The Jets Bet on Evolution

Rex Ryan saw where that approach got his father, and where it stopped him. He told the Post earlier this year that he had been afraid his own pro-coaching hopes were doomed in 1993, when his father, the defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers, punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in the face during a regular-season win because he thought the team was passing too much. Buddy Ryan was correct on the football principles—the Oilers would go on to lose a playoff game in which, playing with the lead against the Chiefs, they threw 43 passes, ran only 14 times and left Joe Montana enough time for a fourth-quarter comeback—but the message was lost in the delivery.

Rexball sounded as reckless as Buddyball going into the second game, when safety Kerry Rhodes announced that the Jets would hit Patriots quarterback Tom Brady “more than six times.” Taunting Bill Belichick’s Patriots seems like taunting a column of army ants—Should we get upset about that, coach?—but the Jets hit Brady seven times, kept New England’s offense out of the end zone and won the game, ending an eight-game Patriots winning streak at the Meadowlands.

Winning a home game against a division rival shouldn’t be much to celebrate: less a milestone than an exit sign for the off-ramp from the Jets’ long road to nowhere. Sunday’s 24-10 loss against New Orleans may have been more telling. The Saints were a superior team. They had three blowout wins, with nine touchdown passes by quarterback Drew Brees already. In all three games, they had scored a touchdown the first time they touched the ball.

This time, the Saints began carving their way downfield again: six plays to cross midfield, three more plays to the Jets 22. Then the Jets dug in. A holding penalty, two rushes, and an incomplete pass, and the Saints stalled out and kicked a field goal.

Motivation is not what players feel coming out of the locker room, whipped up by a big speech. It’s what they believe when they’re colliding with other players out on the field. The Saints had more experience and more weapons; the plays the Jets used to attack downfield looked like New Orleans’ dump-off plays. Sanchez tried to force a deep pass to a receiver who was covered, and the Saints’ safety jumped the route and took it 99 yards the other way for a touchdown.

But the Saints couldn’t shake the Jets off. Brees backpedaled in the shotgun, pulling the defense in with the promise of a deep sack, then floated a screen pass into the vacated space, where the receiver broke loose for 36 yards before a saving tackle at the one-yard line. Four plays later—two gang tackles, two passes thrown away—the ball was still at the one-yard line.

It was a Pyrrhic goal-line stand; given the ball back, Sanchez lingered blankly in his own end zone till the Saints swarmed in, stripped the ball and fell on it for a touchdown.

You can only count on coaching to do so much.

The promise of Rexball is that it can blur the distinction between talent and strategy. A week before the Saints game, against the Tennessee Titans, the Jets sent seven defenders to the line on a third-and-long play: Three lined up in a normal defensive front, and four more stood up, in a bunch, off left tackle—the formation for a gambling monster blitz.

At the snap, though, only four people rushed. Bart Scott rolled off into pass coverage, and two more defenders hung back in the gaps. At left tackle, where the mob had been, linebacker David Harris and the diminutive Leonhard came looping around. The Tennessee blockers found one but not the other, and Leonhard closed in on the pocket from the blind side, untouched. Just before he got there, and as the rest of the pass rush began to cave in the line, the quarterback got rid of the ball, throwing to the sideline, where cornerback Darrelle Revis was waiting to break up the pass. It looked like chaos, but the Jets had every part in the right place. Finally.