The New York Jets are tired of being second best.
Typically viewed in their home environment as the forgotten little brother to the more established Giants throughout most of their existence, the Jets have overtaken their fellow Big Apple tenants as the toast of the city and headliners of the back pages in Rex Ryan's two years as head coach. Whether it's by bringing in marketable big-name talent, starring in gripping reality television shows, or creating a stir with the always-entertaining words of their boisterous and ever-optimistic leader, Gang Green is finally in the spotlight after countless years of standing in the background.
And a little bit of success on the field has helped as well.
The Jets have made it to the AFC Championship Game in both of Ryan's seasons in charge, combining a stifling defense with a punishing running game and a take-no-prisoners mentality fostered by the ultra-confident head coach to win back-to-back road playoff tests in each of those years. But even though Ryan's troops have taken down some of the conference's Goliaths along the way, they've still ended up as bridesmaids in the race for the ultimate goal: a chance to end a 43-year title drought with an appearance in the Super Bowl.
New York proved its unforeseen postseason run of 2009 was no fluke by posting an 11-5 record during last year's regular season -- the franchise's highest victory total since 1998 -- then dispatching both Indianapolis and top-seeded New England in the playoffs before again coming up just short in the AFC Championship. And with the nucleus of that group mostly still intact, there's reason to believe that the third time could indeed be the charm for the 2011 Jets.
"We feel like we're right there," said running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "We have the guys on this team that can make plays across the board. "[We have a] great coaching staff and two back-to-back years of [making] the AFC Championship games.
"What's next for us? It has to be winning the championship."
For that prophecy to come true, however, the Jets will need quarterback Mark Sanchez to continue to build off the evident strides he made in his second NFL campaign last season, as well as a remade receiving corps that added some very interesting new blood to come together and gel with the young field general.
An easier path to the Super Bowl would also aid the cause. New York has yet to play in a home playoff game during the Ryan era, again because of a case of being runners-up. Although the Jets dealt the Patriots two of their three losses in 2010, they've still finished behind their bitter rivals in the AFC East standings in each of the last two years.
"You have to win the division," Tomlinson remarked. "The last couple of years we've played playoff games on the road. That's huge when you're trying to win three straight games on the road. It's just tough to do in the NFL, so we have to have some of those games at home and that's pretty much how I see it.
"Everything else we have. We have the talent. We have the coaching staff. We have everything we need."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the New York Jets, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 11-5 (2nd, AFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Pittsburgh in AFC Championship
COACH (RECORD): Rex Ryan (20-12 in two seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Brian Schottenheimer (sixth season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Pettine (third season)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Mark Sanchez, QB (3291 passing yards, 17 TD, 13 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Darrelle Revis, CB (32 tackles, 10 PD)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 11th overall (4th rushing, 22nd passing), tied 13th scoring (22.9 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 3rd overall (3rd rushing, 6th passing), 6th scoring (19.0 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Plaxico Burress (free agent), DE Muhammad Wilkerson (1st Round, Temple), P T.J. Conley (free agent), WR Derrick Mason (from Ravens), WR Jeremy Kerley (5th Round, TCU), OLB Aaron Maybin (from Bills), CB Donald Strickland (from Chargers), P Chris Bryan (free agent)
KEY DEPARTURES: FB Tony Richardson (not tendered), WR Braylon Edwards (to 49ers), OT Damien Woody (retired), DE Shaun Ellis (to Patriots), NT Kris Jenkins (retired), P Steve Weatherford (to Giants), QB Kellen Clemens (to Redskins), WR Jerricho Cotchery (to Steelers), WR Brad Smith (to Bills), TE Ben Hartsock (to Panthers), DE Trevor Pryce (not tendered), DE Vernon Gholston (to Bears), ILB Lance Laury (not tendered), OLB Jason Taylor (to Dolphins), CB Drew Coleman (to Jaguars), S James Ihedigbo (to Patriots)
QB: Sanchez (3291 passing yards, 17 TD, 13 INT) may not have the eye-popping statistics associated with premier quarterbacks, but he's proven himself to be a winner and an incredibly clutch performer in his two years under center, having orchestrated four fourth-quarter comebacks last season and showing a consistent ability to raise his game in the playoffs. The 24-year-old also drastically reduced his turnover total from his 2009 debut and should continue to progress in year No. 3. Keeping Sanchez healthy will also be essential if the Jets are to reach their lofty goals, as gray-bearded backup Mark Brunell (117 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) has started just one time in the past four seasons and turns 41 in September, while next on the depth chart is untested rookie Greg McElroy, a seventh-round choice in April's draft who's best known for leading Alabama to victory in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game.
RB: Tomlinson (914 rushing yards, 6 TD, 52 receptions) showed he's still got something left by turning in a very solid first season in New York, though the ex-San Diego great's production did noticeably wane down the stretch. This year the 32-year-old is expected to be used in a clear supporting capacity to the younger and more powerful Shonn Greene (766 rushing yards, 2 TD, 16 receptions), a physical between-the-tackles type who's averaged 4.5 yards per carry over his first two NFL seasons. Tomlinson's heir apparent as the third- down back looks to be sophomore Joe McKnight (189 rushing yards), Sanchez's former Southern Cal teammate who displayed his big-play potential with an 158- yard outburst against Buffalo in the 2010 regular-season finale, while rookie Bilal Powell (Louisville) also figures in the mix after being taken by the Jets in the fourth round of this year's draft. Young fullback John Conner (44 rushing yards, 1 TD) will take over lead-blocking duties after New York opted not to bring back mentor Tony Richardson.
WR/TE: The Jets continued their flair for grabbing headlines by making one of the most controversial moves of this offseason, signing former Giants standout Plaxico Burress to a one-year contract shortly after the wide receiver completed a 22-month prison sentence in June. Though the 34-year-old hasn't played in the league since 2008, he's being counted on to provide a red-zone presence his new team sorely lacked a year ago with his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame. Burress isn't the only newcomer to a receiver cast that's undergone some dramatic changes, with 2010 contributors Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith departing via free agency and the Jets releasing veteran Jerricho Cotchery due to salary cap and injury concerns. Cotchery's customary place in the slot will now be in the experienced hands of 14-year pro Derrick Mason (61 receptions, 7 TD with Ravens), still a capable and reliable performer at age 37, with shifty rookie Jeremy Kerley (5th Round, TCU) set to take over Smith's old role as the team's primary return man. The Jets were able to retain top playmaker Santonio Holmes (52 receptions, 6 TD) with a lucrative five-year deal over the summer, giving the offense a dangerous deep threat that neither Burress nor Mason can supply in their advanced age, while talented tight end Dustin Keller (55 receptions, 5 TD) also returns after leading the club in catches and establishing personal bests in every receiving category last year. He'll be backed up by blocking specialist Matthew Mulligan.
OL: New York has placed among the NFL's top four rushing teams in each of Ryan's two seasons, largely due to the excellent work in the trenches from one of the league's best all-around lines. The group is anchored by a pair of 2006 first-round picks in center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, both of whom have gone to two straight Pro Bowls and are regarded among the elite players at their respective positions. Right guard Brandon Moore has been quite steady in his own right, having made 114 consecutive starts (including the postseason) at his post next to Mangold, while Matt Slauson did a serviceable job last season in his first year taking over for perennial Pro Bowler Alan Faneca at the left guard spot. Right tackle Damien Woody now needs to be replaced after deciding to retire at this past season's end, though Ryan is confident stand-in Wayne Hunter can fill the void after performing ably as the team's swing tackle in recent years. Depth is a concern, however, as valued interior backup Robert Turner suffered a broken leg during the first preseason game and will likely be sidelined into October, while 2010 second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse has been slow to develop at both guard and tackle.
DL: This three-man front that excels at stopping the run will have most of the same parts in place for 2011, though there will be one major change that didn't exactly meet Ryan's approval. End Shaun Ellis, the Jets' longest tenured player and a key cog in the team's defensive success of the past few seasons, concluded an 11-year tenure with the organization and signed with the hated Patriots in August after receiving a better financial offer from the fellow AFC East member. New York had been lukewarm on bringing the 34-year-old back anyway after using its first-round choice in April's draft to land Temple lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who was immediately installed at Ellis' former position at the start of camp. The promising rookie will be flanked by sturdy nose tackle Sione Pouha (59 tackles, 2 sacks) and hard-working end Mike Devito (59 tackles), both of whom were big reasons why the Jets yielded a scant 90.9 rushing yards per game (3rd overall) last season. Wilkerson will rotate with 6-foot-8 Samoan Ropati Pitoitua, who missed all of 2010 with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and another big body with upside was added to the fold with the third-round draft selection of Hampton's Kenrick Ellis, an athletic 330- pounder who should see time at the nose this season.
LB: The Jets are well set at the two inside linebacker spots now that the team was able to lock up top tackler David Harris (99 tackles, 3 sacks) to a long- term deal during the early stages of training camp. The fifth-year pro will once again work beside chatty counterpart Bart Scott (81 tackles, 1 sack), whose contributions as a fiery leader are as vital to the defense's overall performance as his quality play on the field. Outside starters Bryan Thomas (39 tackles, 6 sacks) and Calvin Pace (51 tackles, 5.5 sacks) serve as the primary pressure-producers in Ryan's blitz-heavy scheme, with career reserve Jamaal Westerman slated to supplant Jason Taylor as the team's nickel rusher after the longtime Dolphin opted to return to Miami following a one-year stint with the Green and White. With the Jets lacking proven depth, general manager Mike Tannenbaum took a flier on ex-Bills washout Aaron Maybin, a 2009 first-round pick who was released by Buffalo in mid-August after two nondescript seasons, and may look for veteran help on the inside as well with second-year special teamer Josh Mauga (14 tackles) the main backup to Harris and Scott.
DB: Enemy quarterbacks have found navigating a sound New York secondary to be quite the challenge, with the Jets limiting their competition to a league-low 50.7 percent completion rate in 2010. That outstanding number had a lot to do with All-Pro Darrelle Revis (32 tackles, 10 PD) taking up residence at one of the cornerback spots. Arguably the league's premier cover man, he's been routinely able to shut down opposing No. 1 receivers since entering the pros in 2007. After losing out in a bid for prized free agent Nnamdi Asomugha, the Jets brought back Antonio Cromartie (42 tackles, 3 INT, 17 PD) to again handle the very busy assignment of playing opposite Revis. The rangy corner still rates as a nice consolation prize after putting together a strong season with Gang Green last year. There's good experience at the safety spots, with the trio of Jim Leonhard (61 tackles, 1 INT), Eric Smith (54 tackles, 1 sack) and Brodney Pool (53 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) all starting at least six games in 2010. The undersized but savvy Leonhard is back from a fractured tibia that ended his season in December to reprise his role as the backfield's quarterback, while the hard-hitting Smith entered preseason with an edge on Pool for the other starting job. 2010 first-rounder Kyle Wilson (21 tackles) will attempt to improve off an uneven rookie year as the nickel back, while veteran Donald Strickland (23 tackles, 1 sack with Chargers) -- a member of the Jets' 2009 squad -- was signed in the offseason to lend seasoned depth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Jets have generally fielded solid special teams units under esteemed coordinator Mike Westhoff, but the longtime coach may have his work cut out for him this time around. The team lost one of the league's best return men when Brad Smith joined the division-rival Bills in the offseason, while punter Steve Weatherford is now with the Giants following a year in which he led the NFL in kicks inside the 20-yard line. New York is banking on Kerley, a dynamite returner in college, being able to offset Smith's loss and that either T.J. Conley, a camp casualty in each of the past two years, or Australian Chris Bryan, who struggled badly in a four-game stint with Tampa Bay last season, can emerge as a viable punter. Kicker Nick Folk also has competition for his job after an inconsistent 2010 campaign in which he made 30-of-39 field goal attempts, including a shaky 5-for-11 from beyond 40 yards out. He's engaged in a camp battle with journeyman Nick Novak, who last kicked in the league in 2008.
PROGNOSIS: The Jets are once again thinking big and talking big as well, with Ryan declaring that this current roster is the best he's had since becoming head coach. And it's possible he could be right if Sanchez can take another big step forward as a passer, Burress can show he hasn't lost anything following his two-year exile and Greene can emerge into the high-caliber runner he's shown flashes of becoming in his first two years. Good health is a must as well, because there isn't a wealth of quality depth behind the regulars at many positions. Due to their achievements over the past two years, the Jets must be respected as a serious contender in the AFC, though keep in mind that four of last year's 11 regular-season victories came in either overtime or the final minute of the fourth quarter. That's either the mark of a great team that knows how to get it done in crunch time, or one that was a few bad bounces away from mediocrity. The Jets believe they're the former. Now's the time to go out and prove it.