What happened? Eric Mangini was heralded a "genius" after last season's 10-6 debut. The Jets came back with much the same team. They even filled a big hole by trading for 1200-yard rusher Thomas Jones.
One columnist wrote the Jets head coach has lost his magic touch. Let's keep it real. Mangini has lost some of his aggressiveness, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has lost his inventiveness, and the Jets are simply a team of mediocre players trying to reach unrealistic expectations.
While GM Mike Tannenbaum deserves blame for failing to bring in impact players who can rush the passer on defense, Mangini deserves blame for what can now be clearly viewed as his biggest mistake: going with the 3-4 defense. (He does deserve credit for using the 4-3 front against the Eagles, and it was no accident the Jets got more pressure on McNabb than any quarterback they'd played this season in what was their best defensive half of football in 2007).
The Jets defense ceded an average 130 yards per game on the ground last season. This season, it's an unsightly 131 yards per game. Despite the strong second half against Philadelphia, the Jets defense still gave up 413 total yards, including a whopping 151 on the ground for a 5.4 yard average. Brian Westbrook gained 120 yards on just 20 carries.
When the Jets hired Mangini, the roster clearly didn't --and still doesn't-- have the personnel to play the 3-4. Mangini should have started with the 4-3 until management could find the right players to implement his favored front. Although the overall performance Sunday was a little shaky, the 4-3 front showed some life against the Eagles.
Let's remember Mangini doesn't have a lot of experience coaching on any level. He was hired in part because of his affiliation with the New England Patriots, the team the Jets aspire to be. The 10-6 record of '06 masked a lot of weaknesses and breaks, including a porous run defense and a weak schedule.
Chad Pennington's strong play overcoming no running game, leaky pass protection and lack of a game-breaking wide receiver was the biggest reason the Jets made the playoffs. Had Chad not recovered from his injury and Patrick Ramsey been the quarterback, Mangini's team probably would have won 6 games. Fans would have questioned the wisdom of hiring such an inexperienced coach, despite his Belichick pedigree.
For most teams, the difference between winning and losing in the NFL is a few plays a game. The Jets got the plays last season. This season, they aren't. Does that mean Mangini forgot how to coach? No. As silly as it was to hail him a genius in 2006, it's just as shortsighted to say he's failing the team now. Be patient. Mangini is being tested now. Give him to the end of this season to judge how he adjusts.
He got off to a good start Sunday by switching to a four-man defensive front, despite what the Jets say about a "3-4 hybrid." And despite the incessant calls from fans and beat writers to bench Pennington, Mangini is right to stay with #10 at quarterback.
That brings me to some final thoughts from the loss to the Eagles. Yes, the Jets found their running game. But a closer look reveals why it didn't help open things up for the passing attack.
Thomas Jones picked up 82 yards in the 1st quarter and 14 in the second quarter for a 1st half total of 96 yards. Most of his gains came on cutback runs. The Eagles adjusted and closed the cutback lanes down in the 2nd half.
Jones gained only 13 yards in the 3rd quarter and then 21 yards in the fourth. His second half total was 34 yards. After the big start, the Jets ground game did not continue as a line-of-scrimmage-controlling, clock-hogging, impose-your-will performance. Despite the early big gains, the Eagles weren't fooled by the Jets play-action bootlegs. In fact, the Eagles weren't fooled by much.
Jones still should have gotten the ball more on that last drive, especially after a pair of 9 yard runs. Instead… well, I won't go there again.
So the Jets' season is over, no one is calling him Mangenius and Pennington should be shipped to the Canadian League. But anyone who watched the big four o'clock game Sunday should realize something else, too. The season is over for everyone. No one is stopping the New England Patriots.