Rex Ryan's ear-to-ear grin after Monday night's 24-6 win over the Dolphins was indicative of just how badly his team needed to halt a three-game losing streak and douse the infighting in what had turned into a highly combustible locker room situation.
But the sense of relief shouldn't obscure some underlying issues that remain after the Jets beat the clearly inferior Dolphins, who might not win two games this season. Face it: If the Jets don't elevate their level of play in a significant way, they can forget about contending for a playoff spot in a suddenly crowded AFC East, not to mention a highly competitive conference in which the race for the two wild cards will be frantic.
Let's start with the quarterback, shall we? Mark Sanchez finally got into a rhythm Monday night, but not before opening with four consecutive three-and-outs. It was the continuation of a disturbing trend, regardless of whether the defense is as stout as Baltimore's, as soft as New England's or as mediocre as Miami's. Ryan is at a loss to figure out the reason for the slow starts, jokingly suggesting that perhaps coffee will do the trick or else telling his players it's the second quarter when the game starts.
Sanchez is still a young quarterback at 24, but this is the year he needs to make the kind of jump that truly good players are capable of making. Accuracy continues to be a problem; his completion percentage of 56.1 is still too low. At a minimum, it should be 60-62 percent. He's locking onto receivers too often and not making good enough throws on a consistent basis.
I'm reluctant to say that Sanchez can't get much better, because he's still very early in his development. At the same point in his career, Aaron Rodgers had not started a single game for the Packers. He didn't take over for Brett Favre until his fourth season. I'm not saying Sanchez can be another Rodgers, because he can't. He simply doesn't have the same kind of talent. But Sanchez already has four road playoff wins to his credit, so it's silly to think he's going to be just an average quarterback.
That said, he absolutely has to improve his level of play, especially against the better teams the Jets are about to face, starting Sunday against the Chargers.
The running game is another issue. At 80.8 yards per game, the Jets are next-to-last in the league. Shonn Greene has run with more authority the last two games (a combined 157 yards), but he is not the dominant back the Jets envisioned when they drafted him in 2009. Is he a victim of the Jets' inconsistent blocking? He is. But Greene is just not the elite runner the Jets thought they were getting, even if Ryan continues to proclaim that Greene is capable of being a terrific player.
Maybe it's time the Jets add second-year running back Joe McKnight to the mix in a more meaningful way, and not just as an afterthought. McKnight's explosiveness on returns is obvious, so adding him into the rotation in the running game might be worth a look.
Another problem on offense: Plaxico Burress. After a promising start with four catches for 72 yards and a touchdown in the opener, Burress has had only 10 catches and one touchdown since. He hasn't been in the end zone the last three games. Rust from missing the last two seasons? Perhaps. But Burress looks slow and tentative, and his route-running is not as crisp as it needs to be.
Ryan suggested Tuesday that it was only a matter of time before Burress breaks out, predicting he'll catch 10 passes in a game pretty soon. But Ryan has been wrong before; he predicted Derrick Mason would catch 80-90 passes this season, and Mason is no longer with the team.
Defense continues to be an issue, too, although the Jets did a much better job against Miami after some early problems containing the run. But this is still not close to the dominating unit Ryan keeps telling us about. The Jets have been abysmal against the run, allowing an average of 132 yards per game, ranked 28th. The pass defense is fine, mostly because Darrelle Revis is the best cover cornerback in the NFL. But the Jets can't count on Revis regularly returning interceptions 100 yards for a touchdown as he did against the Dolphins.
So Ryan can take a deep breath after getting back into the win column. But he knows things have to get better in a hurry if the Jets are going to string together some wins and be a factor. He'll get a better idea of just how good his team can be on Sunday, when they face the pass-happy Chargers, who at 4-1 are off to their best start in Norv Turner's five-season tenure.
"I recognize the fact [the Chargers] are a good football team," Ryan said. "But if we play to the best of our abilities, I think we'll come out on top."