Thursday-and-Long: 'Technicians' Power Jets' Running Game
And then they'll run for a first down.
"It says a lot about our character that we have the No. 1 rush offense in the league, because teams are geared up to stop us on every play," Jones said last week. "Every play, they're stacking the box to play the run. And we still lead the league. It's a credit to our offensive coaching staff for sticking with the run game and also for listening to us. When you have a veteran offensive line like that, and veteran backs like myself and T-Rich, you're in a situation where the players can almost kind of coach themselves."
The Jets ran the ball 607 times for 2,756 yards in the 2009 regular season. Both figures led the NFL by wide margins, and their 4.5 yards per carry ranked fifth. With a rookie quarterback on whom the team didn't want to put too much responsibility, it was vital that they stick with the running game no matter what happened -- no matter how much it struggled early or how hard other teams worked to try and stop it.
"We wanted to be the No. 1 rushing team in the league," Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca said Sunday night, after they'd finished the season as just that. "And it was everybody. The hard work begins up front, but you have a back like Thomas, a full back like T-Rich, you include the wide receivers, because people don't really think about them when they think about the running game, but our guys block and they're into helping out. The coaching staff, being inventive and staying on us week in and week out. It really was everybody contributing."
It wasn't always easy. In training camp, the Jets' coaching staff installed a zone-blocking scheme that was largely unfamiliar to the offensive linemen and most of the running backs, and it took a little while for them to get used to it. Richardson had played in such a scheme when he was in Kansas City, so he could help in a coach-on-the-field role. But until they'd had enough reps in the new system, it wasn't going to be smooth.
"When we first started, I didn't like it," Jones said. "But (running backs coach) Anthony Lynn did a great job helping us understand it, and once you understand it it makes a lot of sense. It gives our linemen an opportunity to get on their blocks, take the right angles, and it gives us an opportunity to make our own reads. When the line is running sideways, it creates an illusion. You're basically running and letting the defense take itself out of the play, and then you react off of their decision."
The coaching staff knew it was putting additional responsibility on the backs and the linemen by asking them to be so involved in the installation of something so new and complex. But they felt it was a talented and experienced enough group to allow them to do that.
"When you have this many Pro Bowl caliber players, you obviously don't go to the Pro Bowl if you don't know what you're doing," Jones said. "We have a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge, so pretty much any scheme you put in, it's not a matter of us learning it. It's a matter of us buying into it."
And the keys to that are evidence that it's working and a feeling that it's fun. Allowing the offensive linemen to move around and showcase their athleticism is a great way to get them energized. Of course, you have to have the right kind of offensive linemen.
"You don't need a veteran group as much as you need an athletic group," said Richardson, the veteran fullback. "And our guys are very athletic. Nick Mangold, Alan Faneca...all of our guys up front are athletic guys. That's why some teams can't do a zone-blocking scheme, because they don't have the right guys. The Cowboys, for instance. They like their linemen to be huge, and just power, power, power. That's their way, and it works for them. But with our guys, this idea works."
The Jets did buy in. They took the us-against-the-world mentality that comes with always running against stacked fronts. They studied. They listened to their coaches. They talked to each other about what everybody was doing on every play. They got into it, like a study group that actually enjoys the topic on which it's cramming every week.
"I think we're all into the details," Jones said. "Understanding why we need to take certain steps, recognizing what the defense is doing, understanding the offensive line's blocking point on every play. We actually pride ourselves on being technicians -- not just running the ball, but understanding techniques and the reason we do what we do. We're not just backs or tackles or guards or whatever. We're technicians of the running game."
And they've schemed and studied and pushed and run their way into the playoffs.
You can't call Mike Shanahan crazy for taking the Redskins' job, because it's $7 million a year for five years and you'd kind of have to be crazy not to take that. But let's not all run to Vegas and bet the kids' college tuition on the idea that this is going to work. Sure, everybody's saying all the right things and Dan Snyder didn't overwhelm the press conference and Shanahan appears to have picked the GM and it's apparently written into his deal that he gets final say on personnel matters. All fine. Great. Wonderful.
But come on. This is Dan Snyder we're talking about here. If he decides he doesn't like the way Shanahan is coaching or final-saying the personnel, he'll think nothing of canning the guy and paying him not to coach. Snyder doesn't care for money. He's a fan who bought the team, and he still thinks and acts like one.
There are already signs that the weirdness in Washington refuses to wane. The mere possibility that Jerry Gray could get the defensive coordinator's job because he helped the team thumb its nose at the Rooney Rule should give Shanahan pause. And the seemingly popular idea that the quarterback situation is the first thing that needs to be addressed is misguided, since no quarterback could have succeeded this year behind that offensive line. Shanahan's background in Denver indicates he's the sort of coach who will appreciate the importance of the offensive line, but can he sell it to an owner who might rather spend big on a big name receiver like Terrell Owens?
Good luck to Shanahan, who's going to need it. At the very least, he's got all that money.
And by the way, assuming Tom Coughlin's a smart guy, he needs to pay real close attention to the tone and the content of the angry remarks by Giants owner John Mara the other day over New York's 8-8 season. Hours before defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan was let go, Mara was asked what he would do if Coughlin came to him and said he wanted to keep his coaching staff intact.
"You'd like to let the head coach make the final decision on those things, but that would be a tough one to swallow," Mara said. "The status quo after what we just went through is not acceptable."
Translation: If Coughlin had wanted to stand up for his handpicked choice for defensive coordinator, to defend him and say that one bad year wasn't enough on which to judge a man, he might have found his own job in trouble.
Further translation: If the next defensive coordinator flops in 2010, the blame might rise higher up the coaching chain this time next year. This whole situation reminds you how tenuous Coughlin's status was with the Giants before the 2007-08 Super Bowl run. Carolina's John Fox, a former Giants assistant who's still well thought of by Giants ownership, is a free agent after next year. You start to think Coughlin's under serious pressure to make a real nice rebound with a defense that allowed more points than any other team in the league except the Rams and the Lions. Good luck, Tom!
Three (actually four) for the Road
NFL road teams went a tidy 8-8 in Week 17, and for the season road teams finished 110-146 for a winning percentage of .430. My three road picks were 1-2, with the Patriots collapsing in Houston, the Jaguars never getting off the bus in Cleveland and the Ravens punching their playoff ticket in Oakland. So in the 10 weeks since I started this feature, I ended up 15-15 picking three road teams to win every week. I'll take it.
Now, it's the playoffs, and there's only one road team I think will win this weekend. So we're going to do things a little differently. I'm going to rank Wild Card Weekend's four road teams in order of which I think has the best chance to pull the upset. Enjoy:
1. Jets over Bengals. People keep telling me, "But it's the Jets!", to which I reply, "But it's the Bengals!" This pick has nothing to do with last week's result and everything to do with the fact that the Bengals' defense is injury-shredded and not even close to the same unit it was when the team was 7-2. The Jets come in hot, the Bengals come in limping. The David Harris injury is a concern, but I still think the Jets are the healthier team, the hotter team and right now the better team and will win the game.
2. Packers over Cardinals. I like the Packers. But I do think their lack of depth in the defensive secondary will eventually do them in. They have enough to beat Arizona, especially if Anquan Boldin is out or limited, but it's no sure thing. Charles Woodson can only do so much, and Kurt Warner and the Cards have been here -- and beyond -- before.
3. Eagles over Cowboys. The Eagles can beat anybody. They can even beat the Cowboys, even though they failed in two tries during the regular season. I just don't think they will. Dallas' defense is on too intense a roll right now, and Philly's exciting all-out D is too vulnerable to a locked-in, mistake-limiting Tony Romo and the Cowboy running game.
4. Ravens over Patriots. Much as I'd love to see Baltimore make a run, and make my preseason prediction of an all-purple Super Bowl matchup against the Vikings come true, I think they're one-and-done. Their weakness is in the secondary, and even without Wes Welker, the Patriots have enough to take advantage of it at home, where they're 8-0 this year.
This week I'm in New England to preview and cover the Ravens-Patriots game. Currently working on something on Julian Edelman and whether he really can be a Wes Welker replacement. And come Sunday I'll be very interested to see how far the Ravens' running game and their "intangibles" can carry them. Baltimore has been playing from behind all year, but now that they're in the playoffs you wonder if their experience and institutional memory can take over. Problem is, there's plenty of same on the other side.