Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Rex Ryan believes this Jets team can be the best he's ever had.
That might sound crazy, but if the head coach doesn't have faith in his players, then who will?
This is a critical year not only for Ryan, but for general manager Mike Tannenbaum -- and just about every player on the roster. Fourth-year quarterback Mark Sanchez wants to take the Eli Manning-leap to the next level. His backup, Tim Tebow, wants to prove he's a legitimate NFL quarterback. The Jets' No. 1 running back, Shonn Greene, needs to prove he can be elusive.
After their meteoric rise to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in 2009 and 2010, the Jets finished 8-8 last season and were fighting on the field in the season-ending loss.
But over the past few months, coaches and players have insisted the resentment and frustration that corroded the locker room during their collapse of last season has been alleviated through time and unconventional team-building exercises. But when Antonio Cromartie, the Jets' second-best defensive player declares himself the second-best wide receiver, it begs the question: Does Sanchez really have enough to work with on offense?
The starting quarterback -- whose completion percentage (.567 in 2011), passing yards (3,474) and touchdown mark (26) have improved each year -- returned to camp in the best shape of his life at 230 pounds. He also emerged as a leader in the huddle. But what good is his physical and emotional maturity if his weapons don't do their part?
Jeremy Kerley knows people are doubting the receiving corps. "We take it a little bit personal," said the slot receiver, who missed all but one training-camp practice and played in one preseason game because of a slight hamstring tear. "Everybody thinks we're not going to produce how we're supposed to produce. So it puts a little pressure on us. But it's not anything we're not used to. We'll be ready for it."
Santonio Holmes, the team's No. 1 wideout, said there's far too much work to be done to be concerned about critics.
"Depending on how hard we work and how bad we want it, then I think all the details and results will show come game day," said the veteran, who has been nursing a rib and back injury. "At this point, all bets are off."
"I think Mark has all the weapons that he needs," Kerley said. "It's just up to us to put it out there against Buffalo" in the Jets' season-opener Sunday.
And it'll be up to new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano to resurrect the ground game and to prove their top-secret plans for Tebow were well worth the wait. The Jets purposely kept the "Tebow package" -- a collection of Wildcat and fake punt maneuvers -- under wraps for fear of revealing too much, too soon. But after just one preseason touchdown (scored by a rookie running back who was later waived), the suspense has built to ridiculous proportions.
Tannenbaum and Ryan have consistently called Tebow a "winner." But now they'll have to prove his magic touch will filter to the field on game day.
The Jets' watered-down offense generated an NFL-worst 198.5 yards of total offense en route to an 0-4 preseason record. So now, Sparano -- who has fewer weapons than former coordinator Brian Schottenheimer ever did -- must get his brand new offense to generate more rushing yards than the 105.8 the Jets averaged in 2011, when they finished 22nd in the NFL.
The defense, of course, is not without its own question marks, such as the improvement of nickel cornerback Kyle Wilson, the growth of rookie safety Josh Bush and, as defensive coordinator Mike Pettine calls it, the "dinosaurish" speed of some linebackers.
But the glaring concern is on offense -- and whether the line can keep Sanchez upright long enough for him to make a throw and whether Tebow and the Wildcat will work.
With so much riding on this season, the Jets can't afford a slow start. "I think this has a chance to be the best team that I've had since I've been a coach here," Ryan said last week. "I think this is going to be a good team. I don't know how many wins that will be, but I know one thing: We will play as a team."
Ryan hopes the same will be true come playoff time.