In 2010, as the New York Jets were getting started on the most entertaining season of Hard Knocks of all-time, Rex Ryan stood in front of his team and said that the best place for a team to be is up high, where the expectations are great. The year before, the Jets had flown under the radar, surprised a ton of people, and nearly made the Super Bowl, in large part because of Rex Ryan, his coaching, and his ability to motivate his players.
With all due respect to Rex, in retrospect he was wrong about those comments he made on that first episode of Hard Knocks. The best place for a Rex Ryan team to be is where they were heading into 2009 — when nobody believes in them, when everyone is writing them off. Rex is at his best when he can rally his troops by pulling the “Nobody believes in us” card. That worked wonders in 2009 (and the 2010 playoffs, just ask the Patriots), and if you fast forward to 2013, there are an awful lot of comparisons to be made between the two teams. This year’s team has been written off. There are low expectations. The QB position is unsettled and there’s a hungry, underrated defense waiting to be unleashed. While a trip to the AFC title game is unlikely, the blueprint is there for this year’s Jets team to be like they were in ’09. The comparisons are aplenty…
Quarterback – Heading into 2009, The Jets had a hotshot rookie battling it out in training camp with an underwhelming young veteran. Sound familiar? The only difference this time around is that the hotshot rookie, Mark Sanchez, has become the underwhelming veteran four years later. Sanchez mostly struggled during his rookie season on his way to a 12 TD, 20 Interception season while Kellen Clemens was relegated to clipboard duty.
This year, the hotshot rookie is 2nd round pick Geno Smith, who many people are very high on. Sanchez is likely to start the season, and in spite of how terrible he was last year, this year’s quarterbacking is almost certainly going to be better than it was back in ’09 (and in ’12). The main reason for this is the addition of established offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who is the first proven play-caller that Rex has had on his staff during his Jets tenure. While Sanchez will never be an All-Pro, he’s more likely to play like he did in 2010 than he did in 2009 under Marty’s watchful eye. And if he doesn’t, Geno Smith will be waiting in the wings to take the job and run with it. Edge: 2013
Running Game – It’s unrealistic to predict the Jets running attack this year will be better than it was in 2009 when they led the league, but there are definitely comparisons to be made, as the foundation of this year’s team will also be the ground game. Playing the “Thomas Jones Workhorse” role will be Chris Ivory, who regular readers around these parts will know we are extremely high on. Ivory is unlikely to match the 331 carries Jones logged that year, but if he can stay healthy, he can definitely approach 300 and will likely surpass Jones’ 4.2 average. Jones was a fan favorite and was extremely productive as a Jet, but Ivory is a more explosive runner. If he can be even close to as durable as TJ was, then the Jets could have something very special.
In the 3rd down back role will be Mike Goodson, who has a lot of Leon Washington in him. After Leon went down with an injury mid-way through that season, the Jets lacked a pass catching option out of the backfield. Getting a full season out of Goodson will be huge, because he can break an 80-yard touchdown at any time and provides an excellent change of pace. Bilal Powell gives the Jets with a runner who can backup both Ivory and Goodson in their respective roles, and this could be the year a role is finally carved out for Joe McKnight as well. As a whole, the Jets ran 607 times for 2,756 yards in 2009, which are both unlikely to be matched this year. However, if Ivory is able to stay healthy, there is no reason this can’t be amongst the most productive running attacks in the NFL, just as that team was. Edge: 2009 (with potential to change if Ivory lives up to the hype)
Receivers – There is no denying that this year’s receiving corps looks absolutely terrible on paper as of now. Santonio Holmes is likely to start the season on the PUP list, and we probably won’t see him before week 7 as he recovers from injury. That leaves Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill as the starters, with a veteran WR expected to be signed as camp begins. It’s a weak group for sure, but guess what, the 2009 receiving corps was pretty terrible as well heading into that season. That year the starters week 1 were Jerricho Cotchery and Chansi Stuckey, with David Clowney in reserve. It was not until the week 5 trade that brought in Braylon Edwards did the WR group begin to look respectable (Ironically, it may be Braylon Edwards who is brought in again in 2013 to improve the WR corps).
Dustin Keller started at tight end that year and racked up 45 catches for 522 yards. If Kellen Winslow is healthy, he along with Jeff Cumberland should easily surpass those numbers and give the team two solid receiving options down the middle of the field. Cotchery was an underrated player as a Jet who should have never been let go, but Jeremy Kerley has a pretty similar game and can be nearly as productive as J-Co was. As shocking as this may seem, this year’s Jets team actually has a better group of pass catchers than that 2009 team did, especially once they bring in another veteran to compete. Slight Edge: 2013
Offensive Line – This is where the 2009 team has a major advantage. The offensive line that year was tremendous and certainly better than the group we will see in 2013. The ’09 versions of Woody, Faneca, and Moore are all better than their counterparts this year, but that doesn’t mean this year’s line will be bad. Austin Howard solidified the right tackle position last year and is an elite run blocker. Willie Colon will be better than either of the 2012 guards, and if/when Brian Winters wins the other guard spot, he will give the team much-needed athleticism on the interior and a mean streak to go with it. This group won’t steamroll defensive lines like they did four years ago, but it still has the potential to be one of the better lines in the league. Big Edge: 2009
Defensive Front – With the way Rex runs his defense, with hybrid fronts and moving players all over the place, in this category I’m counting the defensive linemen and outside linebackers. In 2009 that group consisted of Shaun Ellis, 6 games of Kris Jenkins, Sione Pouha, Mike DeVito, Marques Douglas, Bryan Thomas, Calvin Pace, and uhhh… Vernon Gholston. This year’s group includes the Artist Formerly Known As Calvin Pace, Quinton Coples, Antwan Barnes, Garrett McIntyre, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Kenrick Ellis, and Antonio Garay.
There is no question the Jets defense in 2009 was tremendous. Jenkins was absolutely dominant, but he was long gone by the time December rolled around. That was probably Pace’s best season, and he’s a shell of the player now that he was then. Pouha, DeVito, Douglas and Thomas were all very good role players that season, and while Ellis was nearing the end of his career he was still very good. However, I think this year’s group up front can actually be much better, and the reason for that is the pass rush.
In 2009, the Jets got pressure on the QB mainly because of Rex’s exotic blitz schemes. This year, Rex actually has players who can beat 1-on-1 blocks and get to the QB. Wilkerson is one of the best young players in the league, Coples is primed for a double-digit sack season, Barnes has recorded 11 sacks in a season before, and Richardson is an extremely promising rookie. If Ellis and Garay can combine to be close to the run-stuffing force Pouha was in the middle, then this year’s group up front can be one of — if not THE — best in the NFL, especially with Rex Ryan and DL Coach Karl Dunbar around. Edge: 2013
Linebackers – This is strictly the inside linebackers here. In 2009 the group consisted of David Harris and Bart Scott who both played pretty much all the time. This year, a declined version of Harris is still around, and Demario Davis will be taking over for Scott. Harris was tremendous in 2009 as he led the team in tackles and chipped in 5.5 sacks and 2 interceptions. Scott didn’t put up the flashy stats, but he was a dominant run defender and a big reason why the team was so stout against the run. This year, Harris is likely to rebound from a subpar 2012 with better players in front of him and more athletic players next to him, and Davis brings that much needed speed and athleticism to defense. Davis has a chance to be a terrific player in Rex Ryan’s system, but until he proves himself, this position group is nowhere near the 2009 version, unfortunately. Edge: 2009
Cornerbacks – Obviously the 2009 team had Darrelle Revis, who was quite possibly the best defensive player in the league that season. Actually, scratch that. He WAS the best player in the league that year and got robbed in the DPOY voting, but that’s neither here nor there. Revis alone makes that team’s CB group terrific, but beyond him it was actually pretty poor. Lito Sheppard was a bust as a Jet to such a degree that he was benched before the biggest game of the season in the playoffs for Drew Coleman. Speaking of Coleman, while he was an effective blitzer, he was putrid in coverage, which is kind of a big deal for a cornerback. Donald Strickland missed nearly half the season, and Dwight Lowery had yet to establish himself.
This year’s version has lost the great Revis, but features a top-5-or-so CB in the league, Antonio Cromartie in the “Island” role, which he excelled at in 2012. Behind him is #9 overall pick Dee Milliner and former First Round pick, Kyle Wilson. Lions import Aaron Berry and Darrin Walls provide great depth and round out what can be an excellent group. Despite no Revis on this year’s team, I would actually take this year’s group as a whole thanks to Cromartie being able to do a pretty solid Revis impression and a much, much better 2-5 behind him. Slight Edge: 2013
Safety – This along with the offensive line are the two positions where the 2009 team were far superior to this year’s team. Most Jets fans have very fond memories of Kerry Rhodes, but 2009 was not his best season, as he was actually benched at one point for the immortal Eric Smith. That’s not to say the 2009 Rhodes wouldn’t be a huge upgrade on this year’s Jets team. Actually, the 2013 Rhodes might be a huge upgrade for this Jets team (but don’t hold your breath awaiting a Jets reunion). Jim Leonhard was limited physically, but he was always in the right spot and had a very good year in 2009. This year’s safety crop is a huge question mark. Dawan Landry should step in and play well since he knows Rex’s system and still has some gas left in the tank, but next to him are 2nd-year players Antonio Allen and Josh Bush. Neither one played much as a rookie, and it’s a major leap of faith to think either one will take the job and run with it. Keep your eye on this battle in training camp, because it wouldn’t be shocking to see another veteran brought in to compete. Big Edge: 2009
Conclusions – It’s easy to just dismiss the comparison between the two teams since that 2009 squad ended up going so far, but to do that would be a mistake. The expectations were not very high heading into that season, and the only real excitement was due to our new bombastic head coach, Rex Ryan. Well Rex 2.0 is here now and he’s a wiser version of that guy we were introduced to four seasons ago. He may have lost a few (ok, more than a few) pounds and may not be throwing out the same wild guarantees, but he’s still the same terrific football coach, and the Jets are lucky to have him. Rex knows his back is against the wall, and you can fully expect him to come out swinging this year and when all is said and done, don’t be surprised if come playoff time, more people are comparing this year’s team to that 2009 team.
There is something very familiar about this 2013 team. The power running game, the ferocious defense led by Rex Ryan who is again calling the defensive plays, and a hotshot rookie QB waiting in the wings. Is it likely that 2009-type results are in the future for the 2013 Jets? Probably not. But if a few things go right, and they catch a break or two, it’s certainly possible. Don’t count out Rex Ryan. Don’t count out these Jets.