But a funny thing happened on the way to rebuilding and irrelevancy — the Jets figured out a way to win five games, even if it was not always pretty, and mediocrity found a home in the AFC. All of this has the Jets fighting for the No. 6 seed with six games remaining in the season … and has us wondering “What if?”
You don’t have to be Vince Lombardi to diagnose the two biggest issues on this team — the play of rookie quarterback Geno Smith and a suspect secondary that can’t stop the deep ball.
So what if two players who were key figures on the Jets over coach Rex Ryan’s first four seasons were playing for the team this year? We’re talking about quarterback Mark Sanchez and cornerback Darrelle Revis. How much better would this team be with those two still in the starting lineup?
I suspect it would be significantly better — to the point where we would be talking about whether the Jets could overtake the Patriots and win the division, not just fight for a wild-card spot.
The loss of Revis and Sanchez did not seem like as much of a big deal at the beginning of the year when everyone figured the Jets would be rebuilding. Two rookies replaced them — first-round pick Dee Milliner at cornerback and Smith at quarterback. You figured the Jets would live with the growing pains of the two players on the way to a 4-12 or 5-11 season and then the two would be better down the road because of this experience.
But now we’re talking about a possible playoff berth. Suddenly growing pains have turned into migraines for Jets fans and coaches. It has become evident Smith and Milliner are not ready yet.
Smith has been a turnover machine. The Jets have 21 turnovers as a team — 20 of them from Smith. He has 16 interceptions and four fumbles. Now, I know Sanchez is not the poster boy for ball security. He had 26 turnovers in each of the last two years. But I truly believe Sanchez would have flourished in Marty Mornhinweg’s West Coast offense this season. But Ryan flushed any chance we would have of seeing that when he chased the Snoopy Trophy in August and Sanchez suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
Would Sanchez have had a four-turnover game as Smith did on Sunday? Probably. But it’s unlikely he already would have two of those this season. He also would have thrown more touchdowns. Smith has just eight. People forget Sanchez had 52 turnovers in 2011 and ’12, but he also had 45 touchdowns over those two seasons.
Even the most ardent Sanchez detractors would have to admit if he was healthy and the backup to Smith right now instead of Matt Simms, you would think he would be a better option than Smith.
As for Revis, this is not about whether he is worth $16 million. It is clear the Jets were not going to pay that. But he was still under contract for this season. The Jets could have held onto him and then picked up a compensatory pick if he left as a free agent this offseason.
At the time of the trade, the 2013 season did not even seem like a consideration. This was about 2014 and beyond. But if the Jets had known they could contend this season, wouldn’t it have been worth considering keeping him?
You can argue the first-round pick the Jets received from Tampa Bay was worth it. The team took defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson with that pick, 13th overall, and he is a Rookie of the Year candidate. But I would argue the Jets could have taken Richardson with their own pick, No. 9 overall, instead of Milliner if they still had Revis.
Without Revis, the secondary has given up 10 passes of 40 yards or more, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. Antonio Cromartie’s play has dropped off dramatically from last season. Meanwhile, Revis, while admitting he was not himself early in the year after knee surgery, is rated as the No. 1 cornerback in football by the website Pro Football Focus. Milliner is 94th and Cromartie is 99th .
Ryan sounded like a man without any solutions to his team’s problems on Monday.
“We have to protect the football better, first and foremost on offense and it hasn’t [happened],” Ryan said. “I get it, I know it doesn’t look like that we’re trying that way. We’re trying desperately to see that this happens. We’re trying desperately to see that the ball doesn’t get thrown over our head and yet it’s pretty obvious we still have a long way to go.”
Deep down, Ryan has to know the solution to these problems were two guys who were in his locker room just a few months ago.