NHL Playoffs: Gearing Up For Game 7

Rob Celletti gears up for game 7 of Rangers/Senators

Man oh man, was I wrong.

In my first round preview, I predicted a fairly easy five-game win for the Rangers in their series over the Ottawa Senators. instead, what’s played out over the last two weeks has been nothing short of an epic clash featuring everything that NHL playoff hockey is all about. In addition to some wonderful and timely goals, there has been tight checking, physical play, and unsung heroes emerging from both sides.

Ottawa has simply answered the bell in this series. I criticized them for not being physical enough to compete with the gritty Rangers, yet Game 2, which really changed the tenor of this series, saw Ottawa become the physical aggressors. They have played on the edge, and sometimes over it, but it caught the Rangers off-guard. Ottawa has been the better team in this series.

Make no mistake, the Rangers have not played well. They’re no offensive juggernaut, but the nearly 200-minute shutout streak put together by Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson from the 2nd period of Game 4 through the 2nd period of Game 6 was nonetheless frustrating and flabbergasting. But with their season on the edge, Brad Richards, he of the 9-year/$60 million contract signed last July, stepped up and justified the money invested in him, leading the Rangers to a season-saving Game 6 victory.

So now, Thursday night arguably becomes the best New York sports night of the year so far. Two area Game 7’s (Devils vs. Panthers in addition to Rangers/Sens), the NFL Draft (which of course, TOJ has been all over), and the Knicks’ season finale.

I refuse to make a prediction, I just look forward to watching the first Rangers game 7 at MSG since June 14, 1994.

New York Rangers: NHL Playoffs First Round Preview

Rob Celletti previews the New York Rangers series versus the Ottawa Senators and the rest of the NHL’s opening round

On Thursday, Madison Square Garden’s “other” tenants begin their push for what is often called the most difficult trophy in sports to win: The Stanley Cup.  The New York Rangers, winners of the Atlantic Division crown and the number one seed in the Eastern Conference will face an interesting test from their first round opponents, the Ottawa Senators.

Having watched an overwhelming majority of the Rangers 82-game regular season (it’s true, I have no life), this matchup seems like a blessing when compared to what seemed like the most likely scenario just a week ago: a rematch with the Washington Capitals, who swiftly knocked the Rangers out of the first round last season in just 5 games.  Yes, the roles were reversed – the Caps the #1 seed last year, the Rangers #8 – but the Capitals remain extremely dangerous because of the presence of Alexander Ovechkin, one of the few non-goaltenders in the modern NHL capable of dominating a series like Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky in decades past.

Instead, the Rangers face an Ottawa team that is front-loaded with skill and speed, but one that is neither very deep nor very tough. The Rangers made their mark this season playing playoff-style hockey throughout their 82-game schedule.  They paid extraordinary attention to defense, blocked a ridiculous amount of shots and relied somewhat heavily on their goaltending. When playing their best, the Rangers are also a very physical team that’s capable of scoring enough, despite what some pundits think (2.71 goals per game, good enough for 11th in the league). Their previously woeful power play has shown signs of life during the final few weeks of the season.

While it’s true that an average goaltender (like Ottawa’s Craig Anderson) getting hot can change the tenor of a series and render the seedings meaningless, it’s hard not to pick the Rangers to sweep this series based solely on the goaltending matchup.  Henrik Lundqvist is slowly but surely entering the mainstream of the New York sports lexicon (the New York Times’ 5-page profile on him from over the weekend is evidence enough) and has not hesitated to mention that he already feels like “the clock is ticking” on his chances to win a Stanley Cup.  The motivated Lundqvist put together a season that should net him the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. But he wants to accomplish much more than that.

If Lundqvist plays at a high level and the Rangers avoid major injuries, they’re expected to make a deep playoff run this spring  In terms of this first round series against Ottawa, I expect the Rangers to – pardon the cliche – pound Ottawa into submission. They’re simply a more physical team that has been through one of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding regular seasons in team history. Ottawa’s top line of Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson poses a threat, but the Rangers boast arguably the best pair of shutdown defensemen in the NHL in Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who will no doubt spend most of their time opposite the Senators’ stars. In addition to the Rangers usual scoring suspects Marian Gaborik (3rd in the NHL with 41 goals) and Brad Richards (playoff MVP for the Cup-winning Lightning in 2004), look for Brandon Dubinsky to have a big spring as well.

Prediction: Rangers in 5

And now for quick predictions on the other 7 first round series in the NHL:

Eastern Conference

#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington – Capitals in 6

#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey – Devils in 5

#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Philadelphia – Penguins in 7

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Los Angeles – Canucks in 6

#2 St. Louis vs. #7 San Jose – Blues in 7

#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Chicago – Blackhawks in 6

#4 Nashville vs. #5 Detroit – Predators in 7

New York Knicks Linsanity: Going Forward

Rob Celletti how will Jeremy Lin mesh with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire when they return?

Last night’s third episode of MSG’s new hit series “Linsanity” was a lot like the first two: exhilarating, uplifting, improbable and ultimately satisfying.  Jeremy Lin has single handedly revived a Knicks team that was practically dead in the water at 8-15 and given New York hope that its basketball team might make something of its 2012 season after all.

Lin’s first two NBA starts are statistically comparable to Isiah Thomas and LeBron James. Pause and read that sentence again. Furthermore, his coach tacitly compared him to Steve Nash. Don’t mistake me for a D’Antoni supporter – I honestly believe he was the main reason for the team’s inexcusably bad start – but the coach knows a thing or two about point guards.

The excitement over Lin is palpable, and even though he’s only played a significant role in three games, it’s very possible that the Knicks have found their solution at point guard. So now the question is, what happens when Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire return?

The Knicks’ offensive efficiency problems have been well-documented since they traded for Carmelo Anthony a year ago. The terms “volume shooter” and “ball-stopper” are commonplace in the Knicks fan’s vernacular. Many analysts don’t believe it’s possible for Stat and ‘Melo to coexist with just one basketball between them.

These are real problems. But if Mike D’Antoni is, as advertised, an offensive guru, now that he has a functioning point guard at his disposal, I think it’s reasonable to expect the Knicks to play at a very high level once their superstars return. Here’s why:

First of all, there might not be a better finisher at the basket than Stoudemire, especially off the pick-and-roll. That’s the bread and butter of the D’Antoni system and Lin has already proven that he can execute it. His instincts are top-notch in terms of whether to keep the ball, pass it to the roll guy, or kick out to an open shooter.

Then, there’s ‘Melo. Make no mistake, I’m a big Carmelo Anthony fan. I’m about as steadfast in my defense of the trade as I am in my defense of Mark Sanchez, which if you know me, is pretty steadfast.  The point is that Anthony is one of the best pure scorers on planet Earth right now and any team with him on the roster is potentially dangerous. But he needs to be deployed the right way, and D’Antoni’s experiment with him at point-forward failed miserably.

Ideally, Anthony will live in his favorite spot on the floor: the wing. Except he won’t start with the ball on every set. Maybe the Knicks screen for him and get an easy bucket on a backdoor cut. Maybe when Lin drives, Anthony’s defender will leave him to help on Lin, and Anthony will have a wide open 18 foot jumper. And yes, there still should be some isolation plays in the Knicks’ arsenal, because there’s no denying ‘Melo’s 1-on-1 talent when he’s firing on all cylinders (see last year’s legendary 48-point performance vs. Boston in the playoffs).

Most importantly, Lin makes the Knicks deeper, allowing them to slot the rest of their players into their natural positions. Iman Shumpert and (hopefully) Toney Douglas will be the energetic combo guards off the bench. Steve Novak and Bill Walker the outside threats, and Jared Jeffries the defensive specialist. If Baron Davis ever gets healthy, he’s certainly not a bad guy to share the backcourt with Lin and show him the ropes in the NBA.

Don’t expect the hysteria to last forever, but at the very least, Jeremy Lin has brought some energy back to the Knicks. Now, the team needs to sustain that success, especially when its two superstars return.

What The Jets Can Learn From The Rangers

What the New York Jets can learn from their city counterparts, the New York Rangers

One of the ways I’ve been able to distract myself from the ulcer-inducing aftermath of the 2011 New York Jets has been to focus on another New York team that I’m extremely passionate about: the New York Rangers.

In case you don’t know (and you might not, since “the worldwide leader in sports” has chosen to bury hockey for the last decade, especially now that it no longer broadcasts hockey games), the Rangers currently stand tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for the best record in the entire NHL.  Say what you want about the Giants, but the New York Rangers have been this city’s most consistent winner since October.  Still, it was no easy task to get to where the Rangers are, and they really aren’t all that close to the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup anyway; almost three months of regular season, plus four grueling playoff series stand between them and hockey nirvana.

However, I began to think: maybe the Jets could learn a thing or two from the Rangers, despite the fact that hockey and football are two entirely different sports.  The history of these two teams is not all that dissimilar.  Flashes of past glory, but a tradition that consists mostly of disappointment for a large, passionate fanbase.

For those of you not well-versed in Rangers history, here’s the Cliff Notes version:  They have won exactly one championship in the last 72 years.  For the last two decades, the Rangers have largely built their team by bringing in high-priced free agents with flashy names (sound familiar?), with only one instance of success: 1994.  After Mark Messier, the Rangers inked the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Holik, Pavel Bure, Jaromir Jagr, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, with results ranging from one-and-done playoff appearances to complete and utter disaster.

So, it was time to shake things up.  Sometime within the last six or seven years, the Rangers have instead focused on building their roster through the draft and minor league system.  They brought in a coach with a specific style and personalty and have stuck with him (rather than firing him for missing the playoffs in the 2009-2010 season), allowing the players to mature.  They have supplemented a very young roster with shrewd trades and yes, one or two big-money free agent acquisitions.

Here are five lessons the Jets can learn from the Rangers:

Lesson 1: Patience

When the Rangers hired coach John Tortorella in the winter of 2009 after firing Tom Renney, the organization began to change its philosophy.  The changes were subtle at first, and they would take time to implement.  The first lesson the Jets could learn?  Patience. Tortorella knew that the roster he inherited in 2009 was not one that could win a championship. The goal was, instead, was to simply improve the team on a day-by-day basis, not only in hockey terms, but also in terms of how it was built (read: slowly, and through the draft). “One step at a time” might be the most insufferable sports cliche of them all, but it has become the Rangers’ mantra. Now in 2012, three full years later, they are seeing the results of that approach.

Lesson 2: Leadership

One of the organization’s goals was also to cultivate an internal leadership group among the players so that “the locker room could sustain itself,” as Tortorella likes to say. Sounds like the complete opposite of the Jets, doesn’t it?  One of the most direct comparisons between the two teams across completely different sports is the choosing of captains. Football has even gone so far as to copy hockey and put the letter “C” on the designated player’s uniform.  Tortorella’s choices for captains (one player gets a “C” and two get “A”‘s as alternate captains, for the uninitiated) were easy:

Ryan Callahan, captain – a player who embodies the Rangers’ aggressive yet responsible style of play and leads by example; 4th round pick (127th overall) in the 2004 draft.

Marc Staal, alternate – when healthy (he missed roughly the first half of the season with a concussion and is just getting his feet back under him after about 10 games now), one of the best shutdown defensemen in the NHL; 1st round pick in the 2005 draft.

Brad Richards, alternate – Richards was the Rangers big free agent splash last summer, but he played under John Tortorella in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  That team won a Stanley Cup; Richards was the playoff MVP, awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. Tortorella felt that Richards was the perfect veteran role model that some of the younger Rangers needed to show them how to be a professional, on and off the ice.

Lesson 3: Identity

Perhaps what doomed the Jets even more than their locker room squabbles was the loss of their identity as a team that wanted to dominate the line of scrimmage, run the ball, and play great defense. Ground and Pound was forgotten. The Jets were all of a sudden slow at linebacker and were gashed by opposing running backs more than anyone could have predicted.  What could they learn from the Rangers in this regard?  Pick your style, embrace it, stick to it, and build your team around it.

The Rangers have become one of the toughest teams in the NHL to play against.  They’ve allowed the 2nd fewest goals in the league.  They are built from their net out, with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist providing the foundation that the team stands on. If quarterback is the most important position in football, goalie is that position in hockey. The Rangers are covered there, as Lundqvist is putting together another Vezina Trophy caliber season as one of the league’s best goalies.

The similarities between the teams are more obvious than you’d think. Neither the Rangers defense-first approach nor the Jets “ground and pound” mantra will consistently score style points or entertain the masses. They leave open the possibility of close, late losses, simply because the offense might not generate enough goals or points.  But they are both effective philosophies that, applied over the long-haul, can lead to consistent winning.

Lesson 4: Narrow the Focus

Earlier this week, Madison Square Garden Chairman James L. Dolan made a bold proclamation that the Rangers were “close” to winning a Stanley Cup. John Tortorella quickly fired back, calling that “a bunch of bullshit”. Tortorella wasn’t trying to embarrass his boss, rather, he was trying to keep his team’s focus where it should be: on the next game. Cups are not awarded in January.

Super Bowls are not awarded in June.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Jets often let their focus stray too far down the road.  I’m not saying the Super Bowl shouldn’t be the goal every year, because it should be.  But it might be time for Rex Ryan to shelve some of his dramatic predictions (no matter what their motives actually are) and just focus on winning the next game.  In all professional sports, there’s an element of “grinding” through a long season to get to where you want to be.  The 2011 Jets were not a team that was willing to grind (their losses to the Raiders and Eagles are great examples of this, I think) through the less exciting parts of their schedule.

Lesson 5: The Right Amount of Swagger

There’s a fine line in all sports between confidence and cockiness. A team is in danger though, when it begins to believe its own hype. Part of what made the Jets successful in 2009 and 2010 was their brash, “we can beat anybody” attitude. The other side of that coin is the overconfidence that this cultivates, and results in a season like 2011.

The Rangers are never going to be guaranteeing victories in the media before games (unless Mark Messier laces ’em up again), but the belief in their ability is there.  The team plays with a quiet confidence. Young defenseman Michael Del Zotto has said repeatedly that coach Tortorella urges him to play “with swagger”.  The message is there, it’s just not broadcast.

So there you have it: five lessons that the Jets would be well-served to learn from their unlikely hockey counterparts before they kick off their 2012 campaign.  There are plenty of football-specific moves that need to be made, and will be discussed ad nauseum here and plenty of other places.

In the meantime, I urge even non-hockey fans flip on MSG (provided you’re not subject to the Time Warner Cable/MSG Network mess) and take a look at a team that has been New York’s most consistent winner since October. There’s a lot to like.

New York Jets: A Report From The Road

What is it like traveling on the road to watch the New York Jets play?

I had the pleasure of making a road trip down to Washington, DC last week for the Jets’ at times frustrating yet ultimately very satisfying 34-19 win over the Redskins.  As usual, the game has been discussed at length and everyone is rightfully looking forward to the task at hand: the Kansas City Chiefs.  But I wanted to quickly recap some of the non-game facets of the trip.

There has been a fair amount of criticism in this space and elsewhere regarding the atmosphere at Jets games, the shortcomings of MetLife Stadium, the behavior of Jets fans and so on. All of that criticism is still justified, but after visiting FedEx Field, I realized that things in East Rutherford might not be so bad after all.

A friend of mine, who lived in Washington, DC for four years, described FedEx Field as “a soulless venue.”  This mostly has to do with the fact that the Redskins have had five winning seasons and four playoff appearances since 1992. Still, there was little to no energy in the building at kickoff.  As a matter of fact, about half of the stadium was empty, and people were still finding their seats with as late as 1:45 left in the first quarter. The Jet crowd (and most New York crowds nowadays) is notoriously late-arriving, but it has never been like that.

One cool moment occurred after the Redskins scored a touchdown on the opening drive.  After the extra point, the Redskins Marching Band (yes, they have a band, and yes, it sort of makes you feel like you’re at a high school game) broke into “Hail to the Redskins”, with the entire crowd singing along.

As an aside: I’m a big soccer fan and part of the reason I became one was the incredible atmosphere at English Premier League games. Hearing 40,000 people sing in unison to spur on their team is something that struck me, even only on television. So even though “Hail to the Redskins” has a decidedly college football feel, I was reminded of a soccer crowd. But in terms of positive atmosphere and energy from ‘Skins fans, that was it.

From a road fan perspective, I expected to sit quietly and watch the game, so as not to draw the attention and ire of the home crowd. However, section 430 at FedEx Field might as well have been section 317 at MetLife stadium, as there were hundreds of fellow gang green supporters nearby.  As the game progressed, my exaltations (and frustrations) were expressed out loud, with no threat of retribution. As a matter of fact, it seemed like ‘Skins fans were indifferent to the result of the game.

Seeing so many Jets fans at a road game renewed some of my faith in what I called one of the most negative fan-bases in sports just last week. Almost every fan I came in contact with was positive about the team, excited about the game and ready to show their support on the road.

They always say that the Steelers and Packers travel best, but when roughly 15,000 Jets fans at FedEx Field made the “J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets!” reverberate through vacated seats and concourses, I knew the trip was worth it.

New York Jets Fans Need Attitude Adjustment

Rob Celletti on the attitude adjustment needed from New York Jets fans to help create some type of homefield advantage

It all makes sense now.

As I watched Mark Sanchez give his post-game press conference in the aftermath of Sunday’s sloppy but exhilarating win over Buffalo, the third-year Jets quarterback never once even came close to cracking a smile.  After such an emotional and important win, the quarterback exuded zero positive energy.  He said, stone-faced, that he was “thrilled” with the win, but his body language suggested otherwise.

Sanchez was certainly being self-critical, as he was well aware that outside of two drives, he didn’t play well.  But I also think he was still bristling, with a bruised ego, at the lack of support he and his teammates received from their supposed home crowd.

Jim Leonhard revealed today in an interview on WFAN that he and presumably a good number of his Jets teammates were miffed at the fact that their starting quarterback was booed by the MetLife Stadium faithful.  No, not during the game (though that happened too). BEFORE the game.  During pre-game introductions; the organized theatrics that are designed for the sole purpose of pumping up both the team and the fans for an important game.

And come to think of it, did Sanchez celebrate any one of his 4 touchdown passes on the day? There was an article earlier today noting that Sanchez was actually caught on camera in a noticeable rage after the go-ahead score, screaming at an unidentified coach/teammate.

It’s hard to articulate how infuriating, stupid, shortsighted, classless and wholly “Same Old Jets” this situation is. Yeah, I just dropped those three words.

Because this is what Jets fans did BEFORE Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez and the change of culture that those two men have brought about. Before Rex, the media and fans surrounding the Jets couldn’t wait for their athletes and coaches to fail so they could release the hounds. Unlike any other fan base in sports, it seems that Jets fans particularly relish these moments.

Most notably and recently, they did it to Chad Pennington, who was guilty only of playing hard and playing hurt. Congratulations, Jets fans.  You ran Chad out of town (he went and won the division the next year, by the way). And in return, you got Kellen Clemens and Brett Favre.

But I digress. The point is that those days were supposed to be over. Those days are over. But that doesn’t mean the Jets are an invincible force. This year, they’re just another team scrapping for a playoff spot.  There’s nothing wrong with that, especially after making it to two consecutive AFC Championship games.

So why are we not proud of this team?  Why not revel in the excitement of meaningful football in November and December?  Why not cheer as loud as possible to give the Jets a boost rather than kick them while they’re down?

Why do we show up at MetLife Stadium (about 50% of us at least 15 or 20 minutes late) and boo the starting quarterback before the game starts? What does this accomplish? And what does this say about the franchise?

Perhaps because of Rex’s blustery personality and endless Super Bowl guarantees, Jets fans expect the team to go 16-0 every year. Those are unreasonable expectations. As are the expectations that Mark Sanchez will become Peyton Manning overnight just because this is supposed to be the Magical Third NFL Season. Keep in mind that Ryan and Sanchez are probably the two biggest reasons that 2009-2011 have been three of the most successful years in Jets history, even in the midst of all the most recent struggles.

The bottom line is that Jets fans need to change their attitude, or they’re going to be at least partly responsible for returning that all too familiar toxic, losing atmosphere to East Rutherford, NJ.

New York Jets: Wins Are Good, Right?

Rob Celletti wonders what it will take to keep New York Jets fans happy

It is a funny game they play in the National Football League.  Sometimes, the post-game discussion and analysis is even funnier.

This past Sunday, the New York Giants won an important home game against the upstart Buffalo Bills.  A 24-24 nailbiter turned on a late red zone interception by the Giants’ Corey Webster, setting up a game-winning field goal for Big Blue.

On Monday morning, the New York media heaped praise upon Tom Coughlin’s team, and rightfully so.  The Giants were feeling “Super” (wink, wink) at 4-2 heading into their bye week, and Eli Manning was praised as an elite quarterback, despite not throwing a touchdown pass in the Giants’ victory (and nearly being intercepted to kill the eventual game-winning drive).

On Monday night, at the very same stadium, the New York Jets won a game by 18 points, against a division opponent that always challenges and plays them close.  Similarly, this game also turned on a red zone interception, complete with a highlight film 100-yard run-back, the only moment which garnered a significant reaction from the lifeless MetLife Stadium crowd.  Darelle Revis’ goal-line interception righted the ship for the Jets, who settled in for an eventually comfortable, if imperfect 24-6 victory.

But if you picked up a newspaper, logged onto a blog, or listened to a sports-talk radio show on Tuesday, you’d have thought the Jets lost.  The main talking points hadn’t changed much from what they were when the Jets were mired in a 3-game losing streak: the quarterback was inconsistent, the running game was not explosive, the defense gave up too many yards.

Isn’t winning supposed to be fun?

I am aware that the Buffalo Bills are a much better football team than the Miami Dolphins, who are probably now considering full tank-mode so they can draft Andrew Luck.  But my point in comparing the two scenarios is to bring to light just how asinine and absurd some of the post-game analysis of the NFL truly is.

A lot of people made the point on Tuesday that if Revis’ pick-six doesn’t happen, there’s a strong chance the Jets don’t recover from a 10-0 deficit and lose the game.  First of all, there’s no way to prove that.  Secondly, how does the Giants game turn out if Webster doesn’t make his interception?  For that matter, how does any NFL game turn out if key plays don’t happen, or go the other way?  That’s what makes them key plays, right?

And really, that’s what it is all about in the NFL.  The salary cap makes it arguably the most competitive pro sports league in the world.  The “any given Sunday” cliche is one that actually holds true, especially in division games, where you always throw records out the window.  A lot of NFL games are decided by one or two plays.  The Giants were praised for theirs, the Jets were scolded.

Again, I’m under no illusions here.  I know the Dolphins are a lost cause, and that the Jets need to play much, much better football, especially at the start of games.  I’m not apologizing for what I think is a defense that has some holes personnel-wise and an offense that is being held back by their offensive coordinator.  But, the Jets won a game and are right back into their season now.  And oh yeah, they won by 18 points, thoroughly dominating their opponent in the second half.  People seem to have overlooked that.

Perhaps it’s a product of Rex Ryan’s change in the culture of the team, but it seems as though Jets fans are not satisfied with anything other than a 63-0 victory in any contest.  It has gotten a little absurd, quite frankly.  And if you think back to last year, the Jets weren’t exactly juggernauts, either, despite all of the good will an 11-5 season and a 2nd straight AFC Championship Game appearance created.  They needed 4th quarter comebacks and/or overtime to beat some below-average competition.  Their defense looked just as vulnerable last year (at times) as it does this year, especially on third downs and late in games.

People predicting a special season this year from the Jets were probably a bit misguided, which has led to an enormous amount of criticism – some justified, some not – of this .500 team so far.  But in the NFL, it often boils down to one or two plays in a close game.  The Jets aren’t currently great, but they’re probably not far off either.

TOJ Week 2 Roundtable: Jets/Jaguars Key Match-Up

What is the key match-up in the Jets/Jaguars game?

Joe Caporoso: I am going to say the New York Jets linebackers against Maurice Jones-Drew. With Mercedes Lewis likely out, Jones-Drew is the only person who you have to worry about gashing the Jets defense. It is key the Jets keep him contained and force Luke McCown to make some throws to keep the game competitive and considering the Jaguars wide receivers versus the Jets secondary, I doubt that will happen.

TJ RosenthalGround and Pound vs Jags run defense: The Jaguars come into the game second in the NFL against the run. We know. It has only been one week and a rusty Chris Johnson had a mere nine carries last week for the Titans. However, the Jets come into the game still searching for their rushing attack. The Cowboys took the run away from the Jets. The Jags have a slew of free agents that were added to Jack Del Rio’s unit. It is time for Shonn Greene to get it going early in a season.

Rob Celletti: The key match-up this week – and it is one I think the Jets will ace – is their front seven vs. the Jags rushing attack (Maurice Jones-Drew).  To me, MJD is the only person that can really hurt the Jets and make this game close if he has a huge day. The Jets got some great play from Mike DeVito, Sione Pouha and Bart Scott in week 1, so if those same guys contribute again and are joined by the rest of the bigs up front, the Jets will stuff the run and – absent some truly boneheaded plays on offense and special teams – be on their way to a win.

Ground and Pound? Looking at the Jets Running Back Situation

Just four days into training camp,  Rex Ryan and his Jets have fired off their usual array of verbal salvos: They’ve already uttered Super Bowl guarantees and boasts about how this is “the best roster” in Ryan’s tenure.  But one surprising talking point has been in regards to the Jets’ offense, and how they plan on placing more of the burden on Mark Sanchez and the passing game.

While this is something that many Jets fans have been clamoring for (myself included), it’s also something that may give them reason to pause.

For two seasons, the Jets have not only survived, but thrived on their “ground and pound” philosophy, particularly in the cold-weather months at the business end of the season.  But perhaps the Jets’ shift to a more passing-oriented offense is a function of the Jets’ personnel in the backfield, which is far from a sure thing.

Everyone is ready to jump on the Shonn Greene bandwagon, but the only person that really matters in that equation is Greene himself.  His first two seasons with the Jets have been inconsistent; flashes of brilliance one week, absolutely nothing the next.  His game logs prove that point pretty well, so the question remains: can Greene shoulder the load over the course of an entire 17 week season, plus playoffs?

Greene is the de facto number-one because LaDainian Tomlinson is a year older.  After a fantastic start to 2010, Tomlinson’s production predictably dipped as the season wore on, though he remained a valuable option in spots and was an important safety valve for Sanchez as a receiver out of the backfield, especially on 3rd down.  This will be the 32-year old’s only role in 2011, and rightfully so.

Beyond Greene and Tomlinson are nothing but question marks.  Joe McKnight could barely handle training camp last season, forcing the Jets to put him at the mercy of Mike Westhoff on special teams.  Rex even toyed around with the idea that McKnight could play cornerback.  Aside from his monster performance in the meaningless Week 17 game vs. the hapless Bills, McKnight has shown the Jets absolutely nothing that should make them comfortable about him as their third-best running back.  If Greene or Tomlinson is injured, can McKnight fill either player’s void effectively enough?

Beyond McKnight is Bilal Powell, who thus far in camp has yet to really challenge McKnight for the third spot on the depth chart.  It’s early, but how much can the Jets realistically expect out of the rookie?

The Jets’ shift to a more passing-oriented offense is both exciting and nerve-wracking.  Plaxico Burress has already tweaked an ankle, Jerricho Cotchery waits in limbo, and we all know Brian Schottenheimer’s playbook often leaves a lot to be desired, especially in the passing game.  The Jets are still going to need a strong running game, probably one that ranks in the top 10 of the league, in order to get where they want to go this season.  Time (and injuries) will tell if that’s a realistic goal.

Two Decades of Jets Quarterbacks – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

TOJ would like to welcome another new writer to our staff, Rob Celletti…weclome aboard! – JC

Some people love to watch players like Ray Lewis and Troy Polamalu lay out an unsuspecting wide receiver, others love the rush of a long kickoff return by Brad Smith. Me? I always watch the quarterback.

I don’t just watch the quarterback when a play starts.  I watch the quarterback warm up.  I watch his interactions with coaches and other players.  I watch his mannerisms in the huddle.  If I’m lucky to be at the game, I try to read the defense along with him (not hard from row 23 of section 317 in the New Meadowlands, from which the game looks like a Google Maps satellite photo). 

In my first article here at TOJ, I will look at the Jets quarterbacks that I have watched during my two decades as a fan.  No, the Jets have not been blessed with an all-time great quarterback since Joe Namath. Yet, there have been bright spots sprinkled among some ugly seasons.  So here they are: the Jets quarterbacks, from 1993-2010, in reverse chronological order* –

*This list only includes primary starters and completely disavows the existence of Brett Favre and the 2008 season, the year that made me believe I was going to give up on this team for life.

Mark Sanchez (2009 – present)

What you love: From a technical standpoint, Sanchez is relatively gifted. He doesn’t have the biggest arm but makes up for that with his ability to scramble, improvise and make a big play out of nothing.  He’s a smart kid with the right demeanor for New York and a great work ethic, but the most important thing is his ability to perform in a big spot.  Just take a look at the playoff statistics (all road games).

What you hate: Sanchez has problems with accuracy and decision-making, and the numbers bear that out.  He’s completed less than 55% of his passes and thrown  33 interceptions through his first two full seasons.  Though I don’t want to get into the “body language” discussion, it’s pretty clear that when things go bad for Sanchez, they can snowball rapidly.  He allows his bad throws to turn into bad quarters and his bad quarters to turn into bad games.

Best season 2010 – Led the Jets to an 11-5 regular season record and a second consecutive AFC Championship Game.  Threw for 3,291 yards, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.  He led the Jets on three consecutive game-winning drives in the 4th quarter/overtime in weeks 9-11.

Worst season: 2009 – Sanchez’s rookie campaign was wildly inconsistent. He gave fans everything from his inspiring debut vs. the Texans to the infamous color-coded wristband.  Still, Sanchez showed he could compete at the NFL level and win road playoff games.

Chad Pennington (2002 – 2007)

What you loved: Did anyone get more of a kick out of proving people wrong than Chad Pennington?  He was such a fierce competitor and leader, which is what ultimately made the Pennington story so difficult to swallow for so many Jets fans.  With an average-at-best arm battered by numerous injuries, Pennington kept coming back. What made that possible? His football acumen. Outside of Peyton Manning, I don’t believe there was a smarter quarterback in the league during Chad’s time. Also, did anyone throw a better fade route from the half-yard line?  I kid, but Pennington was arguably (and actually IS, statistically speaking) the most accurate Jets passer of all time.

What you hated: The injuries.  Pennington just couldn’t stay healthy, to the point that it became sort of laughable.  The end of Pennington’s Jets career was particularly painful and unjust, as he was released so the Jets could sign Brett Favre.  Of course, Chad had his revenge, leading the Dolphins to the AFC East Championship in 2008, clinching the crown against the Jets at the Meadowlands.

Best season: 2002 – Pennington burst onto the scene in relief of the aging and ineffective Vinny Testaverde. He took over a floundering 1-3 team, and even though he lost his first start, rallied the Jets to a 9-7 record and an AFC East Championship (thank you Travis Minor). The numbers were mind-boggling (in 12 starts): 3,120 yards, 22 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, a completion percentage of 68.9% and a passer rating of 104.2 (both Jets’ single-season records).

Worst season: 2007 – For the most part, the Jets had successful seasons when Pennington was healthy, but that was always the problem, wasn’t it?  2007 was the beginning of the end. Kellen Clemens took most of the snaps as the year progressed, as the Jets were just 1-7 in Pennington’s starts and finished an abysmal 4-12.

Vinny Testaverde (1998 – 2003)

What you loved: Being born in Brooklyn didn’t hurt him, but Vinny is one of the most beloved Jets of all time.  He was a classic pocket passer with a cannon of an arm.

What you hated: Vinny was notorious for his killer interceptions and fumbles.  For his career, Testaverde threw 275 touchdowns, but also 267 interceptions, many of them complete head-scratchers that cost his team games.

Best season: 1998 – Bill Parcells acquired the 35 year-old Vinny and taught the old dog some new tricks,  turning him into an efficient, nearly turnover-free machine.  He threw for a single-season Jets record 29 touchdowns and completed nearly 62% of his passes.  Testaverde led the Jets to a 12-4 record, the AFC Championship game, and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

Worst season: 2000 – After rupturing his Achilles Tendon in 1999, shattering the Jets’ momentum coming off one of the best seasons in team history, Vinny came back at age 37 and put together some respectable games in leading the Jets to a 9-4 record after 14 weeks.  But it’s hard to forget how this year ended, in complete and utter heartbreak, with three consecutive losses to the Raiders, Lions (at home) and Ravens.  That loss to the Ravens, on Christmas Eve, is one of the all-time great Jet collapses, largely due to Testaverde’s implosion, in which he threw 3 interceptions and lost two fumbles.

Neil O’Donnell (1996 – 1997)

What you loved: I’ll abstain.

What you hated: Everything?

Best season: 1997 – It’s easy to focus on the negative with O’Donnell, but when Bill Parcells became the Jets’ coach, he coaxed a decent season out of his quarterback, by mostly keeping him on a short leash.  If nothing else, O’Donnell stopped turning the ball over (just 7 interceptions in 460 attempts). The Jets were one win away from the playoffs after going 1-15 in the previous season.

Worst season: 1996 – Started 6 games, lost all 6 and was benched in favor of Frank Reich after an “injury” during pre-game warmups.  The Jets were on their way to an infamous 1-15 season.

Boomer Esiason (1993 – 1995)

What you loved: Long Island born and bred, Boomer came home to play for the Jets after Cincinnati traded him for a third round pick.  Boomer was the consummate professional and deserved better during his time in New York, as he played under three different coaches during the end of the Hess ownership.

What you hated: Though Boomer was more a victim of circumstance and suspect coaching under Bruce Coslet, Pete Carroll and Rich Kotite, he was never the All-Pro quarterback for the Jets that he was in Cincinnati.  As a matter of fact, the Jets had two chances to make the playoffs with Esiason at the helm in 1993 and 1994, but their offense was downright anemic at the end of both seasons.

Best season: 1993 – Boomer made the Pro Bowl in his first year as a Jet, throwing for 3,421 yards and 16 touchdowns (the NFL was a different animal back then).  The Jets finished with an 8-8 record, and even though the offense sputtered down the stretch, fans were optimistic, at least about the quarterback position.

Worst season: 1995 – Boomer went down with a major concussion and missed four games, but that’s not what sunk the Jets to 3-13 in 1995.  The aging Esiason completed just 56.8% of his passes, was intercepted 15 times, and had nearly a career-low 5.8 yards-per-attempt.  The Jets record was 2-10 in the games he started.

It’s been a roller coaster ride for Jets fans in terms of quarterbacks throughout the last two decades. Mark Sanchez has a few things on his side that none of his predecessors did, namely his youth and a stable coaching staff/front office/ownership situation which fully supports him. It’s now up to Sanchez and the Jets to build on the experience from his first two seasons and translate that into consistency, more wins, and a Super Bowl.