New York Jets  

 

New York Jets hoping deliberate free agency strategy pays off

Perhaps the New York Jets' signing of Michael Vick to push Geno Smith -- coupled with the long-anticipated end of the Mark Sanchez era -- will help fill the fans' bottomless vessel for action. Maybe general manager John Idzik's calm, measured explanation Thursday afternoon for the Jets' calm, measured approach to the first nine days of free agency will soothe those who watch the transaction wire in dismay, seeing one cornerback after another land elsewhere.

Or maybe Idzik, who spent nearly 45 minutes answering questions from reporters about the Jets' activities in free agency, should just play a recording of a similar press conference his Giants counterpart, Jerry Reese, gave not long after free agency opened nearly three years ago.

On that August day -- free agency had opened late after the lockout ended that summer, a dam of activity bursting at once -- Reese stood in the humidity and went position by position, move by move to explain why there was a holdout to contend with and why two receivers and a tight end the Giants had tried to re-sign ended up going elsewhere. It came across as a defense, a remarkably public rebuttal of a narrative that was taking shape -- that Reese wasn't doing enough to improve the Giants, that the Giants were too static, that players needed to upgrade a team that had barely missed the playoffs were slipping away as the minutes ticked by.

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Reese and the Giants withstood that onslaught -- they signed one unrestricted free agent, a punter -- and wound up with something more precious than a handful of new contracts in their hands six months later: the Lombardi Trophy.

It serves as a cautionary tale -- much like the Philadelphia Eagles' "Dream Team" assembled that year -- for those who see a direct line between a franchise winning with March machinations and the more important victory at the end of a season.

And it is why Jets fans -- whose hopes have, in years past, been raised with "which-direction-is-the-wind-blowing" deals at this time of year (hello, Tim Tebow) -- must remember that this is why the deliberate Idzik was hired in the first place. To steady the team. To build for the long haul. To avoid the highs and lows that are often juiced by the spending sprees of spring. To say things like this:

"We recognize our needs but want to address them in a very well thought-out and judicious way," Idzik said on the conference call. "We don't want to satisfy needs for the day. We want to satisfy the need going into the future."

That kind of vague response might provoke more yawns than cheers, but the best teams, the most disciplined ones, don't worry about being liked any more than Reese did three years ago. The Jets wanted a methodical thinker, someone who would not be swayed by public perception, and they have that in Idzik.

"Long term, that could serve them well," said one person who has had extensive dealings with the team. "At the end of day, he's going to have to sign some players on value deals -- and he'll have to hit on them. There are values to be had."

As usual, though, the Jets are being judged against their two greatest rivals: the New England Patriots and New York Giants, the two teams to which even those in the organization concede the franchise pays extra attention. This year, the script has been flipped. The Giants have moved aggressively in free agency, most particularly by snatching cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from the Jets, who visited with him first last weekend but ended up last in his heart. The Patriots, meanwhile, signed Darrelle Revis, who spent the first six years of his career with the Jets, to what is essentially a very lucrative one-year deal.

Idzik and coach Rex Ryan, who was also on the conference call, would not directly discuss whether the Jets gave much thought to trying to get Revis back to New York, nor did they delve into the specifics of how they tried to woo Rodgers-Cromartie. Revis' return always seemed to be merely the romantic scenario of a longing fanbase, given that owner Woody Johnson wanted Revis traded away just last year because he was tired of the cornerback's contract demands. And the Giants were reportedly far more assertive, and much more generous, in their pursuit of Rodgers-Cromartie, to whom the Jets initially offered a one-year contract before trying to improve their offer at the eleventh hour.

"I think maybe the pace of free agency has caught (Idzik) off guard a little," said one agent who was not involved in the Rodgers-Cromartie negotiation. "He might have been a little slow on the trigger, and I am sure if he was he will never make that mistake again."

Reese has not yet publicly commented on the Giants' spree, but the Giants' mindset going into free agency seems obvious now. They had 27 free agents of their own and more holes on their roster than they have had in recent years. One agent said the Giants traditionally have been "laissez-faire" about free agency. But the team has been inexorably sliding since that Super Bowl in the 2011 season, and the Giants saw an opening to try to halt the downward trajectory.

The Jets are in a different position, trying to walk the fine line between "win-now" -- which Idzik said is the mode they are always in -- and trying to build sustainable success with youth, including a second-year quarterback in Geno Smith, whom nobody can be quite sure yet is the quarterback of the future. Idzik began his conference call by pointedly observing that the Jets' seven re-signings have gone unnoticed because those players are not switching jerseys, as new receiver Eric Decker and new right tackle Breno Giacomini are. He talked about the many other options -- trades, later roster moves, the draft -- that are still open to the Jets, who did, Ian Rapoport later reported, inquire about the possibility of trading for Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson. Idzik repeatedly mentioned getting the right fit, meaning signing players at the right price.

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Idzik, though, was explaining all of this moments after news broke that cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who had been released by the Jets but had been considered a possibility for return -- especially after the Jets failed to add another free-agent corner -- was instead signing with Arizona.

One person who knows Ryan well said that if a gun were put to Ryan's head, he would say the three things he needs are corners, corners and corners. With so many of them -- and all of the top free agents -- off the market, the Jets will now have to search elsewhere to fill out their secondary.

Ryan, whose job security might again hinge on how well his defense performs as his offense is rebuilt, said he gets mad when players choose other teams over the Jets, but he said he feels "really good about our corners" and is "happy with the guys we have."

That was not entirely convincing, considering the Jets' starters right now are Dee Milliner, Darrin Walls and Kyle Wilson in the slot -- a far cry from the Revis-Cromartie pairing the Jets had two seasons ago. For a coach whose entire defensive style is predicated on having outstanding press-man corners, that isn't encouraging. But in his most forceful comments of the afternoon, Ryan moved quickly to dispute the notion that he and Idzik, so temperamentally dissimilar, are at odds over personnel.

"We are in this together," Ryan said. "We have a great plan. It might not be the plan everybody wants immediately. We are side by side in this the entire way. Guys, it's a long process. Do I get upset if a guy is not coming? I'm upset more with that individual than I am with anybody else. I'm proud to work side by side with John. I know the direction of this football team. We're in great hands, because John Idzik is our general manager."

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That, of course, is a very smart thing to say with the boss listening. But with the next wave of free agency underway, and the most active early teams settling in, the Jets finally sprung into action again Friday night. They texted that Sanchez's stunning downfall was complete with his release, and then they tweeted a picture of Vick signing his contract. The Jets were Vick's only visit. That he didn't wait longer to see if more of a market developed for him indicated that he feels the Jets will present him his best chance to win a starting job again. That is Vick's goal -- to start -- and given that Sanchez was beating out Smith last summer before Sanchez was injured in a meaningless preseason game, and that Smith was so uneven last year, there is no reason to think that Vick, who was the Eagles' starter before his own injury opened the door for Nick Foles, is not capable of at least pushing Smith to develop further.

In a way, then, the Jets are already doing better by Smith than they did by Sanchez, for whom they assembled a cast of backups who never had a realistic shot of unseating him or even of making him nervous. He was anointed the starter, and through a series of triumphs -- consecutive trips to the AFC Championship game -- and disasters (the ignoble Butt Fumble), he remained the starter, his place as indelible as Ryan's tattoo of his wife wearing Sanchez's jersey. In fact, the greatest threat to Sanchez's stability seemed to come with that ill-fated trade for Tebow.

It never panned out, of course, and the trade can not be chalked up to the mistakes of a bygone era. As the Jets have barely skimmed the surface of this free agency, it's probably worth remembering how flawed some of their deeper dives have been.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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