Fixing the Jets: A look at how personnel experts and GMs would solve team's woes
Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum walked along the far sideline of the practice field Friday and struck up a conversation with coach Rex Ryan, who clutched a play card between two gloved hands.
Out in front of them, pacing around the 25-yard line, was Tim Tebow, the backup quarterback who ended up bringing Tannenbaum and Ryan headlines and headaches, though little productivity. In 11 games, Tebow threw eight passes and completed six. He ran for 101 yards and no touchdowns.
On the 20, going through some drills, was Mark Sanchez, who started the season as the team’s franchise quarterback, buoyed by a generous contract extension that will guarantee him $8.25 million next year.
Sanchez was benched twice as his top targets fell to injury around him. He reclaimed his starting role for today only because Greg McElroy went down with a concussion. Sanchez has the most turnovers of any quarterback in the NFL over the past two seasons.
Back in the end zone, last year’s leading receiver, tight end Dustin Keller, hobbled through another rehab session on a bum ankle.
Injuries were everywhere this season.
Over the speaker system, Van Halen’s "Right Now" blared and covered up any chatter on the practice field. It is a song that typically fills packed stadiums during playoff games.
Friday, though, it was background noise accompanying the final practice of the year as the Jets (6-9) prepared to end their season today in a blacked-out, meaningless matchup with the Buffalo Bills (5-10). The outcome of the game means little, but the aftermath is crucial.
In front of Tannenbaum and Ryan on Friday, they saw a franchise at a crossroad — one that undoubtedly needs fixing and could claim both of their jobs.
But how to fix it?
Over the past week, The Star-Ledger surveyed a group of former NFL general managers and personnel executives to see how they would approach the issue. Findings varied from reassessing the value of large contract-worthy positions to some major shifts on the offensive side of the ball.
On Monday, the franchise will begin moving forward in earnest, making a plan to save it from another dreary end to another dreary season in 2013.
But until then, this is the best plan to fix the Jets.
DON'T LET A DECISION LINGER
Though a majority of the former executives surveyed did not think firing Tannenbaum was the correct action, at least one, former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist, thought if a decision were to be made, it would need to come sooner rather than later.
Sundquist, a personnel executive on the Broncos’ 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl teams and owner of five consecutive winning seasons from 2002 to 2006 as GM, remembers being let go in March 2008, right in the middle of the team’s draft meetings. It was after the NFL Combine, a critical step in the building process, and he already had 2½ days of meetings with scouts and agents.
He had operated for months trying to restack a roster for a team that went 7-9 without any assurance from upper management.
"Now, you’re like, ‘Okay, am I the guy that’s going to have those meetings we talked about?’ " Sundquist said. "Who is going to make these decisions? I mean, the only thing they can do is act as if they are that guy."
The Jets will have plenty of those decisions to make, too.
Outside of Tannenbaum — who could make a case for his return, but is rumored to be reassigned or let go, according to various reports — the Jets will need to make decisions on Sanchez and Tebow, as well as whether or not to re-sign a group of plus-value free agents, including guard Brandon Moore, safety LaRon Landry, safety Yeremiah Bell, running back Shonn Greene and Keller.
According to people with knowledge of the situation, the Jets have not made contact with Moore, Greene or offensive lineman Matt Slauson, another starter approaching free agency. Bell, Landry and Keller have admitted recently to not having any conversations with the Jets about the future.
Various reports have also suggested that offensive coordinator Tony Sparano could be fired and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine could leave.
Stability, though, often lends itself to success, even in the face of two straight seasons missing the playoffs. This is second only to being forthcoming about the changes to be made so as to not force lame-duck candidates into the building to start retooling from last season.
"Hopefully they’ll be open and honest with everybody and give them an idea of where they want to go, and that starts with ownership," Sundquist said.
RE-EVALUATE CONTRACT-WORTHY POSITIONS
There will be plenty of fuss made about Sanchez’s contract, but as multiple analysts point out, the base salary for Sanchez in 2012-13 is not in the top 10 for starting quarterbacks in either season. Only two of those QBs had more playoff victories from 2009-11 than Sanchez before the Sanchez extension was handed out.
Is it a high salary for a quarterback whose development stalled dramatically this season? Yes. Are there quarterbacks who have a much larger effect on the team’s salary cap? Yes.
According to Gil Brandt, an NFL Network analyst who worked in personnel with the Dallas Cowboys for nearly 30 years (1960 to 1989), the problem lies more in contracts like that of line backer David Harris and cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
"I think the Jets have not used the salary cap effectively and they’re battling this same problem all time — they’re fighting the cap," Brandt said.
Brandt says the core value positions are as follows: Quarterback, pass-rusher, left tackle.
Brandt wondered, with strong defensive minds like Ryan and Pettine, is it necessary to have a middle linebacker worth more than $10 million on the roster for next season? Or could you get a replacement at one-third the cost that could still learn the defense and could come close to matching production?
(According to NFLPA records, Harris made more in base salary this season than Brian Urlacher, Paul Posluzny, Patrick Willis, Curtis Lofton, Jon Beason and Ray Lewis.)
With a successful secondary coach like Dennis Thurman — Brandt says Thurman, whom he drafted in Dallas, could have success with "six high school seniors" in his secondary — does the defense need to pay three first-round grade defensive backs, including Cromartie, who could also make in excess of $10 million next season?
(According to NFLPA records, Cromartie made more in base salary this year than Charles Tillman, Antoine Winfield and Kareem Jackson, all of whom graded above Cromartie against the pass, per Pro Football Focus.)
"That helps your cap situation in a big hurry," Brandt said.
OVERHAUL THE OFFENSE AND BRING IN COMPETITION FOR SANCHEZ
Charley Casserly, an NFL Network analyst who worked in the Redskins front office from 1977 to 1999, advocates an honest and open conversation with Sparano and the offensive coaching staff before firing anyone.
Heading into today’s game, the Jets are 12th in rushing (117.5 yards per game) and 30th in passing (179.5 ypg) and total yards (297 ypg).
"I think they need to be much more wide open and creative," he said. "But I want to know what your plans were before you lost it all due to injury. Your receiving corps was basically wiped out. No continuity."
If there is a pardon to be given there, all were in agreement that Sanchez is not the long-term solution at quarterback.
"The quarterback is not the answer," Brandt said. "Pete Caroll, who I think is very good, recognized that (at USC). From the outside looking in, Sanchez has got the ability, but does he have the work ethic to execute that ability?"
Added Casserly: "I’m not sold on Sanchez. If he has to be here, that’s fine, but you have to bring competition in."
The consensus is to add a veteran who can push Sanchez forward and become an everyday starter if he wins a training camp battle — specifically one with tenure in the league.
Tebow, obviously, was not that solution heading into this season because the Jets coaching staff did not start him when presented with two separate opportunities.
Names thrown around include Alex Smith, the 49ers recently replaced starter with an exceptional completion percentage (70.0) this season, and Matt Moore, a versatile quarterback in Miami who was bypassed for rookie Ryan Tannehill.
TRUST IN THE ROOKIE
In 2009-10, the Jets had the fewest number of selections in the NFL Draft, with three and four, respectively. In 2011, the Jets had six selections and kept five players. In 2012, the Jets had eight selections and kept six. From each of those last two drafts, they attained two starters and three role players used, at least, occasionally (including Greg McElroy).
Brandt believes stockpiling rookies — who are more NFL ready than ever — is the quickest way to heal some cap woes. The salaries, and egos, are more under control. The number of picks kept and usable players needs to rise.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the NFL is on pace to shatter the number of rookie starts in a season and had already reached 498 in Week 10.
Though it’s not the most certain route, it may be the necessary one at this point for the Jets.
"Get these younger players to come in and play, alleviate some of your cap problems," Brandt said. "The players that come into the league are so much more ready to play than they were before."
* * *
After the conversation ended at practice Friday, Ryan left Tannenbaum, went over to align his defense for a drill and smiled as the offense lined up to counter.
The work is what drives Ryan, keeps him focused during a time when even the results of last week’s labor won’t change much. At the most, it means the difference between 7-9 and 6-10, a no-man’s land in the NFL — too bad to make the playoffs and too good to dream of a top-three draft pick. The near future is out of Ryan’s hands now, just like it is Tannenbaum’s.
When times were good, and the Jets were roaring to a second straight AFC Championship Game in 2011, both would often say they are in the win business, and that when business is good it’s never as good as it seems.
Conor Orr: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/ConorTOrr
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Fixing The Jets: A Look At How Personnel Experts And Gms Would Solve Team's Woes
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