A bone-chilling cold descended on Heinz Field on January 23, 2010. Sixty-six thousand, six hundred and sixty-two fans rose to their feet, twirling Terrible Towels and yelling as loudly as their freezing lungs would let them.
The New York Jets had marched 76 yards through the best scoring defense in the NFL and were now just four yards from paydirt. Mark Sanchez, his breath visible from the stands, stood at shotgun depth and went into his cadence. He called an audible, then called for the ball.
When it came, Sanchez took a quick dropback and fired across his body. To his left, Jerricho Cotchery perfectly executed a pick play with fellow wideout Santonio Holmes. The Steelers cornerbacks collided, and Cotchery came free. He plucked the ball out of the air and walked into the end zone untouched.
Pittsburgh fans collapsed back into their seats. Terrible Towels flopped uselessly to their sides. The extra point made it 24-19. The Steelers, after jumping out to a 24-0 lead, were now in danger of a historic collapse.
With just over three minutes to go, Mark Sanchez, Rex Ryan and the Jets were five points away from the Super Bowl.
That's as close as they got.
Now, just two-and-a-half years later, the New York Jets are the NFL's biggest tire fire.
As the Jets head into the 2013 regular season, Rex Ryan is a national laughingstock, a sideways-talking buffoon:
Their quarterbacks are Sanchez, the disgraced franchise player coaches and management already gave up on, and Geno Smith, a rookie whose three-interception preseason performance against the New York Giants made it clear he's not ready to win.
With the departure of Shonn Greene, their running backs are Bilal Powell, a 2011 fourth-round pick with a career 3.7 yards per carry average, and Chris Ivory, who finished fourth in rushing last season...on the New Orleans Saints. Together, they're tied for last in the NFL with 3.0 yards per carry this preseason, per NFL.com.
The Jets' only rushing hope: top free-agent acquisition Mike Goodson.
The four-year veteran has only 722 career rushing yards to his name. He just resumed practicing after a personal absence suspected to be due to substance-abuse treatment, per Michael J. Fensom of the Star-Ledger. When Goodson gets up to speed, he'll have to serve a four-game substance-abuse suspension.
The most potent downfield weapon in the Jets' arsenal is Santonio Holmes, who "still [has] a ways to go" before returning from his Lisfranc injury, per Darryl Slater of the Star-Ledger.
Instead, the Jets' starting receivers are Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill, two youngsters who combined for just 77 catches, 1,079 yards and five touchdowns last season.
There's no getting around it: The Jets had the fifth-worst scoring offense in the NFL in 2012, and their best players at each of the three skill positions—Greene, Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller—are gone or injured (or both).
Also, Ryan insists the Jets will have a top-five defense, per CBS Sports' Will Brinson, because of his "history."
Unfortunately for Ryan, his history includes standout players like defensive end Shaun Ellis, outside linebacker Bart Scott and cornerback Darrelle Revis, all of whom are gone, and linebackers Calvin Pace and David Harris, who are shadows of what they used to be.
As Brinson wrote, "If anyone can throw the Jets roster into the blender and come away with a fresh batch of chicken salad, it's Rex."
Still, it's hard to look at the gaunt, craggy podium wraith writhing under the national media spotlight and see the greatest defensive architect of his generation.
Rex Ryan, Defensive Genius
Putting Ryan anywhere near the word "genius" seems laughable right now, but give him credit: As a head coach and defensive coordinator, his units have never finished lower than eighth in average yards allowed per play (in 2005), per Pro Football Reference.
When Ryan took over the Jets, he inherited a thoroughly mediocre unit. The 2008 Jets ranked 15th in scoring defense, allowing an average of 22.2 points per game. They ranked 14th in passing yards per attempt allowed and 27th in rushing yards per carry allowed.
In one offseason, Ryan transformed the Jets into one of the best defenses of the last decade.
To do it, Ryan brought two top free agents with him from Baltimore: Scott, who'd developed into a star on his watch, and underrated safety Jim Leonhard.
Other than those two key cogs, though, Ryan didn't need many new parts to rebuild the Jets defense.
According to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which is a holistic way of measuring performance considering game situation, opponent, etc., the 2009 Jets were the fifth-best overall defense of the last 10 years.
Led by the fierce pass rush of Calvin Pace, the hard-nosed run-stuffing of Scott and the smothering coverage of Revis, the swaggering Jets allowed a league-best 14.8 points per game. Their pass-defense DVOA was a whopping minus-36.4 percent.
Since then, though, the Jets defense has been significantly less intimidating:
The easy story to be told about Ryan's tenure in New York is the consistently great defense and consistently poor offense—but it's not the true story.
Across the four years of Mark Sanchez's career, it's clear his game never progressed past "not bad for a rookie." After all, Sanchez has never passed for more than 3,500 yards, 26 touchdowns, seven yards per attempt or an 80.0 passer efficiency rating.
It's harder to remember that backed by the league's best rushing attack, Sanchez was the trigger man of an offense that put up serious points.
In 2009, the Jets not only had the NFL's best defense, but also the best rushing attack. Led by the power combo of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, the Jets rolled up a massive 2,756 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.
Much like Joe Flacco and the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, Sanchez's statistics didn't earn great marks for efficiency—but defenses loading up to stop the two-back attack were routinely torched downfield by Sanchez, Holmes and Braylon Edwards.
In 2010, the Jets defense was still a strong unit, ranking sixth in the NFL with 19 points allowed per game. That figure, though, was 4.2 points higher than in 2009; the offense had to pick up the slack.
To an extent it did, scoring 22.9 points per game. Though the defense fell off farther than the offense improved, the Jets stayed in the top 10 of the NFL in scoring differential, boosted their regular-season record to 11-5 and reached that fateful AFC Championship Game.
Cracks in the Foundation
After Jerricho Cotchery sauntered into the end zone against the Steelers, the Jets defense had three minutes to get a stop and couldn't. Sanchez and the New York offense looked more than ready to keep rolling and clinch the long-awaited Super Bowl berth, but they were powerless without the ball in their hands.
For two straight seasons, the Jets defense had been the heart, soul and attitude of the team. Scott's famous "Can't wait!" postgame interview had been revved up in anticipation of that game, that moment.
When Scott and the defense were ready to cash the check his mouth wrote, it bounced.
This wasn't the first time the Jets revealed their weaknesses.
Earlier in the 2010 season, the Jets took a 9-2 record into Gillette Stadium, facing off against their bitter division rivals, the New England Patriots. A Monday Night Football road win over the Patriots would prove once and for all that the balance of power had shifted. If the Jets won, they would ascend to the AFC throne.
New England won, 45-3.
In the aftermath of his team's three-phase demolition, Ryan physically buried the game ball to show that the Patriots debacle was dead to him, according to Kevin Kernan of the New York Post.
The skeletons in the Jets' closet, though, wouldn't stay hidden for long.
To achieve the defense's incredible turnaround, Ryan added two quality veterans to his experienced team. If the Jets' success was going to continue, they had to keep reloading that defense with talent.
Instead, consistently poor drafting has left the cupboard bare.
Talented veterans keep leaving, and the replacements just aren't there. Under general manager Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets' draft history reads like a Who's Who of busts, misses and square pegs in round holes.
Even Ryan couldn't get anything out of Vernon Gholston, the 2008 No. 6 overall draft pick who should have been a monster pass-rusher in Ryan's defense.
In 2009, the first draft after Ryan took over, Tannenbaum traded the Jets' first- and second-round picks for the rights to draft Sanchez. The only two remaining picks in that class were spent on Greene and guard Matt Slauson, both of whom are gone.
In 2010, the Jets tried to reload the secondary, spending their first-round pick on Boise State cornerback Kyle Wilson. Wilson has perennially struggled, earning negative overall grades from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in both 2011 and 2012. His only positive grade came in his rookie season, when his plus-0.3 mark ranked him fourth out of four qualifying Jets cornerbacks.
In the rest of the 2010 class, only second-round tackle Vladimir Ducasse (now the team's starting left guard) remains on the roster.
The 2011 draft brought the only big hit: first-round defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. Wilkerson has been a force for the Jets, racking up five sacks and 38 solo tackles in 2012. The rest of the class is grim, though: Kenrick Ellis, Powell, Kerley and reserve quarterback Greg McElroy have combined for 15 career starts in across two seasons.
In 2012, the Jets spent the No. 16 overall pick on controversial defensive end Quinton Coples. Coples, rotating with Mike DeVito, actually led the team in sacks with just 5.5. Still, consistency and motivation were a problem, and Coples played poorly against the run.
Hill, the second-round wideout, and third-round linebacker Demario Davis are slated to start in 2013—but will they play well?
This April, the Jets had two first-round picks: their own No. 9 overall, and the No. 13 overall pick they acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by trading away Revis. With the No. 9 pick, they drafted cornerback Dee Milliner (ostensibly to replace Revis), and they took defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson at 13.
Even assuming Milliner is as good as advertised, it'll be all but impossible for him to replace the best cover corner in the NFL.
One of the clearest signs of a smart, healthy sports franchise is deft management of the transition from aging veterans to budding youth.
Drafting and developing players before they're needed to start, knowing when to extend a veteran and when to let him walk and handling issues of chemistry and leadership are all key to maintaining success.
The Jets have not mastered this.
Richardson is the fourth high draft pick (and third first-rounder) the Jets have used on a defensive lineman in the last three years. Meanwhile, the slowed-down Pace is still starting at the rush linebacker position, and Coples—a defensive tackle by trade—has shed weight to start at the other outside linebacker spot.
That's just the latest example; Tannenbaum made a habit of this.
In 2009, the Jets got great offensive tackle play. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and right tackle Damien Woody finished fourth and 11th among all tackles in Pro Football Focus' overall grades (subscription required). In 2010, the Jets signed free-agent tackle Wayne Hunter, presumably to bring along behind Woody.
Per Pro Football Focus, Hunter was poor in 2010, grading out at minus-10.3 in half as many snaps as it took Woody to earn a plus-20.9 grade. When the aging Woody suffered an Achilles injury, Ryan and the Jets doubled down on Hunter.
According to Rich Cimini of ESPN New York, then-Jets offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo said that May: "Until they ship [Hunter] out of this building or until they shoot me dead in my office, that son of a gun's going to be the starting right tackle, and he's going to play well."
Hunter didn't play well. In 2011, he amassed a minus-20.3 PFF grade, finishing 71st out of 76 qualifying offensive tackles. Fans devoured him for being a turnstile in pass protection and getting Sanchez pounded; he, in turn, said Jets fans are "like sharks," per Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In 2012, the Jets tried to make it work with Hunter, but benched him in favor of former practice-squad member Austin Howard. The Jets eventually swapped disappointing tackles with the St. Louis Rams, sending Hunter to St. Louis in exchange for first-round bust Jason Smith. Both Hunter and Smith were released this spring—but incredibly, the Jets re-signed Smith last week to play Hunter's old Jumbo-package role.
A picture speaks a thousand words, they say, and this picture sums up everything that was wrong with the Jets ownership, front office and coaching staff in 2012:
Somehow, the solution to all of the Jets' many problems was not to shore up the defensive back seven or reinvest in the running game, but to challenge Sanchez by wasting a fourth- and sixth-round draft pick on Tim Tebow, a "quarterback" who took just 77 snaps under center in 2012.
Despite his on-field irrelevance, Tebow commanded almost all of the team's media coverage and likely contributed to the Jets' perceived loss of mojo. The trade was an unmitigated disaster.
The Jets' 2012 season was also an unmitigated disaster. Sanchez was regressing, and Greene unable to carry the load by himself. The defense even finished 20th in scoring for the second straight season. The Jets ranked 26th in scoring differential, 29th in turnover differential and tied for last in the AFC East with the Buffalo Bills at 6-10.
Owner Woody Johnson cleaned house, firing Tannenbaum and nearly everyone else underneath him. The one football-side leader who kept his job, of course, was Ryan.
On one hand, this makes sense: Ryan is undoubtedly a great defensive architect. Nevertheless, the defense hasn't played near its 2009 level since then, and things are likely going to get worse before they get better.
The Jets' general manager search was delayed, according to Fox Sports' Jay Glazer (via Pro Football Talk), because nobody wanted the job. General managers typically prefer to hire their own coach; new Jets GM John Idzik has been saddled with Ryan. Not only was Ryan present in interviews, but per NFL.com's Albert Breer, Idzik can't decide Ryan's fate going forward, either.
This is not how successful NFL teams are run.
If Ryan is a lame duck and—as I wrote earlier this week—the Jets are doomed to a losing season, he could be fired at any time:
But if Ryan is bulletproof, given the blessing of the owner, Idzik has to make it work. The only way the Jets can extinguish the flames and get back to the top of the AFC is to commit to building around Geno Smith and rebuilding the pass rush.
If Jets fans have any hope of staying sane, they're going to have to accept that the 2013 season is lost.