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Lichtenstein: Be Optimistic All You Want, But Ultimately They're Still The Jets

By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns

Want to give a Jets fan the shakes?

Show him a line where the Jets are favored by more than a field goal.

According to bookmakers in Las Vegas, New York is supposed to defeat Oakland by around five points in Week 1.

Not that I'm dismissing the possibility that the Jets will roll over the Raiders and their rookie quarterback, but I've been fooled so many times in the past that the following tenet is ingrained in my soul: Beware of high expectations.

I'm also trying not to put too much emphasis on the first week of a four-month marathon. With the Jets facing a gauntlet of six straight top-level quarterbacks after this week, it's tempting to justify giving up on the season should they fall flat against the lowly Raiders.

I mean, if they can't beat the Raiders at home, who can they beat?

Then again, if you told me at this point last season that the Jets -- with their putt-putt offense -- would go out and outscore the Patriots, Saints and Falcons, I would have urged you to get a CAT scan.

But that's the pull of the NFL.  In the immortal word of Joaquin Andujar, "youneverknow."

Stranger stories have been written in past seasons than if an overlooked Jets squad suddenly took off to challenge for an AFC playoff slot this year.

It's not that big a leap, as head coach Rex Ryan somehow got his ragamuffin 2013 Jets to overachieve to finish 8-8, only a game out of a wild card berth.

Still, it would be almost tragic to their 2014 aspirations should the Jets give Sunday's game away. While the first half slate looks brutal, over their final seven games the Jets will face just one team that made it to the last postseason -- the Patriots. Win a couple of these early games and 9-7 doesn't look so impossible. And that could be good enough to advance in the weaker AFC.

Last year's near-miss was driven mostly on the backs of Ryan's defense, particularly the front seven. That group, led by defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, is deep and versatile, swallowing opponents' running games.

And now this Jets attack is far more intriguing, with the additions of running back Chris Johnson, wide receiver Erik Decker and backup quarterback Michael Vick adding gravitas and depth at the skill positions.

On the other hand, I can envision it all coming apart on Sunday, what with the Jets' mess at cornerback undoing all the hard work up front, allowing the Raiders' Derek Carr to move the chains at will.

The NFL is evolving into the Chip Kelly/college/hurry-up/spread/three-step drop ideology. All that system needs is a man with intelligence and an accurate arm behind center and it can render any pass rush obsolete, especially if your coverage guys aren't up to speed.

Carr fits that mold, lighting up the scoreboard at Fresno State before usurping Matt Schaub as Oakland's starter via a solid preseason. And as much of an advantage that Ryan holds in this game with his successful history of harassing young QBs, that is counter-weighed by the fact that Carr won't exactly be facing Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.

All you need to know about the state of the Jets' secondary is the loud sigh of relief emanating from the team's HQ over Antonio Allen's return to duty following a concussion in the third preseason game.

That's the same Allen who has started a grand total of 10 games in his NFL career -- and had never played a down at cornerback before multiple injuries forced him to move over from safety a few weeks ago.

OK, so maybe the defense won't be reminiscent of Rex's father's '85 Bears. But it is still pretty good, and the Jets weren't accomplishing anything anyway if they didn't goose the offense, right?

And into town comes Oakland, which gave up the most points among AFC teams last season.

So among my fellow Jets fans, please tell me who won't be even a tad jittery every time Geno Smith drops back to pass on Sunday?

The organization's move to stand by Smith is admirable in the long term, showing commitment to building the franchise around the player they targeted in the 2013 draft. But no one really knows if he has improved enough in his second season to reverse his horrid 12:26 touchdown-to-turnover ratio or if that is who he is -- a stronger-armed, more fleet-footed Mark Sanchez.

From all appearances, this will be Smith's team. Vick seems to have been brought in as insurance, a reminder to Smith that he cannot become complacent at his job. I'm sure there will be plenty of Jets fans calling for Vick upon Smith's first errant throw, but I doubt he will leave the bench area Sunday unless Ryan promised him a few Wildcat plays (which is pretty stupid, considering Smith IS a Wildcat QB).

Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is not known as one who will take the air out of the ball and return to the prehistoric ground-and-pound days of the earlier teams in Ryan's tenure. Oh, he will sprinkle in some runs utilizing his complementary backfield of Johnson, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell.

But Mornhinweg knows anything more is no longer the way things are done in today's NFL.  You've got to throw it — and throw it accurately — to truly contend.

With Decker and rookie tight end Jace Amaro added to a receiving corps that includes a (so-far) healthy David Nelson and Jeremy Kerley, maybe someone will be open down field every now and then for a change. It's up to Smith to be on target.

The Jets' game plan on Sunday seems pretty simple: balance the play-calling so the Raiders can't load up eight guys in the box, take some deeper shots at Oakland's own suspect secondary. Pound Ivory inside and then get Johnson out in space as a change of pace. Use Smith's wheels as a weapon, not just as an escape option.

Of course, it's all in the execution. Penalties, turnovers and missed assignments are what turn such winnable games into nightmares.

Sunday may only be the first game of 16, but that possible scenario has been keeping me up at night all week.

For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1. 

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