnson and Idzick will have a plan that will get this franchise back to respectability it seemed to be on the cusp of seizing for good just a scant three years ago.