FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
Decision time is here for Jets owner Woody Johnson.
With his team about to finish its first losing season since he and general manager Mike Tannenbaum hired coach Rex Ryan in 2009, Johnson must decide whether he needs to make any changes to address the problems that led to a second straight year in which the Jets failed to reach the playoffs.
Near the top of that list is Tannenbaum, whose future has been the subject of intense speculation as the Jets' fortunes plummeted this season. Whatever Johnson does with his top decision-maker will go a long way toward shaping the team next season and beyond.
Neither Johnson nor team president Neil Glatt will discuss Tannenbaum's status until after the Jets conclude their season in Buffalo on Sunday. Tannenbaum, through a team spokesman, declined to comment about his situation.
The decision is complicated. Does Johnson look at Tannenbaum's overall body of work, which includes three playoff berths and two AFC Championship Game appearances since taking over as GM in 2006? Does he take a more narrow view and see that the Jets have lost 12 of their last 18 games dating to the 2011 season, in part because of an eroding talent base and the stunning regression of first-round quarterback Mark Sanchez, who has committed a league-high 50 turnovers the last two seasons? Or does Johnson view 2012 as an aberration caused by myriad injuries that took away, among others, the team's two best playmakers: cornerback Darrelle Revis and receiver Santonio Holmes?
Many of Tannenbaum's moves, including the trade for Tim Tebow and an extension of Sanchez's contract that includes an $8.25-million guarantee for the 2013 season, will come under scrutiny. And Tannenbaum's failure to secure adequate depth at receiver, especially after injuries to Holmes and rookie first-round pick Stephen Hill, was another major reason for this year's collapse and contributed heavily to Sanchez's failings.
But Tannenbaum's overall success rate also is a factor in what happens next. Even with this year's failed season, since the beginning of the 2009 season, the Jets are tied for eighth in overall wins (38 including playoffs). That's one behind the Giants. The Packers (51) and Patriots (50) top the list.
During his tenure, the Jets have drafted or traded for several quality players, including Revis, Holmes, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson, tight end Dustin Keller, offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, and linebacker David Harris.
Despite plenty of criticism from fans, Tannenbaum maintains a generally good reputation among football people inside and outside the league, including many who have worked with him over the years.
And it wouldn't be completely illogical to retain him after his first losing season in the Ryan era; other teams missing the playoffs two years in a row decided to stay the course. The Giants (2011) and Saints (2009) both won Super Bowls after missing the playoffs the previous two seasons and not making coach or general manager changes. And the Texans, who have the AFC's best record, missed the playoffs five straight years under GM Rick Smith before qualifying for the postseason last year.
"I've known Mike since I got into the league [in 1994] and I have a very high opinion of him," said Browns chief executive officer Joe Banner, the former Eagles president. "He's smart, he has a good understanding of the challenges of putting together a team versus just picking players. I've always been impressed with his insights. I think he does as much research as anyone in the league. In my opinion, he's one of the brighter guys at his position in the league."
Banner said he wouldn't recommend to Johnson one way or another what to do with Tannenbaum, but indicated that his experience with the Eagles under team owner Jeffrey Lurie was to make decisions based on conviction, even if that went against what fans might have wanted in any given year.
"You have to isolate yourself in a sense and isolate the factors that you think matter and do what you believe in, whatever direction that might lead you in," Banner said. "With the Eagles, that's what we always tried to do. The people who are successful in this league are the ones that have convictions. That can lead to change or the status quo, but you have to isolate your views on what you think will lead to success."
Former Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt, who was with Dallas from 1960-88, suggested that Tannenbaum's lack of personnel experience has hurt him over the years.
"A lot of times the guys who are really good assistant coaches become head coaches and aren't very good," Brandt said of Tannenbaum, who was known as a salary-cap expert before taking over as GM. "It's like that here. All of a sudden, [Tannenbaum] goes from a cap guy to someone who's running the organization."
Brandt said he went through a similar time when the Cowboys reached the NFC Championship Game from 1980-82 but lost all three times.
"We weren't as good as we thought we were," Brandt said. "Sometimes you oversell your team to yourself. We were an older team, so instead of dismantling it and changing a lot of players, we stuck with it . . . We were a descending team because we had older players that were past their prime."
The Jets aren't quite as old, but they are descending -- none more than Sanchez, who has lost 11 of his last 17 starts and is under contract for next year at $8.25 million.
The injury factor came into play this season; even so, the Jets were in playoff contention until the final month of the season. Had Sanchez played even modestly better, there's a chance they'd have made the playoffs as a wild-card team.
But now Sanchez has played his way out of the position -- he's starting against the Bills only because Greg McElroy is out with a concussion -- and there is uncertainty about whether he can ever regain the starting job.
His guaranteed $8.25 million next year further complicates matters. It's a stunning fall from grace after two-plus promising seasons in which he went 4-2 in six road playoff games and had nine touchdown passes and three interceptions. He beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in successive weeks in the 2010 playoffs.
But after getting to 8-5 last season, Sanchez lost 11 of his next 17 starts before being benched for last week's game against the Chargers.
"The quarterback hasn't played well recently, and that's a big part of it," former Redskins and Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "Part of it is the guy [Sanchez] is a middle-of-the-road quarterback, but he has played better in the past, so that's disturbing. There are a lot of injuries on offense, and it's hard to say if they would have looked different if Sanchez didn't have a ton of injuries around him."
Casserly, who won a Super Bowl as the Redskins' GM, believes Johnson should stick with Tannenbaum.
He said he would give Tannenbaum a vote of confidence. "I think Mike should be there, and I don't know why they wouldn't be able to get this thing figured out," Casserly said. "He's a bright guy, he has a feel for people, he certainly understands the salary cap and how to manage it, which is important."
The Jets' salary-cap situation has been an issue, and they will have to make adjustments to get next year's bloated cap situation under control. But there are several players with big cap numbers who either will be released or restructured, so it is believed the Jets will not have an issue getting under the cap for 2013.
Casserly said if Tannenbaum does remain with the team, he needs to rely more on his personnel department. In some cases, Tannenbaum has acquiesced to the wishes of Ryan, especially in the draft. The scouting department, for instance, was in favor of selecting Josh Freeman over Sanchez in 2009, but Tannenbaum went with Ryan's recommendation.
Tannenbaum also sided with Ryan when the team drafted first-round cornerback Kyle Wilson, who has turned into a solid player but not the dominant performer the team envisioned. Tannenbaum also made the big mistake of going with former Jets coach Eric Mangini's choice of linebacker Vernon Gholston with the sixth pick in 2008. He turned into a colossal bust.
"Where it becomes dangerous is when coaches become involved, especially if their job is on the line," Casserly said. "They can sometimes force decisions for immediacy and end up mis-evaluating some players."
Longtime player agent Alan Herman, who has negotiated several contracts with Tannenbaum, said the GM needs to make decisions based more on the scouts' evaluations.
"If there has been any fault, then it's having the coach be too involved in making personnel decisions in the draft," Herman said. "This is a mistake a number of general managers make that I've seen in 29 years in the business. If you have good people in the personnel department, guys who are out on the road for almost a full year evaluating college players, then you have coaches get involved at the very end of the process, they end up identifying the wrong talent."
Herman said Tannenbaum would be better off bringing in another strong personnel voice -- perhaps former Jets personnel executive Joey Clinkscales, who joined the Raiders last season, or Texans personnel executive Mike Maccagnan -- to reinforce the scouting department. "I don't think Mike [Tannenbaum] has to leave," Herman said. "I think he's extremely valuable."
Herman said that no matter who the general manager is, Johnson himself must be willing to change. And that means increasing his budget for acquiring players, even on the bottom end of the roster.
"You notice all the additions to the Jets' roster were all minimum-wage players with very little experience," Herman said. "Not until late in the season did they add Braylon Edwards, but he was also a veteran minimum-wage guy. The owner clearly needs to be willing to spend more."
Former Jets coach and general manager Bill Parcells, who hired Tannenbaum to manage the salary cap in 1997, declined to comment on Tannenbaum's situation.
Former Browns GM Phil Savage, who has worked with Tannenbaum in Cleveland and Ryan in Baltimore, believes the coach/GM combination is a good one. "I like Rex a lot," he said. "He has a flamboyance to him that's real in his heart. Some people don't like that, but I think the players do, and that's very important. Mike is a very intelligent person and has a good grasp of how the professional game works and the mechanics of it.''
Added Savage, who now runs the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.: "Obviously, this year has not turned out like they expected it to go, which happens to more than half the teams in the NFL who don't make the playoffs. It's very difficult to tune out the outside noise and trust your convictions and what your beliefs were two, three, four years ago, and why you chose that person. It's difficult to eliminate records, the fan reaction, the media's record of things. But the teams that do stick to their guns and maintain a semblance of continuity are the ones that usually succeed. I think at the end of the day, you're better served in keeping good people than trying to go find the new flavor of the day. That person might not have as many answers as the people who have had their hands and their minds on your team the last few years."
Time for Johnson to make a move? "To me, if it's not clear-cut, black-and-white, what to do," Savage said, "then I'm not sure you do anything unless you have a strong conviction."
If Johnson has that conviction, he's not saying. But it won't be much longer before he makes the call.One game to go, and it will be time for a decision.