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THE BELIEF Looks grim, folks, but there's a 35-year-old coach, Eric Mangini, one of the cum laude graduates of the Bill Belichick system, and he's switching the defense to a 3-4 with lots of variations. The Jets are going to be smart and versatile and, hopefully, respectable.
THE REALITY Where to start? for a while, nobody was sure who the quarterback would be. The featured running back looks like a memory. The offensive line is minus its Pro Bowl center ( Kevin Mawae, gone to the Titans). The defensive line is without its leading pass rusher ( John Abraham, off to the Falcons). There is no prototype 3-4 nosetackle to eat up gaps and blockers.
O.K., let's start with Mangini. His finest moment came in 2004, when he was New England's secondary coach and everyone was getting injured. He turned a wideout, Troy Brown, into a nickelback; started a linebacker, Don Davis, at free safety; and filled in spots with a pair of street free agents. The end product was the Patriots' third Super Bowl victory. "We were scrambling, and we got lucky," Mangini says. "You can do stuff like that in an emergency situation, but not for a whole season."
Chad Pennington, the quarterback, has suffered a serious shoulder injury in each of the last two seasons. He has been carefully scrutinized on every throw and has delivered the ball with a more relaxed motion than last year-not trying to drill it. "I've always been a passer, not a thrower," he says. "Besides, the shoulder has had four more months to heal this year."
Curtis Martin was the team's emotional leader. He's also 33, and only two runners in NFL history, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, have carried the ball more. He dragged a bad knee through most of last season, finally undergoing surgery in December. He was inactive in training camp, and when asked about the knee, he said, "It's hard to talk about it." The Jets picked up Kevan Barlow from the 49ers, but without a healthy Martin, there is no serious running game. And right now there is no healthy Martin on the horizon.
Abraham was traded for a first-round choice. At the time the move looked bad. Now it looks good. Kimo von Oelhoffen, the 300-pounder the Jets brought in to replace him, is a typical 3-4 end; Abraham isn't. And the draft choice turned out to be Nick Mangold, a promising center.
The Jets' defensive star is middle (now inside) linebacker Jonathan Vilma, active and far-ranging, but undersized at 230. Former first-rounder Dewayne Robertson is the nose man. He can shoot the gap but has never been called on to control it. That's where coaching comes in.
Mangini, who coached for 10 years in Belichick's 3-4, isn't stupid. There are a lot of things one can do with the inside linebackers, and forcing the 230-pound Vilma to stand tall while the 320-pound guards draw a bead on him is not one of them. "He'll figure something out," Vilma says. "The system isn't inflexible."
Nobody is expecting great things from this team, which lacks gamebreakers on both sides of the ball-just stability from the new coaching staff, the right players in the right spots and concerted effort. It's a rebuilding year. A 7-9 record would be good, anything better than that remarkable.