Jets camp report: With Ryan, Sanchez under pressure, no shortage of intrigue

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Sparano's task: Eliminate turnovers, rekindle the run to give Ryan's defense a break. (US Presswire)  
Sparano's task: Eliminate turnovers, rekindle the run to give Ryan's defense a break. (US Presswire)  

There are no guarantees with this year's New York Jets, only a promise that the team will improve.

We'll see about that. The Jets could be the third-best team in an AFC East that should belong to New England again. Only this time, it's Buffalo -- not New York -- that's the trendy choice for second, with the Jets left to battle themselves.

Of course, they tried that last season and failed miserably. They missed the playoffs for the first time in coach Rex Ryan's career as head coach and battled team discord as much as they did the rest of the AFC East -- with about as much success.

Something had to give and something did. Ryan announced in February that he would not guarantee the Super Bowl for his team as he did in previous years, saying it was "a mistake."

"I felt it did place some undue pressure on our team," he said.

OK, fine. But then the Jets put some undue pressure on quarterback Mark Sanchez by going out and hiring Tim Tebow, a move that had people questioning what it meant for Sanchez. Well, it shouldn't mean squat. Sanchez is the quarterback who led the Jets to two AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons and who is 31-22 in three years as a pro -- including 4-2 in the playoffs.

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Yet he and Ryan are under fire as the season unfolds, with critics ready to pounce if the Jets stumble at the beginning.

"It's all about: What have you done lately?" Sanchez said. "But that's the nature of this game and this league. If we had gone 8-8 [my rookie year] and then gone to two conference championship games things would be fine.

"I just keep that in perspective and remind myself of that. And I remind myself that I can't change that perception unless we play well."

Exactly.

Team Objectives

 Return to Ground and Pound. The Jets ranked first in rushing in 2009 and went to the AFC Championship Game. They ranked fourth in 2010 and went to the AFC Championship Game. They ranked 22nd last year and failed to reach the playoffs. Ryan thinks there's a connection, and he's determined to return to grinding out yards. That's one reason he hired Tony Sparano as his offensive coordinator, and Sparano opened practice the other day by having the Jets try 22 straight runs -- a figure that had Ryan saying, "I don't know if I ever remember [running] that much." Wait until this season.

 Reduce turnovers. The Jets had 34 a year ago, and, no, there was no AFC team with more. The biggest problem: 16 fumbles, which were the second highest in the conference. That must stop. So do the 18 interceptions, and Sparano might be just the guy to do it. "I remember playing against a Tony Sparano offense," linebacker Bart Scott said, "when they had the least amount of turnovers. I know what that's like, and I know what it does for a defense -- allowing it to stay rested and be able to go out and get the ball back. You can literally wear teams out that way." The Jets can only hope.

 Developing team chemistry. Obviously, it wasn't there in 2011, and you didn't need LaDainian Tomlinson to tell you. Just rewind the videotape to last year's season finale when the Jets pulled Santonio Holmes from the huddle in the fourth quarter of their loss to Miami. There was something missing, and it was chemistry. So Sanchez and Holmes got together in the offseason, brokered a détente and now believe that everyone will live happily ever after. "I don't know how many games we'll win," Ryan said, "but we are going to be a close football team, and we are going to compete our tails off. At the end of the day, I think we'll be successful." We'll see.

Camp Battles

Placekicker: Nick Folk is the incumbent. Josh Brown is the challenger. But Folk is inconsistent, solid on the short kicks but only 8 of 13 on tries from 40 yards and beyond last season. He also hit only 76 percent of his total field-goal tries. Brown, who kicked for St. Louis the past four seasons, nailed only 75 percent of his kicks in 2011. Worse, he did it for a team that plays indoors. Once upon a time, Brown appeared to have the inside track on the job. But Folk has looked good and may hold on.

Punter: T. J. Conley should win this job, but he, too, must be more consistent than he has been. Conley has so much talent that special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff said he had one practice where he outkicked any punter Westhoff ever coached -- and that includes Reggie Roby and Rohn Stark. Conley tied for third in the league last season in punts inside the 20 (33) but was only 20th in net average (38.8). If he doesn't improve the Jets may be forced to make a change.

Right tackle: Wayne Hunter called himself the "weakest link" of the Jets' offensive line, and at least the guy is honest. He's also right. Hunter was a turnstile through which pass rushers ran again and again last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed 11 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 32 pressures. Oh, yeah, he also took 11 penalties. The Jets need to upgrade the position, and they tried with the addition of Jeff Otah. But Otah failed the physical and was sent back to Carolina. Hunter may wind up holding on to the position. Not because new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo promised in mid-May that Hunter would start "until they ship him out of the building or until they shoot me dead in the office," but because he's outplaying the competition, and the competition here -- if you call it that -- is Austin Howard. "[Hunter] is our starting right tackle," general manager Mike Tannenbaum said, "until that changes."

Wide receiver: Yes, Santonio Holmes is the go-to guy, but then what? Chaz Schilens? Jeremy Kerley? Stephen Hill? There is such a crowd behind Holmes that cornerback Antonio Cromartie -- who will take occasional snaps at wide receiver -- proclaimed himself the second-best receiver on the club because of what he called "raw ability and talent."

Somebody to Watch

LB Aaron Maybin. The guy is everywhere in practice, hammering ball-carriers, pressuring quarterbacks and even lining up on special teams. "He runs 100 mph," said Ryan. "He doesn't play with any brakes." That about sums it up. The former Bills first-round draft choice is a designated pass rusher with one speed, and that's fine when you point him at a quarterback. The Jets did last season, and Maybin responded with a team-high six sacks in 13 games. Look for more this fall.

Injury Roundup

WR Jeremy Kerley is sidelined with a bad left hamstring after an injury to his right hamstring kept him out of much of the team's offseason program. When CB Darrelle Revis missed Sunday's practice with a tight hamstring, too, Ryan decided to change his practice schedule -- adding 10 more minutes of morning warmups to allow players to stretch more.

S LaRon Landry returned to workouts after recovering from foot injuries that sidelined him this spring.

Three rookies -- LB Demario Davis (hamstring), WR Jordan White (foot) and G Terrence Campbell (hamstring) -- were activated from the PUP list this week and should be able to wear pads for the first time Friday.

The Last Word

"This is a pivotal year," Bart Scott said, and he has that right. The Jets are coming off an 8-8 fizzle that saw them lose their final three games, including a 45-19 blowout in Philadelphia, and miss the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Ryan promised to make changes, and one of his first moves was to take over the defensive play-calling. Ryan insists it's not a big deal; that he called some signals at the end of last season. But any change is big when it happens with the Jets.

"It might be unusual," Ryan said, "but I think it works better for me if I'm more involved."

Players have no complaints. They say that Ryan is more visible and more involved with on-the-field teaching, and they believe that's not just good for one side of the ball; it's good for the entire team.

"It's Rex's defense," Scott said. "Nobody can teach a defense the way [he] can. He's the defense's version of Rain Man. He sees things that other people don't see."

But it's not the defense that is New York's concern. It's the offense. The Jets failed to score more than 19 points in any of their past three starts, and with the same offensive line, the same quarterback and the same running back, people are wondering how in the world their running game improves -- because coaches and players insist it will.

Then, of course, there's the whole Sanchez/Tebow thing, and say this about the Jets: If they're not successful, at least they should be intriguing. They always are.

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