Friday, October 6, 2017

Flipping a coin

The New York Jets finished with a 5-11 record last season and a roster littered with malcontents. That is totally unacceptable in that market.

Something had to be done. General Manager Mike Maccagnan decided to clean house.

When several productive veterans on both sides of the football were cashiered, it was thought in some quarters that the Jets were taking dead aim on the top pick in next year’s college football draft.

And when they signed 38-year-old Josh McCown to helm the offense, every conclusion pointed at that very notion, especially with a strong quarterback class ready to come out.

What better way to be in position to grab one of those quarterbacks – Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Mason Rudolph and Lamar Jackson just to name a few – than to dive to the bottom of not only the AFC East, but to the basement of the entire National Football League.

Follow the script the Browns wrote last season when they jettisoned six valuable members of the 2015 team and tumbled all the way to 1-15 with a team that played just well enough to deserve that record. And got the overall first pick.

So after parting with the likes of receivers Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall, defensive backs Darrelle Revis and Calvin Pryor, defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, linebacker David Harris and center Nick Mangold, why are the Jets 2-2 entering Sunday’s road game against the Browns? They were supposed to be 0-4.

The expected dive apparently existed only in the minds of those who believed a 50% roster turnover would translate into disaster with an eye on the future. Take the hit now and reap the rewards later.

Coach Todd Bowles and Maccagnan had other ideas. They figured they had nothing to lose by clearing the locker room of the malcontents and changing the culture with a bunch of new faces. And they have been vindicated thus far.

When those who predicted hard times ahead for the Jets now look at the standings in the AFC East, they see the Jets owning the same record as the New England Patriots (before the Pats’ victory Thursday night over Tampa Bay.). And then they see the 0-4 Browns on deck.

It has caused the multitude of 2018 mock draft sites to rethink where the Jets will finish and make the necessary adjustments. It removes one of the Browns’ chief contenders for that top pick.

Which brings us to the game itself.

The Jets lost the first two games of the season on the road before winning the last two at home, the latest a 23-20 overtime victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

They average a very respectable 131 yards on the ground, but the defense permits a gaudy 144 yards a game. It’s through the air that the Jets have significantly improved.

Replacing 34-year old Ryan Fitzpatrick with the four-years-older McCown has helped take pressure off the run game. McCown, who played the last two seasons with the Browns and counts them as the seventh of eight teams he has played for in his 15-year NFL career, has completed 70% of his passes this season.

Veteran wide receivers Jermaine Kearse and Jeremy Kerley, brought in by Maccagnan to help McCown, have combined with returnee Robby Anderson to catch 43 passes for 479 yards and three touchdowns.

The Browns wish they had receivers like Kearse, obtained from the Seattle Seahawks for Richardson, and Kerley, who began his NFL career with the Jets in 2011 and was signed as a free agent just before the start of the season.

The Jets, though, hardly involve their tight ends in the game plan. Only 11 catches for 102 yards, which very well might mean an afternoon off for deep, deep, deep Browns free safety Jabrill Peppers.

The veteran offensive line is coming off a 256-yard game on the ground with running backs Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire accounting for the entire yardage. Powell scored on a 75-yard romp; McGuire ripped off a 69-yard touchdown.

That battle up front against a Cleveland defense that allows just 87 yards a game on the ground probably will be a key factor in who wins this game, especially if Browns rookie defensive end Myles Garrett is healthy enough to finally make his NFL debut, albeit on a limited basis.

Defensively, the Jets are vulnerable to a strong running game, which probably eliminates anything the Browns might think of doing in that capacity since Hue Jackson chooses to put the ball in the air 70% of the time.

With Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. champing at the bit to run, it stands to reason Jackson and his cohorts on the offensive side of the ball have seen enough tape of the Jets’ inability to stop the run and decide to turn Crowell and Johnson loose.

Then again, placing reason and Hue Jackson in the same sentence constitutes an oxymoron.

Inside linebacker Demario Davis is back with the Jets after a season with the Browns and leading the team in tackles. The Browns’ second-leading tackler last season should be familiar with Jackson’s approach to the ground game.

The Jets defend the pass much better than the Browns, allowing only a 58.8% completion rate and just 204 yards a game to opposing quarterbacks, which makes DeShone Kizer’s 51.4% completion rate and eight interceptions look appetizing to the Jets’ secondary.

At the beginning of the season, I thought this was the Browns’ best chance to win a game in the first five games. I also thought, as most followers of the NFL thought, the Jets would either threaten to match the Browns’ 1-15 record last season or join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only NFL teams to lose all their games.

Splitting their first four games removes those possibilities and creates a conundrum with regard to this game. The Jets are on a mini-roll. They arrive in Cleveland brimming with confidence. The Browns are coming off their worst game of the season at home. They badly want to make it up to the home folks.

Let’s review: Incentive and home cooking on Browns’ side; Jets on a roll and confident after two victories in a row; both Jets losses on road; Jets have won last four meetings between teams; Jets run ball well; Browns stop run well; Browns take five-game losing streak into this one. Add it all up, remove coin from pocket, flip it and it comes up . . . Browns. With fingers crossed, make it:

Browns 23, Jets 21

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