Not Mark Gastineau, not Joe Klecko, not John Elliott, not Gerry Philbin, not Verlon Biggs. No Jets defensive lineman has been under as much scrutiny as rookie Dewayne Robertson has. Has anyone had his tackle and assist statistics—in the preseason yet—so carefully dissected?
Robertson, you see, represents two things: a hope for the future and a cover-up for the past. The future, the Jets hope, is many years as a pocket-crashing defensive tackle. The past is the Great Corporate Raid of early 2003, when three starters, plus the kicker and the NFL's fourth-leading kick returner last season, were swept up by other organizations working the free-agent market. The most serious loss, terrific young wideout Laveranues Coles to the Redskins, led to Robertson's arrival. Washington had to give the Jets its first-round draft pick for signing Coles. That gave New York the juice to trade up to the Bears' No. 4 spot and select Robertson, who was generally considered to be the best defensive lineman in the draft.
His greatness, the thinking went, would wipe out all the talk about how the Jets had lost Coles and the others through mismanagement. But if Robertson turns out to be ordinary, or something less, then fingers will be pointed for years.
Robertson is a nice young man, modest, soft-spoken. When he talks, you have to strain to hear him. He looks like a giant who had a heavy object dropped on him, squashing his 317 pounds onto a 6'1" frame, the classic size for a nosetackle. Except that he's not a nosetackle, a two-gapper, a block eater. He's supposed to be an action guy, hitting the gap and breaking through and raising hell in the backfield.
The early going hasn't been that easy. In New York's preseason opener the Bucs double-teamed Robertson on his first NFL play ("I guess they'd been watching tape of his practices," Jets cornerback Ray Mickens quipped), and they continued to give him the treatment for the three series he was on the field. Tampa Bay showed him a bunch of tricks, passing him off from one lineman to another, setting him up and then blindsiding him. Robertson had no tackles or assists, but he took a low charge and got penetration and kept coming.
Since then he's seen all the other nuances of offensive line play, and he's learning. But can Robertson key a defense that must carry an even bigger share of the load, now that quarterback Chad Pennington is out at least 12 weeks with a fractured and dislocated left wrist? Chances are that Vinny Testaverde can keep the Jets in their share of low-scoring games, but with Pennington the offense could compete in shootouts. "I keep myself in shape," Testaverde says. "I'll be ready."
Nevertheless, he turns 40 in November, and history is loaded with Hall of Fame quarterbacks who faded badly after their 39th birthday. There are success stories, however. Warren Moon was effective in Seattle after hitting 40. Phil Simms turned 39 in November 1993 and had a good year on a playoff-bound Giants team. But don't forget that Pennington got his chance early last October after Testaverde couldn't cut it.
What makes his job even more difficult is that Testaverde takes over an offense that lost its top receiver, Coles, and one of its better linemen, right guard Randy Thomas, in free agency. Jets general manager Terry Bradway is tired of hearing all the blah blah blah about the wave of departures. "That's all people want to talk about," he says. "You know that last year we lost even more guys, eight of them, and we still won the division."
Yes, but most were guys the Jets cut or exposed in the expansion draft. To simplify, four things have to happen for the Jets to have a shot at repeating in the AFC East. Coles's replacement, former Charger Curtis Conway, has to be a reasonable facsimile of his predecessor. Running back Curtis Martin, who dragged his badly sprained left ankle through a painful 2002, has to regain his old zip. Robertson has to learn to beat the double team. And, of course, Testaverde has to find some life in a 39-year-old arm.
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