When assessing the New York Jets' prospects in the summer, critics and fans alike assumed a rebuilding year. After the first quarter of the 2006 season, the message from Hempstead is clear: stop assuming and start believing.
Nobody within the organization is content with a 2-2 record, but there has been progress displayed in each game this season. The term "rebuilding" has never been uttered at Weeb Ewbank Hall. New York's AFC representative has shown evident improvement on a week-to-week basis, which is precisely what head coach Eric Mangini has been looking for.
"We talked about the need to consistently improve and there were a lot of good things that happened, but there are some things that we need to work on," said Mangini following his club's roller coaster battle with Indy on Sunday.
"It's a group effort. It's offense, defense, special teams, and coaching. We are all in this together. After every win and after every loss, we are in this together. We need to keep working as a group and making progress. If we do, these close games will swing in the other direction."
In just one month of action, Mangini's men have responded positively to the first-year head coach. In week one, the Jets didn't collapse in the midst of a second half Tennessee rally and eventually were able to turn the Titans away. Fast forward to week two when we witnessed a passionate Jets club nearly overcome a 24-point deficit against the Patriots.
Facing their first divisional road test up in Buffalo, the Jets weathered an early storm against a good Bills team and grabbed a lead at intermission. Then they took command in the second half.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
"Whether we win or lose, and I'm committed to this, it's going to be the same approach every week," Mangini said. "We need to take the lessons that we can from the game, fix the mistakes, and then put this one in the past and move on."
Enter Indianapolis, a team that for the past six seasons has been an annual power. Looking at this game last spring probably scared a lot of Jets fans, but they don't play the games on paper in May. These Jets expected to win and they would have sans Peyton Manning's fourth quarter dramatics. On Sunday evening, the Jets lamented while the Colts ran for the buses, knowing they had escaped.
That being said, week four's dramatic loss at the Meadowlands was a tough pill to swallow for the young Jets squad, even after backing one of the league's best into a corner.
"I have enough moral victories to last me a lifetime," veteran guard Pete Kendall said. "And I would trade them all in for one win."
"Nobody ever wants to lose," Mangini said. "That's why we draft competitive guys who hate losing at anything - whether it's football or scrabble or a pick-up game with their uncle. Whatever it is – we want guys who hate to lose."
Mangini played to win against Indianapolis. Late in the third quarter, Mangini ordered the offense to stay on the field when the Jets faced a 4th and goal from the Indy two. The game was tied at 14 and Mangini decided to go for six instead of three. But the Colts played well defensively, forcing Chad Pennington's first red zone interception of his career.
"I have pretty much index stocks and blue chips," responded a witty Mangini when asked if he was a gambler. "I think anything that is thought out and practiced and worked on and looked at in terms of the situation – I think is more of an educated risk."
A short Mike Nugent field goal would have put the Jets up only three points, and as history has proven, three points doesn't go a long way against the Colts. Additionally, Chad Pennington's offense had eaten almost nine and a half minutes off the clock and they were looking at their 18th play of the drive. Momentum was clearly on the home team's side and they had won on their previous risks.
In the second quarter, the Jets grabbed their first lead after Kerry Rhodes recovered an onside kick and Leon Washington picked up three yards on a 4th and one play.
"I would do it again. The plan was to be aggressive," Mangini said of his decision to go for the touchdown. "That's why we went for it on 4th and one, and that's why we were committed to scoring touchdowns. This is an explosive offensive that puts points on the board very quickly."
This wasn't just some rash decision the Jets came to on the sideline. No, this choice was crafted during the week. The Jets had to be aggressive and field goals weren't going to cut it against the Colts' attack.
"We had talked about it and it's something we had prepared for and it was the approach we were taking," Mangini said. "Whenever you play a team that is aggressive as the Colts, I think an aggressive approach is a sound approach."
After Cedric Houston was held to no gain from the two-yard line, Mangini turned to another set of legs – Chad Pennington.
"He had the option to tuck it and run," Mangini said of his quarterback. "The way it works is you have a blocker out and you get out on the perimeter there. Usually the edge player is in coverage, so the edge player is in a conflict between coming up to get the quarterback or staying back in coverage. If he comes up, you throw it. If he stays back, you run it. The key is working the perimeter there."
In fact, Pennington's rushing numbers inside the red zone aren't what one might think. The Marshall alum rushed for five career touchdowns prior to last season's injury-plagued campaign.
"They made a good play," Mangini said of the Colts. "They got some pressure off the edge there which should have been handled a little bit better. The run part of the option wasn't as clean as we hoped it would be, and they made a good play at that point."
Pennington's pass option was intended for tight end/long snapper James Dearth, who was heading into the back corner of the end zone. Dearth, a former quarterback at Tarleton State, has three career receptions, including one for a touchdown.
"I have seen plays where tight ends who are converted linebackers score touchdowns," Mangini said. "Mike Vrabel's catch in the Super Bowl against the Rams was his second NFL catch. I think Jumbo Elliott scored a touchdown here at some point."
Running back Cedric Houston, who led the Jets in rushing against the Colts with 49 yards, was hurt late in the third quarter. With the game deadlocked at 14, Houston attempted to bull his way in from the Indy two-yard line, but he was stopped for no gain by defensive end Dwight Freeney. Mangini said Houston has a left knee injury and there is no update on the status. "Against Buffalo, he did a nice job. He was doing a pretty good job here yesterday, but it's one of those things where injuries take place," Mangini said… Look for Derrick Blaylock to return to the lineup against the Jaguars if Houston can't go.