Think what you will about Rex Ryan, but he wasn’t exaggerating after the Jets’ 24-19 AFC Championship game loss to Pittsburgh when he said next year’s goals will remain the same as this one’s — to win a Vince Lombardi Trophy.
At least on paper, the Jets will be in a great position to make another run, health and labor negotiations permitting. With a young roster and another year of maturity, the future is bright. And Ryan sees no reason they shouldn't go beyond a third straight championship game appearance in 2011.
“It’s not a fluke that we’re the only team to go back-to-back in the final four,” Ryan said as his team dispersed for the season Monday. “It means we’re a heck of a football team. And the great thing is, I think we’re on the uphill climb, not the downhill.
“In my heart," he said, "I believe we’ll be champs.”
Here are five factors that can keep that window of opportunity open for 2011.
So maybe he’s not Ben Roethlisberger, who won a Super Bowl in his second season. But Mark Sanchez is not that far away, either. He showed mental and physical toughness all season, but especially Sunday when he shrugged off a bruised left shoulder and a 24-3 halftime deficit to mount an improbable comeback attempt. He might have accomplished it, too, had the Steelers not tied him to the bench for the last 2:56. He needs to become more consistent early in the games. Heart-stopping finishes are great, and he had plenty of those this year. But a Super Bowl champion needs a couple of easy ones, too. The best news is Sanchez doesn’t think he'll need surgery on his troublesome throwing shoulder.
Besides the second-year Sanchez, 36 other players who were available for the Pittsburgh game have five years or less of experience, including key talents such as wide receiver Brad Smith, guard Matt Slauson, cornerback Darrelle Revis, tight end Dustin Keller, defensive back James Ihedigbo, running back Shonn Greene, fullback John Connor, tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and defensive end Mike DeVito.
“Our best is still yet to come,” Ryan said. “We have a lot of young, core players that are ascending, and they’re only going to get better.”
The guy who won’t ever throw a pass or make a tackle could be the key to all this. General manager Mike Tannenbaum has a bunch of free-agent decisions to make, none of which can be accomplished until the league’s labor issues sort themselves out. Ideally, he’d love to bring back wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, and linebacker David Harris, but Ryan has already warned that his wish to have everyone return is impossible. Tannenbaum has to guess right — especially with the two wideouts — or risk setting the Jets back.
As long as Bart Scott, Calvin Pace and Darrelle Revis are still around, they’ll have the nucleus of a great defense. Pace had three sacks in the postseason, and Revis shut down every wide receiver they put him on, including Hines Ward on Sunday. Don’t let the Jets’ uncharacteristically horrendous tackling of the last game fool you; Rashard Mendenhall’s 121 yards marked only the second individual 100-yard performance of the season against that group. Scott, second on the team with 81 tackles, and Pace had a lot to do with that.
Rex in effect
Never mind the gosh-darned snacks. Nobody in the NFL motivates as well, or in as many ways, as Ryan does. He’s not a one-note coach, and as such his message will have staying power.
“I’m just myself,” Ryan said. “My style is sustainable for a long time.”
As long as he has talent on the roster, which he will, Ryan’s guys will keep on playing hard. Do that enough times, and a championship might just come their way, sooner than later.