Explaining the Jets: Yes, They Definitely Have a Plan

Over the past week, Jets general manager John Idzik has come under fire for perceived slights with his work building the 2014 team. A New York Daily News article by Jets beat writer Manish Mehta on Saturday was followed by an embarrassing 31-0 loss in San Diego. Quarterback Geno Smith, Idzik’s second-round pick from the 2013 draft, played dismally before being benched, with postgame reports revealing that Smith had missed a team meeting Saturday. All in all, it was a pretty rough weekend for Idzik.

While I won’t pretend the Jets looked remotely competent during their loss to the Chargers, I can’t agree that Idzik has made a mess of running his football team during his two-year tenure. There have been missteps, just as there are with any general manager, but Idzik has executed a clear plan that makes a lot of sense. Criticisms of his performance miss the logic behind a number of Idzik’s decisions.

Take, for example, the idea that Idzik is somehow frugally holding on to his cap space while Jets fans shell out for some of the most expensive tickets in the league. This isn’t late-’90s baseball. There’s absolutely no relationship between in-stadium ticket prices and team spending; every team in the NFL has more than enough money to spend beyond the salary cap, by virtue of the league’s massive national television contract. The economics of one simply have nothing to do with the other. The Jets charge a ton for tickets because they think the market will give them a ton for tickets.

Gang Green has just less than $24 million in cap space, the second-largest figure in football behind the Jaguars ($29 million). It’s natural to think in the short term that the Jets would be better if they had committed that $24 million to players in free agency this offseason, but that ignores two simple concepts.

One is the idea of cap rollover — namely, if the Jets don’t spend that $24 million this year, they can roll it over to create more space on next year’s cap. They weren’t able to do that this offseason, having carried over just $1.5 million in cap space from 2013, which was below the league median of $2.3 million. While the NFL salary cap next year is estimated to be about $140 million, the Jets will get to spend up to $164 million.

Second is the concept of opportunity cost. Spending that money on players now means you’re unable to carry that money over to the future, when you may very well have better (or more expensive) talent available to pursue. It also takes away roster spots from young players who come through the draft, which is where you’re always going to find the most surplus value to build the most sustainable, effective football team.

Look at Idzik’s past and you can see whom he’s emulating. Idzik came from Seattle, where the general manager is John Schneider, who comes from the Ted Thompson tree of managers. Thompson-style general managers hoard draft picks, maintain cap flexibility, and generally avoid the middle class of free agency, only occasionally jumping into the water for a big splash. In fact, the only real missteps Schneider has made during his time at the helm in Seattle have come in free agency, as big deals for players like Matt Flynn, Sidney Rice, and Zach Miller have produced disappointing results, while short-term deals for Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were wildly successful.

With that surely in mind, Idzik’s philosophy in free agency has been mostly to stick with short-term, low-risk contracts. He went deep for wideout Eric Decker, filling what even Idzik critics would agree was a massive hole by getting the best free agent available at the position with a five-year, $36.25 million deal. Also, offensive lineman Breno Giacomini signed a four-year, $18 million contract. Otherwise, contracts for veterans like Chris Johnson, Jason Babin, and Michael Vick have all been relatively short, cheap, or both. That’s not Idzik trying to pinch pennies. It’s Idzik emulating the success of the Seahawks, the Packers, and (although Jets fans might not want to hear it) the Patriots. Bad teams spend to the cap for the sake of spending money.

Idzik had to operate in the low-cost free-agent market because there was very little left in the cupboard when he took over. This was the depth chart in January 2013, shortly before Idzik joined the Jets. It features, by my count, just 17 players who are still on the Jets roster, and most of the departed are veterans who are either done playing football or disappointing on somebody else’s roster. Should Idzik have used the cap space he had to re-sign the likes of Shonn Greene, Austin Howard, or LaRon Landry, who each got ponderously large deals elsewhere?

It’s fair to say many of the short-term stopgaps haven’t paid out, and some have embarrassed the team. Mehta cites the off-field issues of players like Kellen Winslow Jr. and Mike Goodson as evidence it was a mistake to sign them, while cornerback Dimitri Patterson bizarrely signed before the 2014 season and had to be released, leaving the Jets perilously thin. Mehta treats David Garrard as a “notable acquisition,” which is odd for a quarterback who was signed to a one-year deal for the league minimum. In virtually all these cases, Idzik was throwing a short-term solution at the wall and hoping it stuck. Better Vick at $2 million for one year than, say, Josh McCown at two years and $10 million.

Given where the Jets are, that’s not a stupid idea. As I wrote about in the team’s preseason preview, previous general manager Mike Tannenbaum frequently traded up in drafts and used draft picks to acquire veterans, leaving the Jets with virtually nothing on their current roster from their 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 drafts. Idzik surely wants to replace those absent holes with draftees, but it takes time to acquire those picks and develop those players.

And it’s hard to say that Idzik has been a subpar drafter. His first selection in 2013, cornerback Dee Milliner, struggled in much the same way most rookie cornerbacks do before suffering a high ankle sprain that has kept him out for virtually all of the 2014 campaign.1 Idzik’s other first-rounder, Sheldon Richardson, won defensive rookie of the year. Brian Winters, the team’s third-round pick, has been disappointing at guard. It seems insane to suggest it’s time to evaluate Idzik’s 12 picks from the 2014 draft beyond noting that it’s frustrating to see fourth-rounder Jalen Saunders already released. Idzik’s draft record may turn out to be unsatisfactory, but it’s far too soon to tell.2

Look at the depth chart of the Seahawks from October 1 of Schneider’s second year with the team as a sign of how much work still had to be done. Schneider had already acquired Marshawn Lynch, but Lynch was a mess who didn’t break out until later in the 2011 season. Richard Sherman was just a fifth-round pick who hadn’t started an NFL game. The likes of Aaron Curry and Marcus Trufant were still hanging out in serious roles on the roster, while veteran fill-ins like Robert Gallery and Alan Branch would play meaningful roles that year.

Most notably, pay attention to the most important spot of all: quarterback. Schneider surely knew he wasn’t going to win a ton of football games with Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback, even after making the mistake of trading a third-round pick and swapping second-round picks to acquire Whitehurst from the Chargers.

Instead of spending to the limit to try to squeeze a 9-7 season out of a football team with no prayer of going far in the playoffs, Schneider maintained flexibility, trusted his ability to draft and develop talent, and waited for the right quarterback opportunity to come. Eventually he found Russell Wilson, and the rest is history.

The truth for Idzik and the Jets right now is that it doesn’t matter what they do elsewhere in terms of winning now without a quarterback. They’re bad enough at that position that the other moves they make are just window dressing — a series of short-term decisions and drafted lottery tickets to set them up for that moment when they actually have the quarterback they need to succeed. That’s not what Rex Ryan or Jets fans want to hear, but it’s the reality of where they’re at in the NFL. Idzik still has to execute that plan, and it won’t matter until he finds that quarterback, but he’s on the right track.

As for Ryan and the Jets? Expectations were likely too high coming into the season. The Jets were 8-8 last year, but they were outscored by 97 points, which is the point differential of a 5.4-win team. That win-loss record included an unsustainable 5-1 performance in games decided by a touchdown or less, including two miraculous wins driven by unlikely late-game penalties on the Buccaneers and Patriots. The Jets already had two seven-point losses and an eight-point loss on their résumé this year before Sunday’s blowout. If they had enjoyed just an average amount of luck in close games last year and gone 5-11, Ryan probably would have been fired. Now, regardless of what Idzik does, Ryan will probably suffer that fate.

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ers

Back to Basics

Running back has been a tumultuous position in fantasy football this year. Among the players who rank in the top 10 for fantasy points at the position are a guy coming off a season-ending neck surgery who was supposed to be a backup (Ahmad Bradshaw), a third-stringer who was cut by the Jaguars in March (Justin Forsett), and a player almost nobody had heard of before the middle of September (Matt Asiata).

More significant is that, on the other side of the coin, many of the players who were expected to be every-week starters have been sorely disappointing. The Adrian Peterson saga is obviously a case unto itself, but even among the players who have stayed on the field, poor performances have popped up all around the league. That’s hardly a fantasy-only problem, either, as teams that were expecting steady production from well-known backs have instead received middling, frustrating performances. (Every LeSean McCoy owner nods.) (Chip Kelly nods, too.)

Now that we’re five weeks into the year, let’s run through some of these struggling running backs and try to figure out what’s up. Is there something flukish about their slow start? Have they been affected by something unexpected? And will they turn things around anytime soon?

LeSean McCoy, Eagles: Let’s start with Shady, who has been fantasy football’s most disappointing player3 this season. Through five weeks, the defending rushing champ has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry on his 94 attempts and, even more distressingly, just 4.9 yards on his 14 catches. The only player with 10 receptions or more who has averaged fewer yards per catch is Lamar Miller. Even worse, McCoy has just one touchdown all season, a one-yard plunge against the Colts in Week 2. After averaging 17.4 fantasy points per game last season, McCoy has averaged just 7.6 points through his first five games. What gives?

The obvious problem for McCoy has been his offensive line (or lack thereof). In 2013, with the same five linemen starting all 16 games, McCoy had fantastic blocking and often only had to make one guy miss to break a big gain. This year, the Eagles have already started nine offensive linemen, which has been a huge hindrance. Too often, we’ve seen McCoy run plays get bottled up in the backfield by teams attacking the inexperienced interior of Philadelphia’s offensive line, and while there might not be anybody better at shaking defenders with pure agility than McCoy, he can break only so many tackles before the cavalry comes in to finish the job.

That being said, there are some reasons to believe Shady will turn things around. There’s no rhyme or reason to think he’ll end up finishing the season with three touchdowns, as he’s on pace to do. The Eagles have given him just two carries inside the 5-yard line, both against the Colts, and one of which produced that score. McCoy’s not a classic goal-line back by any means, but he’s the best back the Eagles have in short yardage, and he should see more opportunities in the weeks to come.

McCoy’s receiving totals should also go up. He averaged about 7.8 yards per catch during his first five seasons, including 10.4 yards per catch in his lone season under Kelly. And while Darren Sproles has attracted plenty of attention for all the great work he’s done, he hasn’t dramatically affected McCoy’s usage rate. Of Philadelphia’s offensive plays this year, 32.7 percent have gone to McCoy, down from 35.9 percent in 2013. That amounts to about two fewer touches per game. As Evan Mathis and Jason Kelce return from injuries in the second half, McCoy could very well return to his otherworldly form of 2013.

Eddie Lacy, Packers: The world finally saw signs of life from Lacy this past Thursday, when he broke a number of big gains against the Vikings while personally embarrassing Minnesota safety Robert Blanton in front of a national television audience. The end result wasn’t quite as impressive as the early returns, as the Packers gave Lacy only 13 carries in the blowout win, but he produced 105 yards and two touchdowns, which should make both Packers fans and Lacy owners quite happy.

Is it a sign Lacy’s back on track? I think so. Lacy’s first four games were marred by a stretch of dominant run defenses. The Seahawks, Jets, and Lions each ranked among the top four in run defense DVOA heading into Week 5, while the Bears had been a league-average bunch. Minnesota was the first below-average run defense Lacy had faced all year, and it’s no surprise both he and his offensive line finally got things going.

After this week, it should be smoother sailing for Lacy. The Dolphins have delivered a quietly impressive year against the run and rank ninth in run defense DVOA, but Lacy follows that matchup with games against the Panthers and Saints, who have been among the league’s worst run defenses. That should help bring his season numbers back into line with expectations.

The one thing I’d worry about with Lacy during the second half is his schedule during the fantasy playoffs: While he gets the dismal Atlanta run defense in Week 14, Green Bay follows that up with games against the excellent rush defenses of the Bills and Buccaneers in Weeks 15 and 16. He should be almost entirely dependent upon touchdowns those weeks, which will be agonizing in the heat of a fantasy postseason. The Packers have had only four carries from inside the opposition’s 5-yard line, but three have gone to Lacy, which suggests he’ll be the goal-line back in those matchups to come.

Doug Martin, Buccaneers: No man in football is getting more out of one good game at the right time than Martin is from his stunning performance as a rookie against the Raiders. In that 2012 tilt, Martin ran the ball 25 times for an incredible 251 yards against an Oakland Raiders team that … offered only cursory defenses against runners that year, finishing 24th in run defense DVOA. This is always an unfair exercise, but take that one game off his record and his rushing average in 2012 falls from 4.6 yards per attempt all the way down to 4.1 yards per carry, while his career totals fall all the way to 3.8 yards per carry.

OK. One big game is one thing. But Martin really hasn’t looked good at any point during the past two years, either during his brief spell on the active roster in 2013 or in limited time this year. He’s averaged just 2.5 yards per carry on his 37 rushing attempts, which is the second-worst rate for running backs with 30 carries or more. Only Donald Brown, who ran wild for a mere 2.1 yards per carry before getting injured Sunday, has been worse than Martin.

At this point, I think it’s OK to jump off the Martin bandwagon. Bobby Rainey has averaged 4.7 yards per carry behind the same offensive line and in many of the same situations as Martin. Rainey is shiftier, but he catches passes well out of the backfield and just looks to be a smarter, more decisive runner than his predecessor. Martin, whose longest run of the year is just 16 yards, is a sunk cost drafted by the last Bucs administration. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him lose his regular job in the weeks to come.

Filed Under: NFL, New York Jets, Geno Smith, Michael Vick, John Idzik, LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles, Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers, Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell