Postcard from camp: Jets
Despite the frenzy, there's no QB competition with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow
Santonio Holmes will have more room to work thanks to deep threat Stephen Hill
The Jets have overhauled at safety, focusing on bigger and more physical players
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ben Reiter had to say about Jets camp in Cortland, N.Y., which he visited on Aug. 2. Read all of our postcards here.
In Cortland, N.Y., otherwise known as the football media capital of the universe. ESPN built a set just off one corner of one of the Jets' practice fields at SUNY Cortland -- where the team has returned for training camp, after a lockout-necessitated stint at their regular New Jersey practice facility last summer -- and broadcast live look-ins and reports on "SportsCenter" every day last week. Several Jets professed not to understand why their first practices overflowed with cameras and recorders with notepads. "I want people to know, we didn't ask for this," said veteran linebacker Bart Scott. "Why they're covering us and not the Giants, or Philadelphia, or Buffalo, I have no idea. Because there are really no storylines here! Other than Tebow, there's no storylines here. Michael Phelps is breaking records, and they want to talk about the Jets. I have no idea why the hell they're even doing a special. To talk about our backup quarterback?"
1. It's not a competition, any more than it is anywhere else. "Mark Sanchez is our starting quarterback" will likely prove the "Let's go eat a g*****n snack" of this year's Jets training camp -- that is, the Rex Ryan quote that will come to define it. It has been the unwavering party line of Ryan and the rest of the Jets brass from the moment they traded for Tebow in late March, even as speculation began to immediately swirl that he was being brought in to take Sanchez's job. "Does competition help guys? Absolutely. Brings out the best in everybody," Ryan said. "I truly believe competition is never a negative."
"In any competition, though," I asked him, "doesn't there have to exist at least the possibility that either side can win?"
Ryan hesitated for a moment. "Mark's our starting quarterback," he said.
Read between the lines and cut through the media frenzy, and the Jets' quarterback situation looks exactly the same as that of the majority of teams. The Jets, like most, have a starter, Sanchez, who will be given every opportunity to succeed. They also have a reserve who might get a chance to take over if he doesn't. The fact he is Tim Tebow does not change much as far as the big picture.
At the end of the day, Sanchez's job is not one that he must win, but can only lose. If he loses it, the Jets will be fortunate they have on their roster a reasonably proven second option. Still, that scenario won't play out any time soon, as it is virtually inconceivable that Sanchez will ultimately leave the fields of SUNY Cortland as anything other than a starter.
2. The defense is far ahead of the offense. Most people would not view the chance to wear a black shirt, made of synthetic material, on a cloudless 90-degree day to be much of a reward, but in Jets camp, that's just what it is. Ryan has devised a motivational system whereby the unit that plays the best in practice gets to wear black jerseys the following day. For the practice I observed, last Wednesday, the Jets' defenders wore black, as they almost always have so far in camp, and it was easy to see why.
It wasn't exactly "The Day No Pigskins Would Fly," but Sanchez and Tebow struggled so much to connect with their receivers that the crowd went wild after a single successful 20-yard pass. This should not necessarily serve as an indictment of the Jets' offense -- or of either quarterback, especially so early in the preseason -- but as a reminder that their defense remains elite. Even in what was otherwise a disastrous 2011, the team ranked fifth in total defense, and should improve on even that ranking thanks to the quick development of second-year lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, and the introduction of first-round rookie Quinton Coples.
3. Stephen Hill will be the best thing that ever happened to Santonio Holmes. Holmes was among the worst of the many disgruntled players on the Jets in 2011, and he ended it sulking on the bench, banished there after getting in an on-field argument with right tackle Wayne Hunter during the season's final game. The wideout's unhappiness was a direct result of the team's failure, and of his own: he set career lows in receiving yards (654) and yards per catch (12.8), and in six games -- including that last one -- he received four targets or fewer.
The problem was that Holmes simply couldn't get open, and it wasn't entirely his fault. Holmes works best in the middle of the field, on slants and crossing patterns, but the Jets' 2011 offense simply didn't feature a field-stretcher who could open those up for him. That meant opposing defenses could fearlessly collapse toward the line of scrimmage, leaving Holmes little space to work, and Sanchez few passing lanes through which to find him.
In Hill, a 6-foot-4 second-round draft pick with 4.36 speed, the Jets now have their deep threat. He's a work in progress, and his new teammates say that he has currently mastered a total of three routes. But even the idea that Hill has the ability to burn them for a 70-yard score will be enough for defenses to stretch out their coverage -- and enough for Holmes to return to happiness, and productivity.
Shonn Greene, running back. The Jets went 2-5 last season when Sanchez attempted 35 or more passes, and 6-3 otherwise. Of course, a lot of those high pass totals resulted directly from the exigencies of particular games -- you have to throw more when you're losing, obviously -- but it is also clear that even in a pass-happy league, the Jets were at their best when the offense relied on the run. "Ground and pound," is what Ryan calls it, and it's a style to which he'd like to return this season. "Are we going to run it 50 times a day? That may or may not happen," he said. "But it's a mentality. We have an excellent defense, but the best defense we have is when that group's not on the field and that clock's running."
With LaDainian Tomlinson now retired, the workload will fall more than ever on the 26-year-old Greene, who has in his first three seasons demonstrated flashes of ability -- he crossed the 1,000-yard threshold for the first time last year -- but has not yet become the every-down force the Jets believe he can be, nor the big-play threat (his longest-ever regular season run went for just 33 yards). This season looks to be his chance.
LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell, safeties. The Jets' offseason strategy, as far as their safeties, was clear: to get bigger and more athletic. To that end they signed a pair of muscular veteran free agents in Landry, formerly of the Redskins, and Bell, a long-time Dolphin. "Everybody knows LaRon's jacked, but people underestimate Yeremiah," said Scott. "They could have a competitive pose-off. Only difference is, Yeremiah has those little pool stick legs."
Landry and Bell should step in as starters in place of Eric Smith, who is now a reserve, and Jim Leonhard, now with the Broncos. "The speed and size we have at safety is going to be a big difference in our defense," said Scott. "Jim Leonhard, he was a tremendous player for us and could do a little bit of everything -- return kicks, very smart, get people lined up -- but he's maybe 5-6, maybe 200 pounds. We've got grown men back there now."
Neither Landry nor Bell is known to excel in pass coverage, and Landry remains hampered by an Achilles injury that he chose to rehabilitate rather than have surgically repaired. But when your defense features Darrelle Revis, you can rely less on your safeties to provide coverage -- and the Jets now seem to have two as physically imposing as the players in their front seven. Count Bell and Landry as two more reasons Ryan's defense should be as sturdy as ever.
The Jets' offense will be tested early and often, facing teams that should be among the best defenses in the league in the Bills, Steelers, 49ers and Texans in the first five games. After Week 5, though, the Jets will play just two teams who finished better than .500 last season: the Patriots, of course, in Weeks 7 and 12, and the Titans in Week 15.
Ideally, Sanchez will show signs that he has made a leap in those first five weeks, and then really excel from then on, keeping Tebow pinned to the bench except for a handful of Wildcat snaps per game. That, however, is unlikely to happen. Sanchez will more likely play solidly one week, and poorly the next, engendering weekly hand wringing and close parsing of snap counts in New York, all season long.
The defense won't allow the Jets to be bad, but an offense that will likely remain inconsistent won't allow them to come close to challenging New England. A 9-7 record seems a distinct possibility, and the Jets will have to hope that will be enough to get them into the playoffs, where, as they showed in reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2009 and 2010, anything can happen.