AFC East: New York Jets
The name-dropping was understandable. After all, there was history between Mornhinweg and Vick. Smith soaked it up, taking copious notes as he navigated a winding rookie season.
This season, the real Vick, not the ghost, will be sitting alongside Smith in the meeting room. That can be a good thing -- Smith can learn straight from the source -- or a bad thing if he becomes unnerved by Vick's presence. If Smith is bothered by the situation, he's not letting on. He sounds like a proven veteran, not a second-year quarterback who endured one of the worst statistical seasons in recent times.
"I don't want to make any statements or put anything out there, but once the season comes, I mean, I expect big things," Smith told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I believe fully in myself. I have the utmost confidence in myself. I know I have the ability to play in this league."
There are doubters, to be sure, but Smith's conviction was steeled by his encouraging finish last season. His teammates and coaches saw it in the offseason, with the decisiveness he showed in the huddle in spring practices and the self-confidence he demonstrated in the locker room. That was one of the biggest takeaways from the offseason: the New Geno.
It has to be a new Geno if the Jets hope to snap their three-year playoff drought. Right now, the Jets have eight-win talent, but that modest number jumps to double digits if Smith improves as much as they believe he can.
Thousands of words will be written and spoken this summer about Eric Decker and Chris Johnson, the Jets' marquee additions, but 2014 is all about Smith, whom the Jets expect to be their season-opening starter.
They say he's stronger and faster. As part of his offseason regimen, Smith trained with a speed parachute, proudly texting photos of himself to Lee.
They say his footwork now comes naturally. A year ago, he was so unfamiliar with the Jets' offense that he counted steps in his head.
They say his command of Mornhinweg's system has improved to the point where he's self-sufficient. As a rookie, Smith leaned heavily on center Nick Mangold, who did more hand-holding than a lovestruck teenager.
"It's gotten away from me telling him exactly what to do," Mangold said. "Now it's more of a two-way discussion."
They say Smith is more of a leader than last year. Let's be clear: He's not a fiery, in-your-face kind of quarterback, but there are indications that he wants to make it his team.
In March, when he learned of the Decker signing on ESPN's Bottom Line, Smith immediately texted general manager John Idzik, asking for Decker's number. He reached out to his newest receiver, welcoming him to the team, discussing places to live in New Jersey and asking Decker about his favorite pass routes.
Smith tried to do that with every newcomer, even draft picks, taking ownership in the team. A year ago, he kept to himself, trying to fit in.
"I didn't want to come in as that guy who thinks he knows it all," Smith said. "I feel like I had to earn my stripes, and I feel like I've done that to a certain extent.
"But I'm still learning, still growing. I still listen to the vets, but it's a different level of leadership from me. Last year, I was a vocal guy when I needed to be, but it wasn't as much as I'm going to show this year."
Smith threw 21 interceptions, and that was a source of frustration for coaches and players alike, but they maintained their support because they respected his work ethic and mental toughness. No matter how bad it got, he refused to fold.
"He went through everything a rookie quarterback could go through," guard Willie Colon said. "Now he's like, 'All right, it's time for me to step up.' He's embracing the challenge. We all know Geno is feisty. He's strong-minded. He has the ability to fight. We believe in him."
"Every time Geno felt challenged, whether it was in the press or by anyone else, he usually responded and played a great game," Quinn said. "I think he had five come-from-behind wins. Those are powerful statements."
Quinn came away impressed with Smith, who he believes has "a ton of arm talent." Unfortunately, there wasn't much talent around that arm, resulting in one of the worst offenses in the league. That should change with Johnson in the backfield and Decker on the perimeter.
It's all there for Smith in Year 2, but there still are plenty of critics. In a recent ESPN.com poll of 25 personnel executives and coaches, he was rated the worst starting quarterback in the league.
Do the Jets know something that no one else does? Maybe they do. Mornhinweg and Lee are widely respected offensive minds, so their opinions carry weight. Their jobs, along with that of Rex Ryan, could be riding on Smith. If he backslides or fails to show improvement, it'll be a costly setback for the organization.
Smith's biggest challenge is reading defenses, according to people who have studied him on tape. He was a one-read quarterback at West Virginia, so it was a difficult transition to Mornhinweg's version of the West Coast offense, which is predicated on multiple reads and exact timing.
There were long stretches last season in which Smith showed questionable instincts for the position, making poor decision after poor decision. The Jets expect that to get better with experience.
The new variable for Smith is the Vick factor. This is a different ballgame for Smith, who didn't have to worry last season about losing his job. Even though Vick claims he will embrace the mentor role, he's a direct threat to Smith. One or two bad games, and the masses will be screaming for a change.
You could certainly argue that Vick, 34, is better than Smith and deserves a fair shot at the starting job, but the powers-that-be have decided to stack the competition in Smith's favor, making it his job to lose. They won't hand it to him. He'll have to earn it, staving off a player he grew up admiring. It's a fascinating dynamic, especially with the Mornhinweg factor. Smith is battling his role model for a role.
"I don't feel any pressure at all," Smith said. "Maybe, in the outside world, people might think that way. If I do hit a rough patch, I fully expect Mike to pick me up. If it was the other way around, I'd do the same for him because that's the way we are. We're friends and we're teammates."
They're close. Soon, we'll find out if it's too close for comfort.
Matt Simms, last season's No. 2 quarterback. Simms has improved a lot, but he could be fighting city hall. The Jets drafted Boyd based on Rex Ryan's recommendation, and we know how general manager John Idzik hates to cut draft picks. The ideal scenario would be to stash Boyd on the practice squad for a year, but he'd have to clear waivers.
RUNNING BACKS (4)
Daryl Richardson, formerly of the St. Louis Rams, and Alex Green will bid to create a fifth spot. That could hinge on Johnson's surgically repaired knee. If he's not 100 percent, it might pay to carry an extra back as insurance. Bohanon is the only fullback.
WIDE RECEIVERS (7)
Yes, it's unusual to carry seven receivers. It might be unconventional in terms of roster management, but the Jets feel this is one of their deepest areas -- a dramatic change from last year. Ford sticks because of his kickoff-returning ability. Saunders could emerge as the punt returner. He and Evans are fourth-round picks, so they'd have to be terrible to get cut.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
Cumberland and Amaro complement each other. Cumberland is an in-line tight end, Amaro is a "flex" tight end. They don't have a true blocker who can move people around in the running game, a deficiency that can be addressed via the waiver wire.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
- D'Brickashaw Ferguson
- Brian Winters
- Nick Mangold
- Willie Colon
- Breno Giacomini
- Oday Aboushi
- Ben Ijalana
- Dalton Freeman
- Dakota Dozier
Winters, Colon and Aboushi are in a three-way competition for the two guard spots, with Winters and Colon likely to emerge. The Jets are counting on Winters to make a big leap after a rough rookie year. Colon, coming off two offseason surgeries, said he will be ready for camp, but his injury history is a concern. None of the backups have regular-season experience, so that's troubling.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (5)
Same five players as last year. Why mess with a good thing? Five seems low, but Quinton Coples -- the rush linebacker -- plays a lot in a three-point stance, when the Jets shift to their 4-3 front. Wilkerson, Richardson and Harrison form one of the better front threes in the NFL.
- David Harris
- Demario Davis
- Calvin Pace
- Quinton Coples
- Nick Bellore
- Antwan Barnes
- Garrett McIntyre
- Jermaine Cunningham
- Jeremiah George
The big question surrounds Barnes, who underwent knee surgery last October and has been slow to recover. If Barnes can't get it done as a pass-rushing specialist, it'll create more opportunities for Cunningham. This is a huge year for Coples, a former first-round pick who hasn't fulfilled expectations.
Ryan likes to carry a lot of corners, so it wouldn't be a surprise if they keep seven, perhaps including Ras-I Dowling. It would mean cutting back at another position, probably wide receiver. Patterson is expected to start outside, but he could slide inside on passing downs, replacing Wilson, if another option emerges outside. McDougle could be that guy.
Pryor, their first-round pick, is expected in the opening-day lineup. The question is who will be his tag-team partner? Landry is the wise head of the secondary, but his role could be reduced if Allen continues to develop. The Jets want more speed on the field, and that doesn't bode well for Landry.
All set here.
NFL Nation reporter Rich Cimini examines the three biggest issues the New York Jets will face heading into training camp.
1. The pseudo quarterback competition: Michael Vick is right, it's not an open competition between him and Geno Smith. The Jets have stacked it in Smith's favor, as they plan to give him 70 to 75 percent of the first-team practice reps in training camp. There's nothing wrong with that -- as long as Smith performs well, building on his encouraging finish last season. The situation could turn volatile if Smith regresses and Vick, maximizing his limited opportunities, outplays the second-year quarterback. What, then?
Vick, 34, was mediocre in the spring, but it's not a stretch to think he could light it up in the preseason. After all, he has a background in Marty Mornhinweg's offense, so it should be a seamless transition. Publicly, Vick says he's cool with his role as the mentor/backup, but perhaps that will change if it becomes obvious he's the best man for the job. The Jets have been known to botch quarterback competitions (see Smith vs. Mark Sanchez). From the team's perspective, the best that could happen is Smith steps up and makes it an absolute no-brainer.
2. Integrating new faces on offense: After a brutal year on offense, the Jets expect to make a major improvement after acquiring wide receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson and drafting tight end Jace Amaro. The challenge is to get them up to speed in Mornhinweg's offense and to define their roles.
Decker is easy -- he's the No. 1 receiver -- but Johnson's situation is partly cloudy. Recovering from knee surgery, he didn't participate in the spring and could be on a modified practice schedule in camp. If healthy, he could make a huge difference with his home run ability as a runner. They'd also like to involve him in the passing game because he's so dangerous in space. They have two capable backs in Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, so the objective is to formulate a plan for the regular season. If healthy, Johnson should be the lead back.
Amaro has a steep learning curve, coming from a no-huddle, spread offense in college -- so don't expect overnight success. They have to find a legitimate No. 2 option in the passing game or else Decker, not accustomed to being a No. 1, will see extra coverage. You're not in Denver anymore, Eric.
3. The greening of the secondary: For the first time since 2006, the Jets don't have anyone named Darrelle Revis or Antonio Cromartie on the back end -- and that's scary. This is a unit in transition, easily the youngest secondary of the Rex Ryan era.
They will have a second-year corner (Dee Milliner) and, in all likelihood, a rookie safety (Calvin Pryor) in the opening day lineup. The other starters could be corner Dimitri Patterson and safety Dawan Landry, both in their 30s, but they're keeping the seats warm for rookie Dexter McDougle and third-year safety Antonio Allen, respectively. In this case, change is good because the secondary was the weakest unit on the team in 2013, surrendering an inordinate amount of big plays and making only 11 interceptions.
They passed on some big-name corners in free agency, including Revis, opting to go with youth and speed. The downside is the inevitable growing pains. Ryan's defense relies heavily on communication and adjustments, and there are bound to be hiccups with so many inexperienced players.
Date: Nov. 22, 2012. Site: MetLife Stadium
The people have spoken. The voters picked the Butt Fumble as the New York Jets' most memorable play. My take? Give yourselves a round of applause.
"Memorable" doesn't mean the best, it means something that will be remembered. If the objective was to determine the best play, it would've been Joe Namath-to-Don Maynard in the 1968 AFL Championship Game or Ken O'Brien-to-Wesley Walker in the 1986 classic against the Miami Dolphins. Those were tremendous plays displaying great skill and poise under pressure. We could probably add a few more to a great-play list. Truth be told, the franchise's most iconic image is that of Namath, flashing the No. 1 sign as he trots off the field at Super Bowl III -- a picture that transcends a simple photo caption.
But like I said, we're talking memorable plays here, folks.
Mark Sanchez), a slapstick moment (Sanchez crashing into the buttocks of guard Brandon Moore), a significant outcome (a fumble recovery for a touchdown), a national stage (Thanksgiving night, 2012) and two bitter rivals, the Jets and the New England Patriots.
The ramifications of the Butt Fumble were significant. It fueled an epic meltdown in the second quarter, which led to an embarrassing loss, which all but ruined the Jets' playoff hopes and led to the demise of general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
Oh, did we mention the hilarity of the play?
In many ways, the legend of the Butt Fumble was enhanced by the social-media landscape. It blew up on Twitter and YouTube, and ESPN contributed by playing it over and over and over. It topped the "Not Top 10" list for 40 consecutive weeks before it was mercifully retired. Of course, the fans voted, so don't place all the blame on us. The point is, if Namath had run into Randy Rasmussen's rear end in 1968, the fallout wouldn't have been anything close to the Butt Fumble.
I was there for the other two nominees, Dan Marino's fake spike in 1994 and Jumbo Elliott's improbable touchdown catch in 2000. The impact of Marino's play can't be overstated because it shattered the psychologically fragile Jets, who never won again that season, costing Pete Carroll his job. I was happy for Carroll when he won the Super Bowl last February at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the fake spike occurred in the old Giants Stadium. Elliott's touchdown was a terrific moment, no doubt, but I don't consider it an all-timer.
Anyway, the fans got it right. It had to be the Butt Fumble. Anything else would've been a butt ... well, you know.
Everything is set up for Smith to succeed, right down to the Jets' salary-cap plan. With only $1.9 million in quarterback money committed to 2015, a big reason why they have a ton of cap room in future years, they have the flexibility to give him a mega-contract in 2016. If it's justified, of course. That would complete general manager John Idzik's grand rebuilding plan. He already has a good, young defense with a handful of potential stars, and there are a few skill-position players that make you think the offense can improve. The missing piece is the quarterback.
Call it a curse. The Jets thought they had their franchise quarterback a decade ago, but Chad Pennington's career was ruined by shoulder injuries. After one year of Brett Favre, a move that showed their desperation, they drafted Mark Sanchez. He was anointed as the new golden boy, but his career veered off the rails after two promising seasons. That brought them to Smith, who carries the torch for the quarterback-starved franchise.
This is one of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in New York Jets history. Previously, we featured Dan Marino's infamous fake spike against the Jets in 1994 and Jumbo Elliott's improbable touchdown catch in 2000. Please vote for your choice as the Jets' most memorable play.
Score: New England Patriots 49, New York Jets 19
Date: Nov. 22, 2012 Site: MetLife Stadium
Mark Sanchez and Brandon Moore.
On Thanksgiving night, before a national TV audience, the Jets staged a botched play that became an instant YouTube sensation, a blooper for the ages. After all, how many plays have their own Wikipedia page?
It was supposed to be an inside handoff to the fullback, Lex Hilliard, but Sanchez turned the wrong way as he stepped away from the center. Trying to salvage something, he tucked the ball and ran toward his right side of his offensive line. When the hole closed, Sanchez did the right thing: He slid. Incredibly, he slid into the rear end of right guard Brandon Moore, who was trying to fight off the Patriots' massive defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork.
Sanchez crashed into Moore's buttocks with such force that it jarred the ball loose. Naturally, Moore fell on top of Sanchez, almost completing the slapstick moment. But there was more: The ball bounced up for Patriots safety Steve Gregory, who made the scoop-and-score, returning it 32 yards for a touchdown. Sanchez later said the entire play was like "a car accident."
The short- and long-term ramifications were significant. The Jets entered the game with a 4-6 record, hoping to jump back into the race with a win against their top rival. It was scoreless after one quarter, but the Butt Fumble helped fuel an epic second-quarter meltdown. Gregory's touchdown made it 21-0, and it became 28-0 seconds later when the Patriots' Julian Edelman recovered a mid-air fumble on the ensuing kickoff and returned it for a score.
By halftime, it was 35-3. It was so embarrassing that "Fireman Ed," the Jets' celebrity fan, walked out on the game and his beloved team at the half. He has yet to return to the stadium for a game. The loss ruined the Jets' playoff chances, prompting owner Woody Johnson to fire general manager Mike Tannenbaum at the end of the season. Some people feel the Butt Fumble game sealed Tannenbaum's fate.
The play defined a lost season and the Jets' long and hapless effort to overtake the Patriots. It remained in the national consciousness, thanks to ESPN's "SportsCenter." Voted by fans online, the play led the "Not top-10" blooper reel for 40 straight weeks before it was mercifully retired.
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in New York Jets history. Previously, we featured Dan Marino's infamous fake spike against the New York Jets in 1994. Coming next is the unforgettable Butt Fumble on Thanksgiving night, 2012. Please vote for your choice as the Jets' most memorable play.
Score: Jets 40, Dolphins 37, OT
Date: Oct. 23, 2000 Site: Giants Stadium
Your first inclination is to ask, "What's the big deal about a lineman catching a touchdown?" After all, it happens every so often, a team scoring near the goal line on a tackle-eligible play. But Jumbo Elliott's catch ... well, it was the game, the night, the circumstances and the reaction that made it so memorable. And, of course, the opponent. Crazy things happen when the Jets and Dolphins play.
Playing before a national TV audience on Monday night, the Jets embarrassed themselves by falling behind 30-7 at the start of the fourth quarter. Testaverde got hot and threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, surprising the Dolphins with a gadget pass to the 6-foot-7, 325-pound Elliott. With his hands heavily taped, Elliott -- a backup at that stage in his career -- made a bobbling, falling-down catch in the end zone.
"I caught it several times," he likes to joke. "I think I was the leading receiver that night."
There was a relay review and, when the call was upheld, there was Elliott's face -- with a big, goofy grin -- on the stadium's JumboTron. His reaction, some teammates said, was just as memorable as the catch. It took only five seconds out of a 14-year career, but it became his signature moment. To this day, he still gets stopped by strangers that ask him to autograph pictures of the play.
It was the first and last catch of Elliott's career. On TV, comedian-turned-analyst Dennis Miller cracked that the Jets "had their hands team in" and that opposing defenses "couldn't keep him down forever." More than anything, it sustained the Jets' historic comeback. The game finally ended at 1:20 a.m. in a half-empty stadium.
The wacky play overshadowed the importance of the game, as the Jets improved to 6-1 under first-year coach Al Groh. In retrospect, it was the pinnacle of the season. The Jets stumbled to a 9-7 record and Groh left the team to coach his alma mater, Virginia. For one night, though -- one crazy night -- they were unbeatable, thanks to a big, little catch by a man named Jumbo.
@RichCimini Just the look on Jumbo's eyes after catching the TD. Was like a kid catching his first game winner in Pop Warner.— Kevin (@WhiteFurCoat) June 13, 2014
Apparently Smith agrees with him.
"I feel good about our team making a Super Bowl run," Smith told the NFL Network on Sunday, at a youth football camp he's hosting in Florida.
The QBs like the Jets' chances, but they're probably in the minority. Bovada currently gives Gang Green 66/1 odds to win Super Bowl XLIX, ahead of only the Buffalo Bills (75/1), Oakland Raiders (100/1), Tennessee Titans (100/1) and Jacksonville Jaguars (200/1).
And an anonymous survey of 26 NFL insiders, the results of which were published last week by ESPN.com, graded Smith as the worst starting quarterback in the league.
But early July is the time to be optimistic, right? Training camp is still two weeks away, and the real games are two months away. Reality will set in soon enough.
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. In the next two days we'll feature: Jumbo Elliott's improbable touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the 2000 "Midnight Miracle" and the infamous Butt Fumble on Thanksgiving night, 2012. Please vote for your choice as the New York Jets' most memorable play.
Score: Dolphins 28, Jets 24
Date: Nov. 27, 1994 Site: Giants Stadium
With 22 seconds remaining in a critical AFC East game, Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino fired an 8-yard touchdown pass to Mark Ingram for the go-ahead score -- but this was no routine touchdown. Marino used a sleight of hand to trick the Jets. Behind center, he called for a "clock" play, giving the spike motion. The Jets relaxed, thinking Marino was going to fire the ball into the ground to stop the clock. That's what 20 players expected -- all except Marino and Ingram, both of whom performed their own ad lib. The ball was snapped and, against an unsuspecting defense, Marino found Ingram in the end zone for the game winner. They picked on rookie cornerback Aaron Glenn.
For the Jets, it was devastating on a few levels. For one, they lost a game they should've won. They should've finished the day in a first-place tie, but they blew a 24-6 lead in the final 16 minutes. In one of the most memorable games of his legendary career, Marino tossed three late touchdowns to rally the Dolphins. The psychologically fragile Jets never recovered, losing their final four games to finish 6-10. Their coach, Pete Carroll, was fired after only one season. The losing didn't stop, as they dropped 28 of 32 games under Rich Kotite, a sorry era that made the Jets a national laughingstock.
The Fake Spike was one of the turning points in team history, a demarcation point that separated hope and hopelessness. Finally, after two-plus years in the dark, the Jets got it right, hiring Bill Parcells, who resurrected the franchise. But the Fake Spike lives on, haunting those who were duped by Marino's chutzpah and creativity. Carroll still is asked about the play, and he doesn't particularly care to reminisce. He vanquished the demon last February, winning the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, the site of the old Giants Stadium -- wonderful symmetry. Sure enough, the Fake Spike came up in the Seahawks' post-celebration.
"Is this vindication for the 'spike' play?" Carroll asked rhetorically at his news conference.
Looking into the cameras, he continued, "Hey, Marino, you got a lucky freaking play, all right? It happened. That was a long time ago."
Forget about Ground & Pound. If Johnson is anywhere close to his "CJ2K" level of 2009, it'll be Ground & Hound -- as in greyhound.
Johnson, 28, is the Jets' most accomplished skill-position player since LaDainian Tomlinson, a rare talent who transcends the "what have you done for me lately?" principle. Johnson was just ordinary last season for the Tennessee Titans, but a player of his stature gets the benefit of the doubt. His past is good enough to impact the present. He will command respect, and that gives the Jets a legitimate X factor.
"That guy, he's one of the best," Titans cornerback Jason McCourty said last week. "A lot of people have talked about how he's lost it. I think he'll get out there and prove he hasn't lost a step and can still play."
Obviously, the Jets think so, signing Johnson to a two-year, $8 million contract when he was unceremoniously fired by the Titans after five 1,000-yard seasons and one 2,000-yard season. It's a cold business, the NFL.
Anticipating his release, the Jets did a lot of tape study on Johnson. What they saw was a still-gifted back who was restricted by a bum knee and a mediocre offensive line in Tennessee. Doctors took care of the knee, repairing a torn meniscus with an arthroscopic procedure in January. Now it'll be up to the Jets' line to take care of the blocking.
You don't have to be Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight to detect the downward trend in Johnson's career. His production dropped significantly in two of the past three years, underscored by his 3.9 yards per rush last season, a career low.
The Jets kept their pre-owned Ferrari in the garage during the offseason, taking no chances. Johnson was limited to light work on the field, but he should be ready for training camp. The goal is to make sure he's humming by Sept. 7, the season opener.
Barring a setback, Johnson will change the dynamics of the Jets' rushing game. For years, they've been a predictable, five-hole attack, with the likes of Chris Ivory and Shonn Greene pounding away between the tackles. Because of his speed to the outside -- the man once raced a cheetah on TV -- Johnson can stretch a defense horizontally. That will soften the belly of the defense.
"He's unique because, at any moment, he can score," Hall of Famer Curtis Martin said.
Martin knows great running backs. On his personal list, he lists Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson as the best in history. Martin said Johnson "had a chance" to challenge the big three. He spoke of Johnson in the past tense, but that doesn't mean Martin thinks he's washed up.
"With things even across the board -- the blocking is the same, quarterback is the same -- I still think he's one of the best running backs in the league," Martin said. "I'll say this: He has as much talent as anyone in the league."
Johnson has 12 rushes of 50-plus yards since 2008, second only to Peterson (17), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Johnson didn't break any long highlight-film runs last year -- who can forget his 94-yard touchdown against the Jets in 2012? -- but his mere presence forced opponents to crowd the line of scrimmage. Only two backs, Peterson and Frank Gore, ran against more eight-man fronts in 2013.
"He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer," Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said.
You put Johnson with a mobile quarterback, whether it's Geno Smith or Vick, and you're putting stress on a defense. You're forcing the defense to bring down a safety, creating opportunities in the passing game. You're doing something the Jets haven't done in a long time: putting a player out there who actually scares a defense.
Decker is a solid receiver, but he's not a game-changer. Vick, if he's playing, isn't that guy anymore. Johnson still has a chance.
"Oh man, he's that one-shot, home run guy," McCourty said.
McCourty didn't want to get into his former teammate's bitter divorce from the Titans, and how Johnson has criticized the organization for mistreating him. But McCourty knows this: Johnson's fire is raging. As Tomlinson showed in 2010, a once-great runner with a chip on his shoulder can be dangerous.
"When a team releases you and there are doubters, people saying stuff, it definitely gives you that kick in the ass that you need," McCourty said. "I look forward to watching him and I hope he has an amazing year. I hope he crushes every team he faces -- except us."
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
Since PlaybookGate erupted last Thursday, most experts have downplayed the potential impact of having an opponent's playbook. Not Martin, who responded this way when asked if it could help coach Bill Belichick:
"Oh, tremendously, to be honest with you," Martin told ESPN.com at the Big Daddy Celebrity Golf Classic at Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York. "What most people don't understand is that football is a science. There are little signals and little movements from one person that can give an indication on where the entire play is going. I think it can have a tremendous effect on a game. If we're playing chess and I understand all of your moves before you make them, my probability of winning is pretty high."
Martin said he wasn't taken aback by Ryan's decision to give a playbook to Alabama coach Nick Saban, whom former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine suspects may have passed it along to Belichick. Martin figures that sort of stuff goes on between coaches. Belichick, he said, doesn't need any help.
"Belichick is one of those football savants," he said. "He (understands) the game, especially from a defensive perspective, at a different level. Does he need it? No. Does he have it? I don't know. I don't think so. Who knows? I don't like to talk on things that are assumptions. If they come out and say Belichick has the book, I'd say, yeah, it makes a big difference."
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said he laughed when he first heard the story.
"I have no idea about any of that," said McCourty, who also attended the charity golf outing. "I feel like to comment on it keeps the nonsense going."
Another person with knowledge of the Jets-Patriots rivalry, Eric Mangini, said the benefit of having an opponent's playbook would be minimal.
"There may be some value from an off-season perspective, but you still have to get through the terminology and you have to get through the adjustments," said the former Jets coach and ex-Patriots assistant. "Ideally, you have someone in the system that can take you through it. From a weekly perspective, it would be hard to get much (useful information) because you can't be sure that what's in there is what you're going to see."
Mangini is the broken branch on Belichick's coaching tree. He was cut off when he reported Belichick's illegal spying tactics to the league, resulting in SpyGate. So, yes, he can relate to the Pettine-Ryan situation. He's not sure why Pettine revealed such information, but Mangini believes it has been blown out of proportion by the media. Asked if he's ever given a playbook to a friend or colleague outside his organization, he paused for a moment.
"Typically, I haven't done that," he said, "but I don't think it's so far out of the range of what happens."
1. Oday Aboushi, left guard: The former fifth-round pick, coming off what amounted to a "redshirt" rookie year, played his way into the conversation as a possible starter. He finished minicamp as the starting left guard, replacing Brian Winters, who moved to right guard to replace the injured Willie Colon. Aboushi, who struggled last year at tackle, may benefit from the move inside because it could hide his shortcomings in pass protection. Colon expects to be ready for training camp, so there will be three players vying for two starting jobs. We'll see how Aboushi responds when the pads go on.
3. Ras-I Dowling, cornerback: When the Jets were striking out in free agency, failing to land a big-time corner, Ryan kept insisting he was happy with his current personnel. He named names, always mentioning Dowling. Cynics (including me) wondered the same thing: Ras-I Dowling? He spent last season on the Jets' practice squad after being dumped by the New England Patriots, but the talent is there. He was the 33rd pick in the 2011 draft, only three spots behind Muhammad Wilkerson. It was an impressive spring for Dowling, who now has a legitimate chance to make the team.
1. Caleb Schlauderaff, center: Only a couple of years ago, former general manager Mike Tannenbaum touted Schlauderaff as the Jets' version of Victor Cruz -- a super sleeper. He's almost asleep, all right. Schlauderaff, the Jets' only reserve lineman with regular-season experience (all of 14 snaps), was relegated to third-team duty in minicamp, falling behind Dalton Freeman as Nick Mangold's backup. Schlauderaff will have a tough time making the team if Freeman, an impressive former undrafted free agent, continues to develop.
2. Matt Simms, quarterback: Last year's feel-good story got off to a hot start in organized team activities, but he cooled off toward the end of the offseason, including minicamp. Simms didn't get as many reps as the coaches would've liked, and reps will be hard to come by in training camp as well. Looking ahead, coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said he's "looking for (Simms) to make one more big step" -- an indication he's still in the team's plans. But rookie Tajh Boyd is lurking and will provide competition. Simms needs a strong camp if he wants to claim the No. 3 job.
3. Dawan Landry, safety: From all indications, Landry enjoyed a terrific offseason, receiving effusive praise from Ryan and earning recognition for his work in the conditioning program. But, at the same time, Landry lost ground. How is that possible? They drafted Calvin Pryor in the first round and paired him with third-year safety Antonio Allen in the starting lineup, allowing the young tandem to learn and develop chemistry. Ryan insisted that Landry still will have an important role, but things won't be the same. You can bet he won't play 98 percent of the defensive snaps, as he did last season.
Earth to Cromartie: The Browns have been generating headlines throughout the offseason. Ever hear of Johnny Manziel?
Cromartie, whose clashes with Pettine have been well documented, continued.
"I've been around Pettine. Pettine is that kind of person," he said. "I've been around him for my first three years in New York. I think it's, you know, something he wants to build about."
ProFootballTalk.com tracked down Pettine on his vacation in Hawaii, giving him a chance to explain the comments that started the firestorm. In case you missed it (really, how could you?), Pettine told TheMMQB.com that he suspects Bill Belichick received a copy of the Jets' playbook from Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was given the playbook by Rex Ryan on a visit to the Jets' facility.
In the interview with PFT, Pettine downplayed the benefit of having another team's playbook and said he "didn't mean to imply it was gathered illegally. ... To me, it's a sign of a smart team. We're not actively pursuing playbooks, but when they fall in your laps, you'll study it.”
Interestingly, the PFT post had no comments from Pettine about his relationship with Ryan, which figures to be more strained than ever. Pettine said his motivation for giving the anecdote to TheMMQB.com was to illustrate the importance of not putting too much information in playbooks because they can end up in the wrong hands. Whether it was intentional or not, he made Ryan -- his mentor -- look bad by saying he gives away playbooks "like candy."
Pettine's anecdote was buried near the bottom of a long profile. Moral of the story: You can't truly bury a titillating item about the Jets, the Patriots and, um, unusual information-gathering methods.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Michael Vick is in the fourth stage of his career. We've witnessed the rise, the fall and the comeback, and we wonder how it will end for one of the most polarizing athletes in our nation's history. Is there a happily-ever-after in his future? Does he deserve one?
Vick sat in front of his locker Thursday, pondering the questions. His dream finish, he decided, is to win a championship for the first time in his life. Yes, he believes it could happen with the New York Jets, but there's a twist. In his football fantasy, he's not the Jets' savior -- and he's OK with that.
"Me winning a Super Bowl, even if it's not me behind the center," said Vick, describing the ultimate end to his playing days. "If I can walk away from this game with a ring, I'll be so thankful, because I've never won a championship at none of the levels that I've played on. Almost had one in college. I want a ring.
"I think it can happen this year," he continued. "I think Geno [Smith] can take us where we need to go. It'll seal my legacy -- for me, myself. For the public, I don't know."
As he previously stated, Vick expects Smith to be the Jets' opening-day starter. Evidently, he thinks Smith is ready to make a quantum improvement in his second year, but that remains to be seen. It's quite possible that, at some point, the Jets will turn to Vick, and wouldn't that be a must-see event?
It happened with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, when he won NFL Comeback Player of the Year, but this is a new stage with a new audience, and another cynical fan base to win over. He's taking an unselfish approach, painting himself as the wise old mentor, but it doesn't take long into the conversation to sense that Vick absolutely believes he's still got it.
But that was when he was a young blur, a freakishly talented two-way threat. Vick, who turns 34 on Thursday, acknowledged he's not that guy anymore. But he doesn't see himself sliding into a rocking chair anytime soon. He still feels he can win a Super Bowl for somebody.
"I think it's still realistic," he said. "You got guys like Peyton [Manning] and [Tom] Brady and Drew [Brees], all 36, 37, 38 years old and still playing. Times have changed. It's all about taking care of your body. ... I still feel like I can move as fast -- not as fast as I could a long time ago, but enough to get away. With that, I can help a football team win games. I can help our football team win games."
If the quarterback "competition" plays out as expected, Vick will begin the season on the bench, backing up a player -- Smith -- who was 12 years old when Vick won a playoff game on Green Bay's frozen tundra. Just because Vick might be a backup doesn't mean he considers himself one.
"I still consider myself one of the 32 [top quarterbacks]," he said. "People might want to argue that, but I think there are a lot of people who understand where I come from when I say that. I've been playing at a high level for a long time.
"Even the last two years when I got hurt, if you look at the résumé before I got hurt, I was playing at a high level. At some point, I'm going to get through 16 games and I'm going to be accountable. My primary focus is to keep my body in shape and keep going."
Vick added four pounds in the offseason (all muscle, he said), hoping to improve his durability. Only once has he played a full season, and that came in 2006, his final season with the Atlanta Falcons.
His career -- his life -- started to unravel in the spring of 2007, during an investigation into his involvement in a dogfighting ring in his home state of Virginia. That led to 23 months in a federal prison, costing him a full two seasons and permanently tarnishing his reputation.
Vick's felonious past was dredged up again in March, when the Jets signed him to a one-year, $4 million contract. The blowback wasn't nearly as severe as it was when he signed with the Eagles in 2009, but it prompted a group in Cortland, New York -- home of the Jets' training camp -- to start a petition aiming to ban him from camp. More than 20,000 signed the online petition.
Vick said he had no reaction when he heard about it.
"Why? Why would I? My life has nothing to do with their life and their beliefs," he said. "I mean, what's done is done. Look at all the good. My message to them is, look at the good I've done, all the thousands of lives that I've saved, the people I've saved. That's most important. That's what the focus should be on, the lives that are being affected."
He was alluding to his charitable foundation, which helps at-risk youth. Just last weekend, Vick held a youth camp and charity softball game in his hometown, Newport News, Virginia.
"I think 90 percent of the world has [forgiven me]," he said. "I walk around every day and I have no complaints from nobody -- ever."
Well, there was a recent episode at a Manhattan nightspot, in which Vick was approached by a heckler. The person was immediately removed by security, the entire scene caught on a video that found its way to TMZ.com. Vick called it a misunderstanding.
"All he was trying to do was show me a picture of his dog, and I thought he was trying to bring up some past history," Vick said. "So I was out of context in that situation. I was like, 'Look, man ...' He just wanted me to look at his dog on the phone. That was my fault. Other than that, it's never happened."
A public confrontation regarding dogs, he meant.
"It doesn't bother me," Vick said. "I think we're six or seven years removed from that, and so much has transpired since then in my life. It's something I try not to even think about. I just try to continue to be an advocate against animal cruelty."
Vick wants the focus to be on football. He's naïve if he thinks fans will forget about his sordid past, but he certainly can change some opinions by succeeding on the field. The Jets' fan base is starved (45 years since Super Bowl III), and it's waiting for someone -- anyone -- to deliver another championship.
He hopes the fans can embrace him.
"That's what it's all about, it's all about football," Vick said. "It's all about helping these guys accomplish something that I know they can accomplish, and I think we should let bygones be bygones. Never forget about it, but try to improve amongst it and keep going."
The Jets are happy with Vick, especially his former coordinator from the Eagles, Marty Mornhinweg, who said his old pupil is "still a dynamic player." Vick is well-respected in the locker room, especially among the younger players, many of whom grew up idolizing him.
"He's been through life," Smith said. "He's been a guy who's bounced back. One thing that I noticed off the bat from talking to him awhile back is that he's extremely humble. He's a guy that's giving. He has a ton of knowledge and he's trying to give that knowledge to young guys like myself, which is why we all gravitate to him. We all look up to him."
Vick has been through life, all right. He's made a lot of mistakes -- bad ones -- and if he could somehow turn back the clock and give advice to a young Michael Vick, he'd tell him to change his habits and pick his friends carefully.
"I've always prided myself on being a mentally strong individual," he said. "I can almost adapt to any situation. There's nothing in my life that I haven't seen."