Monday, September 26, 2011

New York Jets Week 4 Report Card

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First off, let's be realistic and say that the way the Jets have played this season, they deserve to be 1-2 rather than 2-1. If it wasn't for Tony Romo's extra-early Christmas gift in the fourth quarter of the September 11 opener, they would be.
That being said, the grades in my upcoming report card won't reflect a team that's won two of its first three games. Let's get to it.

Rushing Offense:

It's unfair to grade the Jets based solely on their performance on the ground against a struggling Raiders' run defense, especially without starting center and offensive line captain Nick Mangold. While Shonn Greene had his best game of the season, he didn't even reach 60 yards (15 carries, 59 yards).

Just like last season, LaDainian Tomlinson looks like the best running back on the roster. He isn't running as well as he did at the start of last season and was essentially useless last week against Jacksonville, but Tomlinson totaled 154 yards on 11 touches this week, while Greene has 194 total yards all season.

Tomlinson is more of a factor in the passing game than Greene, which explains his lack of touches in the Week 2 blowout and his extensive usage in Weeks 1 and 3. Greene, however, caught seven passes for 47 yards against the Raiders and it looks like the Jets will look to get him outside the tackles more often.

With the team's current issues in the middle of their offensive line, the Jets will have to get Greene outside with tosses and swing passes if they hope to make him effective. He struggles to build momentum up the middle and looks plodding at times, but give him a head of steam and a 200-pound corner and you have a recipe for success.

The ground-and-pound mantra is dead, at least until Mangold returns in a few weeks and even with him, the running wasn't working. Two years ago, the Jets had an elite offensive line. Now, it's average at best

New York has two studs in Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson, an aging veteran in Brandon Moore and inexperience at the other spots. They will continue to struggle running the ball inside the tackles if they can't win the battle in the trenches.

Grade: D+

Passing Offense:

While the stats look pretty from the Oakland game, where Mark Sanchez completed over 60 percent of his passes for a career-high 369 yards, three total touchdowns and just one interception, the game tape tells a different story.

Sanchez was wildly inaccurate at times and careless at others. While he made a few big plays in the passing game, the stats are slightly skewed by a 74-yard dump pass early in the game to LaDainian Tomlinson. He also had 12 of his 27 completions to his running backs.

After being turnover-free through the first five games last season, Sanchez already has four interceptions and a fumble through three games in 2011. He has made many bad decisions and, combined with frustrating inaccuracy at times, hasn't taken the leap forward that many expected.

The only positive to take from Sanchez's early-season performance is that his completion percentage is way up, sitting at 63.1 percent compared to 55.4 for his career. He has accomplished this as offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has opened up the playbook with more shots down the field, something myself and many others who follow the Jets have been clamoring for since last season.

Sanchez still is nothing more than a game manager, but I still think it's too early to completely give up on him. I've always compared him to Ben Roethlisberger, who was the definition of a game manager in his first three seasons with the Steelers.

It wasn't until year four that Roethlisberger became a true playmaker with 32 touchdowns, not having reached 20 in any of his first three seasons. And while Big Ben started for three seasons at Miami (Ohio), Sanchez started just one at USC before joining the Jets. I doubt the lockout helped Sanchez either.

It may sound like I'm making excuses for the Jets quarterback, but I'm just choosing to take the route less traveled when it comes to Sanchez: patience rather than panic. If we're having this same conversation next season, I'll be done with Sanchez. But this year, it's not just his fault.

The real problem here is the Jets' lack of a successful running game. With the offensive line in shambles and a power back who can't seem to find space on the interior, New York will have to rely on the arm of Sanchez more than expected this season.

I'm not sure that's such a good thing for 2011, but maybe opening up the playbook and forcing him to win games rather than not losing them will finally allow him to develop into the player he has the talent to be.

Grade: C+

Rushing Defense:

Another area that was expected to be one of the strengths of the Jets has been anything but in the early part of the season.

The Jets allowed 234 rushing yards to the Raiders, including 171 on 19 carries for Darren McFadden. McFadden is an absolute stud, but for the Jets to allow nine yards per carry to anybody is shocking.

That performance came a week after the Jaguars ran for 112 yards on New York and, while they shut down Felix Jones and the Dallas ground game in Week 1, there is an obvious chink in this team's defensive armor.

The Jets' only loss along their front seven was defensive end Shaun Ellis, an aging run-stopper whose best days are clearly behind him. So what has made this unit so vulnerable in 2011?

Is David Harris still hobbled by his toe injury? Are Bart Scott, Calvin Pace and Sione Pouha just another year older and step slower? Is rookie Muhammad Wilkerson's presence along the defensive line a detriment? All of the above?

We'll learn the answers to these questions in the coming weeks, likely this Sunday when the Jets face former New Rochelle and Rutgers standout Ray Rice and the Ravens. If this unit is legit this season, they need to bounce back with an inspired performance and at least contain Rice this week. If not, it could be a long season for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

Grade: C-

Passing Defense:

The Jets made journeyman Luke McCown look like a complete clown in Week 2 but then again, he's always been a complete clown. Jason Campbell was his typical average self on Sunday and Tony Romo was having a great day through the air in the opener until he folded late.

I have less complaints about New York's pass defense than I do with any other facet of their team. It's hard to argue that there's anybody better than Darrelle Revis at the cornerback position because you never hear his name called unless Romo is throwing a ball right into his chest.

I can definitely complain, however, about the still-inconsistent play of Antonio Cromartie, who coincidentally got paid big money once the lockout ended.

After one of the best games of his career against McCown and the Jags which included two interceptions and a touchdown, Cromartie was burned and flagged repeatedly against Oakland. If there's one thing the Raiders' receivers have it's speed, and Cromartie struggled to run with them or stay with them out of their breaks.

I'm not looking forward to watching Cromartie attempt to defend either speedy Ravens Lee Evans or Torrey Smith next week, especially after Smith's three-touchdown breakout against the Rams.

The Jets' pass rush is still non-existant outside of blitz packages, which are difficult for Rex Ryan to dial up when Cromartie can't cover anybody. Wilkerson is not ready to be the pass rusher this team needs and they will continue to be very boom (see: Jags game) or bust (see: Cowboys game) until they can pressure the quarterback with a four-man rush.

Grade: B-

Special Teams:

As usual, Mike Westhoff has the Jets' special teams unit playing at a high level. If not for a well-designed punt block that sprung Joe McKnight free up the middle, New York would have never beaten Dallas in Week 1.

I like what I've seen out of Jeremy Kerley on punt returns; he's small, quick and isn't afraid to go upfield first and gain a few yards rather than running sideways and gaining nothing.

As for kick returns, I'm fine as long as Antonio Cromartie never sees another ball. His fumble against Oakland essentially handed the Raiders the game late and, while he can be a game-breaker, the potential for good does not outweigh the potential for bad considering the new kickoff rules. All risk, minimal reward.

Nick Folk gives me no reason to complain, making all six of his field goal attempts this season, while T.J. Conley is what we thought he would be at punter. He's not crushing balls (41.4 yards per kick) but he has done a decent job of hanging balls in the air and placing them around the sidelines to prevent big returns.

Grade: A-

As you can see from my grades, I'm very disappointed in the Jets' performance through three games this season. Their record may sit at 2-1 but if they played up to their potential, they could definitely be undefeated. They also could (and should) be 1-2.

That's not to say I don't have confidence in this team turning things around, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later. No disrespect to the resurgent Bills who are a legitimate team for the first time in a while, but the Jets needed to take advantage of the Pats early loss on Sunday. They couldn't.

With three teams looking like 10-win possibilities within the division and the Ravens and Steelers looking the same way in the AFC North, one of these five teams will miss out the playoffs. If the Jets don't pick things up in the coming weeks in every facet of the game, it very well could be them.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Looking for the real scapegoat for NCAA realignment? Look no further than the BCS

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Syracuse and Pittsburgh continued the exodus of college programs from the Big East and Big 12, in essence destroying the country's best basketball conference and possibly its second best as well.

Football will always be the breadwinner in college athletics, and obviously the moves made by schools like Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Texas A&M were strictly related to increasing the revenue received from their football program.

Big East football hasn't been the same since Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College all left for the ACC in 2005 and from that standpoint I can see why Syracuse and Pitt are leaving the conference.

But I can't help but think that if the Bowl Championship Series was never adopted back in 1998, we wouldn't be seeing radical changes to the NCAA conferences. The BCS rewards power conference teams and devalues the accomplishments of teams from mid-major conferences.

While the Big East is still technically a "power conference" in the eyes of the BCS, its deterioration as a football conference leads to lower strength of schedule rankings for its teams and therefore, a more difficult road to the top of the BCS.

The BCS led TCU to commit to joining the Big East last November for the 2012-13 season. Leaving the Mountain West for a "power conference" would certainly help TCU's chances at a national title bid, but what will happen now to the Horned Frogs and the rest of the Big East?

We're still waiting for all the dominoes to drop, the next big ones looking like Texas and Oklahoma. If the Longhorns and Sooners leave the Big 12, it would create the possibility of the remaining schools like Kansas joining the Big East. The conference would be garbage in terms of football, but would sustain viability in basketball.

If Texas and Oklahoma leave, maybe Boise St. would join the Pac-12 or another power conference, giving their football program more viability as a national-title contender. And even if those schools stay, Boise St. may be able to find a power-conference suitor if other teams leave.

In the end, this realignment will lead to fewer, larger "super conferences" and will likely include more total teams than the current alignment, giving more programs the opportunity to compete to make the title game.

If only college football had adopted a playoff system by now, Syracuse and Pitt would still be members of the Big East. TCU wouldn't have joined last year either, and I doubt any of this realignment would be happening right now.

It's a terrible development for somebody like me from the Northeast, who is admittedly less obsessed over college football than 90% of the country that resides west and south of Pennsylvania. I prefer college basketball, in part due to the always-competitive nature of the Big East, my local conference.

Now the BCS has essentially taken Big East basketball away from me. No longer will the mecca that is Madison Square Garden host the Big East tournament, one of the more exciting postseasons in sports. The ACC tournament may be there once every three of four years, but that's little consolation

Out of 16 teams in the Big East, 11 won 20 games and had .500 conference records. The depth of the conference made almost every game interesting and even when my beloved Orange weren't playing, I would go out of the way to watch random Big East games. The entertainment level was through the roof.

But now, the conference has lost two of its powerhouses. If the Big 12 dissolves and teams like Kansas and Kansas St. enter the Big East, it will still be a decent basketball conference even if it loses more schools with football programs, like Connecticut and West Virginia, to the ACC. But it will never, ever be the same, especially with the loss of rivalries departing schools had with the remaining ones.

Thanks to the BCS, college basketball has been ruined ever so slightly for myself and many others. And until college football adopts a playoff system, the national-title picture will continue to be one big joke, "super conferences" or not.

With college football being no better and college basketball being worse, this whole situation is a lose-lose for NCAA sports. Just not financially.

More and more programs will now have the opportunity to line their pockets with football-generated millions, while players continue to see none of the profits they so obviously create.

Paying college players is another topic for another day. But it's a topic that will only garner more attention than it recently has in the near future, and rightfully so.

Realignment proves that college sports is nothing more than a professional business focused on making money. And for these business to refuse to pay their student-athletes is absurd. Give up the amateur pretense, NCAA. This realignment is officially the last straw, and nobody is buying it anymore.