Building an NFL contender, even one that shows dramatic improvement from one season to the next, doesn't happen in an instant.
It takes much more than a single draft, let alone a single draft choice. It isn't accomplished through a lone free-agent signing or a single trade. The pieces are assembled through multiple seasons, often by multiple decision-makers (including some who aren't with the team long enough to see the results). They're part of an overall vision and philosophy.
They made one of the more dramatic moves in league history when they acquired Brett Favre from the Green Bay Packers in August for a fourth-round draft pick that becomes a first-rounder if the Jets reach the Super Bowl. However, if they didn't make several other offseason moves, as well as other key acquisitions in previous years, they probably wouldn't be leading the AFC East with an 8-3 record.
"I think that's a fair point," said Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets' third-year executive vice president and general manager. "It's been a three-year process for us, but I also think (contributions were made) even before that, with some of the drafts that (former Jets GM) Terry Bradway had. Terry brought in (receiver) Jerricho Cotchery in the fourth round and (free safety) Kerry Rhodes in the fourth round."
After the Jets went 10-6 and 4-12 under their watch, Tannenbaum and coach Eric Mangini immersed themselves in the busiest and most expensive offseason the club has ever experienced.
The highlight was Favre's arrival, which promptly resulted in the release of Chad Pennington. Favre actually has become increasingly comfortable operating a Pennington-like offense that doesn't allow him to be anywhere near as much of a risk-taker as he was for most of his time with Green Bay. He has proven to be effective throwing short, high-percentage passes, while also making some of his customary big plays and leading last-second comebacks.
Even before Favre showed up, the Jets already had a strong foundation for success in place. Most of the focus was on strengthening their offensive and defensive lines.
They made what proved to be their most impactful trade by acquiring nose tackle Kris Jenkins from Carolina for third- and fifth-round choices. Jenkins has been one of the most dominant defensive forces in the league.
The Jets' offensive line became stronger and tougher with the additions of guard Alan Faneca and tackle Damien Woody. Adding fullback Tony Richardson also helped create additional running room for Thomas Jones, a key 2007 pick-up.
Overall, they've had many more hits than misses.
"It starts with Mr. Johnson and his tremendous commitment to us and giving us absolutely every resource we need to build a winning program, and certainly that's transcended into being able to deal with the player acquisition," Tannenbaum said, referring to owner Woody Johnson. "There's a certain look we want our team to have, and I think we're heading in the right direction -- that Eric and I have identified the right types of people and having them look a certain way so they can play a physical, tough (brand of football). It's northeast, it's outdoors, it's playing in the elements. And to have sustainable success, you have to be able to hold up through a long, 16-game season.
"I want a big, strong, fast, tough, physical team that can compete week in and week out. And I really believe that you need to have talent and character. You can't have one without the other. You want to make sure that you're getting the right types of guys that are working their tails off, but they have to be able to compete in our division from a physical standpoint."
For Tannenbaum, the earliest sign that Jenkins would prove to be a major difference-maker came prior to making the trade with Carolina. Jenkins' history of weight problems was a major consideration in whether he would pull the trigger on the deal. The Jets needed to find out how large a risk they would be taking with their investment. Thanks to a cooperative relationship with the Panthers, Tannenbaum and Mangini were able to meet with Jenkins in late February, before the trading deadline and the start of free agency.
When the 6-foot-4 Jenkins showed up weighing a reported 395 pounds, Tannenbaum and Mangini knew they needed to do something to help encourage the nose tackle to lose between 35 and 40 pounds by the start of the season ... or the trade wouldn't happen.
"We had a very honest and frank discussion," Tannenbaum said. "We told him what our goals and our concerns were, he told us what his goals and concerns were, and we were able to come up with a win-win not only with Carolina but from a contract standpoint with Kris."
According to a league source, Jenkins' reported five-year, $30.25-million contract includes $750,000 in bonuses tied to his participation in the Jets' offseason conditioning program and weight clauses (including 10 in-season weigh-ins that would pay him $25,000 each time he makes his assigned weight of 360 pounds).
"I give him a lot of credit because he was here from the very first day of the offseason program and we saw a meaningful improvement from the early stages of the offseason program," Tannenbaum said. "I'm just happy for Kris, because all of his hard work has certainly been paying off."
The same can be said for Tannenbaum and Mangini.
"Being 8-3 is exciting, obviously, and certainly there are reasons to be encouraged," the GM said. "But with that said, we still know there's a lot of football to be played."
The future could also present some major challenges. For one, the Jets have reportedly increased their payroll by roughly $185 million in player contracts. They've also made their team older. And the oldest player on the squad, the 39-year-old Favre, could retire after this season.
"We always try to balance winning now and the future," Tannenbaum said. "We do like where we're positioned going forward. Like any team, we're going to have some hard choices to make next year. ... But I think the core of the team is going to be intact for a while and the foundation is there. Then we'll make those other decisions in a year-by-year fashion once we get into those time periods.
"And we'll get through this season and go from there," Tannenbaum said. "Brett and (agent) Bus (Cook) have been great in terms of dealing with these sorts of things, and we're just going to take it one year at a time."