Upgrade at QB, consistently strong defense can help Jets challenge Pats:
The NFL is middle school chemistry. You have variables and controls. The variables create different outcomes, while the control is that unchanging element, the thing you can point to and say, "Well, we know that didn't cause the fire." And in a league where constant turnover is law, few controls exist. Bill Belichick is a control. Peyton Manning is a control. The controls allows at least some level of certainty. It's something the New York Jets have lacked -- at least on the surface.
Consider the coach. Rex Ryan's persona seems to dovetail with the mixed outcomes -- near-Super Bowl seasons, the lows of last place -- and it's all tattooed across the back page. The overall mixed results, a 42-38 mark in New York, would imply Rex is a source of instability.
But when you dig deeper, you realize it's the opposite. Ryan is one of the NFL's true controls. What he does -- what he truly controls on a football field -- never really changes. Ryan controls defenses, and his defenses are routinely excellent. And this year, that could be enough for the Jets to legitimately challenge for the AFC East title.
Ryan destroys passing games: It's a passing league, but not against Ryan. From 2009 to 2013, Jets defenses allowed the NFL's lowest QBR, at 40.6, with no real spike of a bad year. And it goes beyond that. Ryan's Baltimore defenses did the same, allowing an absurdly low 33.1 mark from 2006-2008. Over a nine-year period, Ryan's defense turns the average NFL QB into Chad Henne.
Ryan wrecks consistent yardage: With the Jets, his defenses are second in the NFL in yards allowed over his tenure. With Baltimore, he also was second during his four-year run as defensive coordinator.
Ryan is consistent: Using one of Football Outsiders' key metrics, Ryan's average defensive DVOA (explained here) over nine years is sixth. His average total defense is sixth. When your average is that high, you end up with this fact: Ryan has never had a below-average defense. His worst defensive DVOA was 14th. His worst YPG allowed is 17th. In nine years of controlling NFL defenses, only once was Ryan's unit even average. He's a defensive MacGyver -- give him an average D-line, a match and a roll of duct tape and he'll escape in good shape more often than not.
The only other NFL coach to run defenses as effectively as Ryan over the past nine years is Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau. Ryan has been similarly dominant; it's his quarterbacks who have been the variable that ruins things. And it's the reason the 2014 Jets can challenge for first place in the AFC East, even against a healthy Patriots squad.
The value of average
Pittsburgh has had Ben Roethlisberger with LeBeau around, and that combination is why they have three Super Bowl appearances in that time, two of them wins. The narrative could say Big Ben has been great, but most know better. Pittsburgh's defenses have been great, Roethlisberger has been situationally great, and has mostly been pretty good overall.
Over the QBR era -- 2006 though 2013 -- among QBs with 1,500 attempts, Roethlisberger is 10th in QBR. No. 11 is Michael Vick. Now, Vick is no Big Ben, but much of that is health, and time away from football, not performance.
Now consider that over Ryan's Jets tenure, the team QBR -- combining the likes of Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Matt Simms, etc. -- is a terrifying 36.1, good for 29th in the NFL. Among teams that are in the bottom 10 in QBR over that period, the Jets are the only team with a winning record. At 42-38, the Jets are 16 wins better than Jacksonville, which has the next most awful QB performance in that time.
And it goes beyond that: Over the past nine years, only twice has Ryan had a QB who was at or above average in QBR:
• In 2006, Steve McNair was sixth. The Ravens went 13-3.
• In 2009, Sanchez was 17th (his highest finish). The Jets went 11-5.
The single greatest spikes in team improvement in recent years haven't come through brilliant quarterbacking, they've come through merely OK quarterbacking. A team with terrible QB play simply becomes average in that category. In 2011 the Colts minus Manning were a disaster at QB. In 2012, Andrew Luck wasn't brilliant, he was a tick north of league average as a rookie. The Colts had a nine-win jump. In 2012 the Chiefs were awful at QB and won two games. In 2013 they added Alex Smith, who wasn't remotely great, just competent, and they had a nine-win spike. Seattle's jump with the presence of Russell Wilson also qualifies.
It is impossible for the Jets to "spike" in wins, because as long as Ryan is coaching the defense, they'll never really be bad. Last season was proof enough, when they won eight games even as Geno Smith ranked an unpleasant 34th in QBR.
So what must happen now? And why the optimism?
Vick must be ... just average
The issue for Vick is always health. We know he's played 16 games just once. But as I noted recently, Vick is safely an above league-average QB, and he almost always improves the win rates of the teams he plays for:
"Vick's record as a starter is 58-48-1. Going into 2013 (excluding 2009 when Vick sat the bench behind Donovan McNabb in his first year back from a prison sentence), his team's record when he didn't start was 13-30. You can argue that with Vick around teams weren't invested financially in another really good QB in most of those seasons, but it's impossible to argue that Vick hasn't been a significant improvement for his team over any other QB on the roster."
I hardly qualify as a "QB win" pusher, but it is the game's most important position, and when the context is reasonable it matters. When he's on the field, since 2005, Vick hasn't been a star, but he's been something safely better than the Jets have had with a QBR profile similar to a Big Ben or Eli Manning. Those guys stay healthy, for the most part. But if Vick does, evidence shows anything even remotely average sets up Ryan's teams for success.
The weapons upgrade
Improved offensive talent should help. That's why the Jets can't sit still even with the addition of Eric Decker. While Decker brings impressive recent credentials -- he was fifth in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' WR rating in 2013 (which measures how good a QB looked when throwing at him) and second in 2012 -- but the control in that experiment was Peyton Manning, so we can't say for certain Decker is a massive upgrade over, say, the departed Santonio Holmes.
Now the draft must pay dividends. The Jets are in a great position to draft the likes of LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. or USC's Marqise Lee with their first pick at No. 18 overall, and they shouldn't stop there. This is one of the best drafts at the wide receiver position in recent memory, and an added pick there or at tight end would be wise. (This week Mel Kiper suggested the Jets add two pass-catchers with their first two picks.) The recent addition of Jacoby Ford is more window dressing than impact, though Ford's speed can be useful. But it's fair to say the Jets need early impact from the draft.
The good news is that's available. As for the running back depth chart, it isn't flush with promise right now (Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory represent the two-deep), but Chris Johnson would be a great change-of-pace solution to pursue following his release from the Titans, as he's the type of explosive runner they haven't had in a while. And the draft offers a lot of depth at the position in the middle and late rounds.
The defense just needs to remain strong
When I asked a few former NFL players who have played for or against Ryan's defenses this week what defines him, I heard a range of answers. Flexible, gets guys to buy in, does an exceptional job of creating in-game scheme counters, and in every case, game planning.
"He is a master game-planner," one said. "If he wants to take away the slot, then he does it. Same goes for a No.1 wide receiver, tight end -- you name it."
What the Jets are certain to take away is any attempt to run against them in 2014. Last season, they held teams to 3.35 yards per attempt, a league-low by a wide margin. And they'll only be better up front, with Muhammad Wilkerson entering Year 4, Damon Harrison and Quinton Coples entering their third NFL seasons, and run-stopping maestro Sheldon Richardson only in Year 2.
The secondary is a concern, but should see improved play from Dee Milliner (in part because he can't be worse than he was early in 2013, not a shock for a rookie) and while neither Dawan Landry nor Antonio Allen is great at safety, a year of playing together could help. But again, the 53.4 QBR the Jets allowed last season was actually the worst of Ryan's tenure, and was balanced by a devastating run defense, which is why the Jets still managed to rank 12th in defensive DVOA. Ryan's now extensive track record points to improvement, even for a defense that was safely above average and, in some areas, dominant.
Ultimately, the Vick health variable seems the likeliest to determine whether the Jets take a step forward, or are merely average. But with the control of Ryan around, that entity that really won't change or let the experiment go too far awry, the Jets really can win just a few more games, making them a true challenger in the AFC East.