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HBO's Hard Knocks television cameras turned the Jets' Cortland, N.Y., training camp into a working set this August, but Rex Ryan's team, in some ways, already resembled the titular group from one of that channel's staples, the 2001 movie Ocean's Eleven. The Jets are a brash and entertaining mishmash of highly skilled specialists brought together in the hope that they will collectively achieve that greatest of NFL heists: making off with the Super Bowl trophy, which the franchise hasn't won in 42 years.
Call them Ryan's Fifty-three.
This, perhaps, is where the comparison begins to break down, as it would require Ryan to assume George Clooney's role. "Rex is, uh, a little rougher around the edges," says quarterback Mark Sanchez. Still, left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson plays along. "I'd probably just be the black guy—Don Cheadle, you know?" he says. "I'm not Brad Pitt."
Ferguson, who has started every game since New York drafted him No. 4 overall out of Virginia in 2006, appreciates the audacity of his coach and his teammates. "It's enjoyable to see the hams on the team, like your [linebacker] Bart Scotts, your [nosetackle] Kris Jenkinses," he says. "We're the type of team that's like, 'Hey, this is what we're going to do. If you don't like it, screw you.' "
Ferguson is content to cede the limelight to other incumbents and the Jets' starry newcomers. During the off-season they traded for cornerback Antonio Cromartie and wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who was seventh in the league in receiving yards, and signed free-agent running back LaDainian Tomlinson, a two-time rushing champ, and defensive end Jason Taylor, the NFL's active leader in sacks, with 127½. "I think because we have so many guys who are outspoken, that void has kind of been filled, and I can lead in other ways," Ferguson says.
The addition of four players with a combined 12 career Pro Bowl selections will help, but for the Jets to win the Super Bowl that they have so often predicted for themselves, they must receive a significantly improved performance from their second-year QB. Sanchez is quick to confirm all of the things he must upgrade. A 63.0 quarterback rating? "Yes." A 12-to-20 TD-to-interception ratio? "Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Check 'em all." And Sanchez's ability to improve will hinge on Ferguson, who quietly protects his blind side. Says Jenkins, "He just comes in, straps it up and does his job."
The 6' 6", 310-pound Ferguson participated in the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2009, even though he allowed eight sacks, twice as many as the season before. But that number was belied by two factors. First, he was protecting a jittery rookie rather than Brett Favre. "I'm sitting back there patting the ball, taking way too much time," admits Sanchez. Second, Ryan and offensive line coach Bill Callahan rarely gave Ferguson help, allowing them to deploy blockers elsewhere. "You look at that game against Indianapolis"—a 30--17 AFC Championship Game loss—"and he's going against Dwight Freeney, who's an unbelievable player," Ryan says. "And [Ferguson] is the only guy in the league, I guarantee you, who doesn't have help on him." Freeney didn't record a QB hit, let alone a sack, and Sanchez had one of his best games as a pro, throwing for 257 yards and two touchdowns. "Brick's sick," says Sanchez. "He's like Revis, but an O-lineman."
That Ferguson would ever be compared with a player of cornerback Darrelle Revis's caliber seemed doubtful after Ferguson's first two seasons, in which he allowed 23 sacks. "He was smaller, lighter, not as strong—very athletic, but he wasn't there yet," says Taylor, who as a Dolphin used to regularly exploit Ferguson. "Now I think he's one of the better left tackles in the league."
Even though Revis's contract holdout (at press time the runner-up in last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting had yet to report to camp) might force Ryan to start the season shorthanded, his Ferguson-anchored offense should now approach the caliber of his fierce defense, which was the NFL's best in 2009. The most precious of spoils—the seven pounds of sterling silver known as the Lombardi Trophy—is there for the Jets' taking.