Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Fresh Face
By Ben Valentine

The year of the “Rookie Coach” continues.

Tuesday the Jets made official the hiring of Patriots' defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, making him the fourth brand spanking new coach this season. Later, the Saints continued the trend, hiring ex- Giants offensive coordinator Sean Payton for their job. This has come after Philly offensive coordinator Brad Childress (Vikings), Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak (Texans) and Niners offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy (Packers) all received head jobs. It has to be considered a real breath of fresh air that the coaching carousel actually has been anything but so far this year. In fact, not one ex- coach has been hired, unless you count Herm Edwards. But of course, he was not fired.

Overall, I’m happy with the hire. I’d rather Edwards, but with that option gone, a new, first time head coach is a lot better than a retread. Considering option number two for the Jets seemed to be ex Vikings coach Mike Tice, I’m not sure how any Jets fan could be disappointed with the choice.

Though what should be debunked is the idea the Jets are taking a risk “for a change”. This situation is reminiscent in many ways of when the Gang Green hired Edwards in 2001. The now former Jets head man was coming from a coach in Tony Dungy, who at the time, had seemingly reinvented defense with his Cover 2 style. Herm was a relatively young coach with no experience as a coordinator, like Mangini, being a defensive backs coach. Of course, Mangini apparently is already deserving of more money than Edwards made last year. Reportedly, he will receive between 2 and 2.5 million per season. As has been well publicized, Herm could only manage 1.5 mil last season, despite his success in New York. The Jets probably could have kept him if they offered him 2.5 mil, but it seems Woody Johnson wasn’t all that interested in retaining him.

Mangini does have one year as a coordinator, though the Pats D didn’t exactly look its best this season. However, it was beat up even more so than it was in 2004 under Romeo Crennel, as they suffered injuries to the front seven as well as the secondary. Of course the knock on Mangini, as it was with Crennel, is the question of how much he actually did as coordinator. After all, the genius of Bill Belichick is defense, not offense. That being said, Crennel did well in his first year in Cleveland with one of the worst teams in the NFL.

In that sense, Mangini will be far more similar to Crennell than he will be to Herm. The Jets have a QB who may never be the same, an aging half back and offensive line, along with holes on defense. First and foremost, the team has serious cap issues, which could lead to cuts of prominent members of this team (T Law, Pete Kendall possibly even Curtis Martin) and may force them to let their best player, defensive end John Abraham, leave through free agency. Maybe that’s why he received a better deal than Herm; he needed security before coming into this potential mess.

What is to be done about the assistants? One would figure Donnie Henderson is gone, since Mangini will most likely implement the 3-4 defense prominent under Belichick and Parcells. Offensive coordinator Mike Hiemerdinger is said by some to be heading to Denver to fill the soon to be vacant position with Kubiak leaving to take the Texans job. And who knows about special teams coach Mike Westhoff, though one hopes they manage to keep one of the best special teams coaches in the league. The New York Post suggests Mangini will hire Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and Saints offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard. Considering the failure of those units this year, they aren't the most reassuring of hires, but then again they didn’t have great players on those teams either.

Anyway you look at it, the Jets are at a crossroads. They can rebuild quickly and return to prominence quickly, a la New England under Belichick after the Pete Carroll disaster following Parcells. Or they can drift back to the perennial bottom feeders they were in the 90’s, being hopelessly compared to teams like the Cardinals or Lions.

In that sense, Eric Mangini may well be the most important coach the Jets have hired in years. He will be responsible for shaping the new face of the Jets organization. And while he’s just 35, it’s a gamble worth taking. If he fails, it won’t be exactly great, but the Jets have had plenty of failures before. However if he succeeds, he could become an institution; a stable foundation for an organization that has been searching for one ever since Weeb Eubank back in the 60’s.

Then again things aren’t always that black and white. I could have said the same thing about Herm Edwards back in 2001 and look how that ended up.

Extra points

-It’s early to talk draft, but I’ve now backed off my stance the Jets should attempt to trade up to get Reggie Bush. As much as I like Bush’s talent, the team has needs elsewhere which are more prevalent, or will soon become so. To that end, the Jets offense needs to be blown up. The rebuilding of that 11 starts up front and thus LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson of Virginia would be my choice with the fourth pick. Of course if he’s gone that would mean either Bush (unlikely), Matt Leinart (also unlikely) or Vince Young (possibly) would be there. In that case, I’d take guy who fell. However if it were a QB, I wouldn’t start him his first year. Even if it meant playing Brooks Bollinger over Mr. Young.

-I would do everything in my power to keep John Abraham in a Jets uniform. He and Jonathan Vilma are the only difference makers on the Jets D (in fact on the entire team). While his sack production dropped this season, Abraham showed what a force he could be coming off the end. He forced six fumbles this season; that's a difference maker on defense. A top notch defensive end is hard to come by and consistent one is even harder to find. Injuries or not, he’s one of the best defensive players in the game. Even if it meant Chad Pennington or Curtis Martin were gone as a result, Abraham has to remain a Jet.

-For those who are going through “Retread Withdrawl”, have no fear. The Lions and Bills will soon fulfill your need to see NFL failures get another chance. The Bills are supposedly interested in either Dick Jauron or Mike Sherman while the Lions are apparently close to creating the NFL’s first “match made in hell” with Matt Millen and Jim Haslett.

-Speaking of Dick Jauron, doesn’t Lovie Smith seem to be heading down a similar career path? Jauron was a defensive coach who showed improvement in year one, a meteoric rise in year 2 complete with a bad loss at home in the divisional round. If I were a Bears fan, I’d be worried, especially with my QBs being Kyle Orton and the frequently injured and not proven Rex Grossman. Hey, weren’t the Bears QB back then the perennially injured Chris Chandler and Jim Miller? I’m telling you, the similarities are eery…

-Zach and I disagree about the Broncos, as you will see when I post my AFC Report/Championship Preview in the coming days. (It’s not up because I’d rather not have a preview of a Sunday game on Tuesday) The argument is that since they’ve won 14 games now, they must be good. I disagree. My argument, dates back to one my friend Gray Claytor used on me back in my freshman year in college. Basically, his argument for why the NFL is inferior to baseball was because in a 16 game season, teams can get lucky, or play above their talent level. In short, the KC Royals could have a stretch in their season where they go 11-5. But it will not cover up them being a bad team over the long haul because it's such a small fraction of the baseball season. In the NFL, it’s the whole season.

I don’t agree that the NFL suffers because of it. In fact, it enhances it’s watch ability far beyond the other sports. It creates the illusion of greater parity, thus creates more interest. Even if you’re a fan of a bad team, with an easy schedule, and a couple of breaks (the average NFL game is decided by less than a TD), you could make the playoffs.

However, it makes it harder to judge teams’ quality over a single season. One of the reasons I didn’t like the Bengals or the Bears was because I couldn’t say with any certainty if they were products of luck and schedule. I felt better about the Bengals talentwise, but had more confidence in the Steelers, who have been consistently good now for two years. (32 games isn’t great either, but its better than 16)

Which brings me back to the Broncos. Denver is playing 3/4s of the miserable Cleveland defensive line from last year, along with the same core of linebackers. Their secondary is a year older (John Lynch) and more beat up (Champ Bailey) than it was last year. Yet somehow they’re a better team? I don’t buy it. The Broncos probably weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be, but my gut says they’re still a 9-10 win team talent wise that had a favorable schedule and got some breaks. And before you all rip be about their tough division; they went 1-1 against the Chiefs, pounded the miserable Raiders and got the bookends of the Chargers season, which was when they played their worst. The team lost to the Giants after blowing a huge lead, beat the horrible Eagles at home, got a huge break against Dallas courtesy of Billy Cundiff and got the Skins at home. They didn’t play a great game against the Pats, but had drives where they didn’t have to move the ball to score.

Have I seen a lot of the Broncos this year? No, not really. I saw them three times; against the Chiefs, Jets and Cowboys. And in none of the games did I come away impressed. Look, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. Teams can play better than their talent indicates for a time, but they eventually return to form. Odds are it will happen to the Broncos eventually; either against a Steelers team which is better but in a tough spot (on the road) or one of the NFC teams, both of whom have more talent than Denver.

This is why the NFL is fun. The short season means you have to expect the unexpected. But as a result records are far less indicators of pretenders and contenders than one would believe.

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