Are the Jets Underachievers?
The Jets lead the NFL in total team defense (263.7 yards allowed per game) and in team rushing offense (166.6 yards per game). And if it sounds unusual for a team to do both, that's because it is. Only one team in the past 21 years and only seven teams since the 1970 merger have led the NFL in both total defense and rushing offense in the same year. A couple of them rank among the greatest teams in history. So for the Jets to be leading the league in both categories through 15 games and be just 8-7 ... well, that has to be a surprise, right?
"When you look at the way we've figured out ways to lose games, we probably should be four or five games above .500," Jets coach Rex Ryan said Monday when I asked him that very question. "But those stats, you don't luck into those stats. That's usually the blueprint for success in the National Football League -- You've got to play great defense and you've got to be able to run the football this time of year. I think that's what makes us a dangerous football team right now if we can win this game and head into the postseason."
You would think so, yes. Teams that lead the league in total defense and rushing offense are generally the kinds of teams that win a lot of games. This is the list of teams that have done it (including three on which Ryan's father was the defensive coordinator!), with their records and how they finished that season:
-2001 Pittsburgh Steelers - 13-3, lost AFC Championship Game to New England
-1987 San Francisco 49ers - 13-2, lost Divisional Playoff Game to Minnesota
-1986 Chicago Bears - 14-2, lost Divisional Playoff Game to Washington
-1985 Chicago Bears - 15-1, won Super Bowl
-1984 Chicago Bears - 10-6, lost Conference Championship Game to San Francisco
-1976 Pittsburgh Steelers - 10-4, lost Conference Championship Game to Oakland
-1972 Miami Dolphins - 14-0, won Super Bowl
So if the Jets do end up leading the league in both categories, at either 8-8 or 9-7 they'll have the worst record of any team ever to do so. And if that record is 8-8, they'll be the first team ever to lead the league in total defense and rushing offense and miss the playoffs.
(SIDE NOTE: Even if you take out the offensive component, leading the league in total defense is usually a ticket into the postseason. The last team to lead in defense and miss the playoffs was the 1998 Chargers, who averaged 15 points per game on offense and finished 5-11 under head coaches Kevin Gilbride and June Jones.)
"If you look at being No. 1 in the league in rushing and defense, it would seem like we should probably be in a better situation than we are," Jets running back Thomas Jones said. "But it comes down to the little things. And I think, in some of those games we lost, some of the details got lost in the mix."
The Jets have a long list of games they think they should have won. They should have beaten the Dolphins in Miami. They had 20 chances to beat the Bills at home the following week. They should have beaten the Dolphins at home, and they should have stopped the Jaguars and the Falcons from scoring game-winning touchdowns in the final seconds. If they'd won any one of those games, they'd be in already. Two of them, and they'd be playing for a division title.
But they didn't. They have a rookie quarterback who throws too many interceptions. The running game, as awesome as it looks now, took a while to get used to the new zone-blocking scheme the Jets coaches installed this year. It took time to recover from the injury losses of Leon Washington on offense and Kris Jenkins on defense. A whole bunch of stuff went wrong that isn't reflected in the underlying stats that say their record should be better than it is.
"We've had growing pains," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said. "We have a new coach, a new system, a new quarterback, a new philosophy on how we play and how we win. You look at all that, and for us to still have the opportunity to play for the playoffs, that's somewhat of a feat."
Sure, it's all in how you look at it. The Jets aren't going to bog themselves down in the fact that a team with such strong foundational elements as the league's best defense and the league's best running game should have been better over its first 15 games. They're going to focus on this week, and the fact that a win gets them into the playoffs. And if they do get in, they're going to feel pretty good about their chances to win playoff games with the league's best defense and the league's best running game.
"I think that makes us dangerous in the playoffs," Scott said. "Because you have to pack your defense on the road, and you have to run the ball in not-so-perfect elements."
The Jets can do both, which is a rare combination. They just have to win one more game to get the chance to show it off. Otherwise, they may find they've wasted one of the most physically dominant seasons by a team in NFL history.