And so it has come to this for the New York Jets. Today's final home game of the season against the San Diego Chargers and next week's season finale at Buffalo present a realm that all NFL teams want to avoid, that the Jets haven't visited since 2007. With Monday night's loss at Tennessee, we've crossed over into ...
The Meaningless Zone.
Jets Nation has already declared it so. Jets reporters dusted off and presented the word to head coach Rex Ryan for reaction this week. But understand that while this final fortnight of the Jets' season might be meaningless in regard to playoff implications for the Green & White, or meaningless in regard to the sensibilities of many fans and media members, these games still are not Meaningless with a capital M to the Jets who will be playing in them.
Here is a top 10 list two days before Christmas of Jets individuals and groups who have plenty to play for, beginning today at 1 p.m. ET.
QB Greg McElroy
Ryan named his second-year signalcaller his starter after the Titans disappointment, and G-Mac, while saying all the right things about stepping ahead of Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow to take the ones' reins this week in practice, was also refreshingly candid about the assignment.
"This is a great moment and a great milestone in my career," he said. "This is something I've looked forward to and dreamed about my entire life. I'm thrilled to have this opportunity."
McElroy, who already scored the "relief win" over the Cardinals three games ago, can achieve some distinctions in franchise history. Beat the Chargers and he'll become the ninth QB in the Jets' 52 years to win his first start for the Green & White. Further, he'd be only the fourth to get his first win in his first start in a Jets home game, following not so closely on the heels of Dick Jamieson, who got the first win in the first game in franchise history in 1960, Bob Davis in '71, and Vinny Testaverde in '98.
But the true meaningfulness of this game for McElroy is what it can portend for his future as a starting candidate for the Jets in 2013 and beyond. He can make a bold statement in that regard today. But he'll need help.
RB Shonn Greene
Greene is poised to become a 1,000-yard rusher for the second straight season. Sure, it's only 62½ yards a game, and almost every team these days has one. But you try running for a thou. It's not as easy as it sounds. And Greene has been doing it his way, which is to say in the second halves of games, in the second half of the season.
"When it gets to be the fourth quarter," ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said six days ago, "people get tired of seeing him."
Greene needs 49 yards in the next two games. He's never cocky, and the strength of this 5-9 Chargers outfit may well be its seventh-ranked rush defense. But he's feeling upbeat about his chances.
"It's a good accomplishment," he told Jets Talk Live. "I think in the NFL, if you start and play all the games, you should have over 1,000 yards. Hopefully we can get that done next game."
DE Muhammad Wilkerson
On the defensive side of the ball, Wilk has been shaking and baking like not many second-year Jets D-linemen in recent memory. His line for the last nine games has been impressive indeed: four sacks, 3 PDs, three forced fumbles, one fumble-return TD. Against the Titans he had his first blocked kick.
He and his former military academy teammate, rookie Quinton Coples, are tied for the team sack lead (albeit with a modest four sacks each), but they are the future of the Jets defense moving forward, and they'll be pushing each other to finish strong, beginning with getting after San Diego QB Philip Rivers.
CB Antonio Cromartie
Cro was just named Friday as the Jets' Curtis Martin Team MVP. He thanks his teammates for helping him earn that distinction, and he pushes his mates to pool their considerable skills for a decent, if meaning-thin, stretch run. "We want to try to finish at .500 rather than have a losing record," Cromartie said. "That would stink, having a losing record with the team we have."
LB David Harris
The Hitman was chagrined from the Titans loss. He took the blame for failing to plug the hole through which Chris Johnson went on his 94-yard TD run. He admitted how much the playoffs-nullifying loss hurt. But Harris talked about the Jets now being professionals, and he is that. He's already established the fifth 100-tackle season of his six-year career. He was named the Dennis Byrd award-winner as the Jets' most inspirational player. He'll find a way to get across his inspirational message this game.
"You keep coming to work," he said. "You never give up."
ST Coordinator Mike Westhoff
It's the final home game in an exemplary career for "Coach Westy," who's ending three decades as an NFL assistant coach and a 12-year run as the Jets' teams guru after this season. His units, he knows, have had their ups and downs this season, but the ups have still been impressive, and we know Westhoff will insist on no letdowns the last two games. You know the Jets' special forces will be amped for the Chargers — they and Westhoff will be the unit coming out of the tunnel for pregame introductions at MetLife Stadium today.
Ryan and coordinator Mike Pettine were quietly sure that by the end of the season the Jets' defensive rankings would rise from their early depressions, and they were right. The run defense has been too inconsistent, but overall the "D" is eighth in the NFL and the pass defense is second. That's a tribute to Cro, Mo, Q and the others who help establish the pass ranking.
Can the Jets catch Pittsburgh's No. 1 pass defense? The Steelers are 147 yards ahead at the moment, but their opponents (Cincinnati and Cleveland) have slightly better passing teams than the Jets' foes. Maybe. It won't take the sting out of the Jets' situation, but it will have the defenders' attention vs. the Chargers. A big challenge: safeties LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell and Eric Smith alternately or together against San Diego TE Antonio Gates.
WR Braylon Edwards
Back to the offense and to No. 17's really quite impressive return to the Jets. The numbers at LP Field weren't eye-popping (three catches, 47 yards), but he got in 41 plays on his sore hamstring and contributed to an offense he wasn't familiar with after only three days of exposure. And Edwards clearly wants to stick around for more than two games as he spoke about "being back in the right colors."
"To be honest, I'm hopeful I can stay here," he said. "After we get to 8-8, let's move forward and see how we can make the offseason work."
But to get a new deal, it would help if Braylon can bring some stability to the Jets' fractured WR corps for McElroy, Sanchez and Tebow to work with for the next two games.
Home Field Advantage
It's taken a hit this season, no question. Three 21-point-plus losses (to San Francisco, Miami and New England) have resulted in a 3-4 home record and a minus-6.3-points per-game point margin, the Jets' lowest since 1996 if it holds up. A win, even a big win today won't make up for previous shortcomings, but it's never too soon to get the team and its fans focused on reestablishing a Meadowlands mystique for 2013.
Ryan wants this win, and then another, and it's not for any concerns over job security — "The priority's not me by any stretch," he said earlier in the week. "I'm trying to get this team ready to play. Believe me, that's the truth."
And it's not to secure any impressive-sounding but empty coaching distinction, although it is true that with an 8-8 record, Ryan would become the first coach in the franchise's 52 seasons to open his tenure with four .500 or better seasons.
It's really because as he often reminds, "We're in the win business." He's professional, his players are professionals, and pros in this sport try to win games for all the reasons touched on above and more.
"I think from the competitive standpoint and everything else, you have an opportunity, and so you're excited to play," Rex said. "The fact that you don't have a chance at the playoffs, yeah, that brings it down, there's no question. Anybody who says it's not isn't telling the true story because it is a letdown, a major letdown. But these guys are excited to play, we're all excited to play and I expect a great effort from all our guys. And I know we'll get it. There's absolutely no concern whatsoever there."
Bring on the Chargers, and this season's non-meaningless 15th game.