New-Look Jets Hope That Changes Mean Victories
Ownership jazzed up the New York Jets before last season. Cleaned house. Out with the old, in with the ...
New coach: Bruce Coslet.
New general manager: Dick Steinberg.
New players: Twenty-three with no more than one year of NFL experience.
But on the field, the song remained the same. A 6-10 record marked the fourth consecutive season the Jets missed the playoffs. They beat only one team that finished with a winning record and they have not won the American Football Conference East since 1969.
So why is running back Freeman McNeil patiently explaining his impatience for the season to start?
“Somehow, someway, I just got a gut feeling that we’re going to win a pretty good amount of games this year,” he said. “It’s like, hurry up, let’s get here.”
McNeil, the Jets’ all-time rushing leader, is excited because despite a winless exhibition season, he sees the lessons of 1990 becoming knowledge in 1991.
“Last year was just try to learn the play and execute,” he said. “This year is understanding just about every aspect of what’s going on, from the receivers down to the linemen to the quarterback.”
Coslet came from the Cincinnati Bengals, Steinberg from the New England Patriots. Each has been to the Super Bowl. Breaking a losing habit was the first order of business.
“That was one of the things that we really had to deal with last year,” Coslet said, “restoring some confidence in these guys.”
The Jets led at halftime 11 times. They blew fourth-quarter leads against Cincinnati, the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts.
“We got worn down at the end of some games,” said Coslet, who emphasized offseason conditioning. “Some teams virtually overpowered us so we tried to address that in Plan B and in the draft by adding a little size.”
Their top pick was quarterback-of-the-future Browning Nagle, chosen in the second round out of Louisville. He will hold a clipboard and learn from Ken O’Brien. Entering his eighth season, O’Brien started every game in 1990 and did well when given time to throw, but he hasn’t had a standout season since 1986. He was 226 for 411 for 2,855 yards, with 13 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions last season.
O’Brien will throw to one of the league’s finest receiving tandems. Al Toon is the possession receiver and Rob Moore the breakaway threat. Toon led the team with 57 receptions for 757 yards and six touchdowns; Moore was second with 44 receptions for 692 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Terance Mathis was the team’s leading receiver in the exhibition season until he banged up his knee in a 24-10 loss to the New York Giants, but he should be back. At tight end, Mark Boyer has been slowed by an ankle injury.
The Jets averaged 132.9 rushing yards a game last season, second in the AFC and fourth in the NFL.
Youngsters Blair Thomas (620 yards) and Brad Baxter (539) and veterans Johnny Hector (377) and McNeil (458) give the Jets four running backs who averaged more than 4 yards a carry.
McNeil is still dangerous. He can play tailback, fullback or wide receiver. Baxter, signed as a free agent in 1989, was a pleasant surprise. He blocked well, scored a team-high six touchdowns and was second in rushing to Thomas.
The offensive line must protect the immobile O’Brien so he can get the ball to the talented receivers. The Jets allowed 40 sacks last year, fewest since 1982.
Center Jim Sweeney probably will have varied company. Dave Cadigan, still trying to regain his form after undergoing major knee surgery 10 months ago, will be the starter at left guard for at least a month. Mike Haight, who started 14 games last season at left guard, underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee Tuesday.
Tackles Jeff Criswell and Brett Miller will be challenged by Irv Eatman (6 foot 7, 298 pounds), acquired by trade from the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I see a very young and talented football team,” Eatman said. “I’ve been on other teams with less talent than this and seen them win.”
If the line holds up, the Jets should score a lot, particulary with ageless Pat Leahy, who made 23 of 26 field-goal attempts and every conversion. Their success depends on how well they prevent opponents from scoring.
Middle linebacker Kyle Clifton summed up the Jets’ biggest need: “You have to be able to stop the run in this league to have a good defense.”
The Jets allowed 4.8 yards per carry last year, highest in the league.
“A lot of people think we got pushed around, but I don’t think that was the case,” said Jeff Lageman, the 1989 first-round pick who moved from outside linebacker to defensive end last season. “I think a lot of it was being out of position.”
Lageman said it took a while to grasp the nuances of a new, stunting defense where coordination is paramount.
Pass rush is a problem. Aside from Dennis Byrd (13 sacks), there isn’t much of one.
To strengthen the line, Steinberg signed Plan B free agent Bill Pickel. Rookie Mark Gunn may eventually help, but injuries have slowed his progress. Southern Connecticut State grad Scott Mersereau is solid at nose tackle.
Darrell Davis showed pass-rushing promise late last season. In limited action, he had five sacks, including one of Houston’s Warren Moon in which he stripped the ball and recovered it for the winning touchdown. But in four exhibition games, Davis failed to get a sack.
The lack of pressure on the quarterback increases the pressure on the secondary, led by the best cornerback nobody knows about, James Hasty. The other corner, Tony Stargell, was on the NFL All-Rookie team.
The Jets finished 1990 with successive victories, the last over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their first opponent this year. That game should show whether the Jets are improved, or simply a year older.