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A Candid Chat with Former Jets Coach Herman Edwards About the Woody Johnson, Mike Tannenbaum, Rex Ryan Triumvirate

Two years ago this week, the Jets were relishing one of their best victories of the 2010 season: a 22-17 victory over Pittsburgh on the road, a triumph that assured them a second straight trip to the postseason. Brad Smith ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, the Jets offense didn’t turn the ball over, and the defense sacked Ben Roethlisberger three times. The Jets would go on to reach the AFC title game, losing to the Steelers.

The Rex Ryan-Mark Sanchez duo was in its infancy, but the combo had the feel of a early dynasty: Ryan, the bombastic, defensive-minded coach, and Sanchez, the cool California kid who, when he wasn’t turning the ball over, was a pretty damn good QB who helped lead the Jets to four road playoff wins in his first two seasons.

Fast forward to this week: Ryan stands at the podium looking like a defeated man in front of the rabid press, who smell blood in the water; Sanchez is coming off a second straight choke-job in late December, this one a hideous five-turnover performance on Monday Night Football against the Titans that knocked the Jets out of the playoff picture. He’s been benched, and reports are the team wants to try and trade him.

GM Mike Tannenbaum, who appeared to pull all the right strings in 2009 and 2010 building the franchise into a contender, only to completely botch the last two offseasons (see the bad 2011 moves here; the 2012 moves here), hasn’t been heard from for weeks. You won’t find a football writer in the country who thinks he’ll keep his job.

[In November, I wrote about five of the best candidates to replace Tannenbaum.]

Which leads me to the biggest question facing the Jets in 2013: The Tannenbaum/Ryan dynamic. I’ve spoken with a few football writers in recent weeks (and Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe even stopped by to chat about it). How can you fire the GM and keep the head coach? What GM is going to want to come in and not be able to pick his own coach? If you release one, must you release the other?

I thought I’d bounce the question off ESPN’s Herman Edwards, who coached the Jets from 2001-2005, going 39-41 but making three playoff trips and going 2-3 in the postseason. My first question to him: What was your situation like in 2001 when you came to New York?

“Terry Bradway was the GM,” Edwards recalled. “I was familiar with him, and worked with him in Kansas City. I knew a lot about him. I had five interviews lined up with the opportunity to be a head coach. The Jets were the 1st, and I never went to the other four. I felt comfortable with Terry.”

Edwards walked into something of a rebuilding situation in New York.

In 1998, Bill Parcells rode 35-year old QB Vinny Testaverde and the running of Curtis Martin to a 12-4 record and a trip to the AFC title game. They memorably led, 10-0 in the third quarter, before collapsing under a tsunami of turnovers and losing, 23-10. In the first game of the 1999 season, Testaverde ruptured his Achilles’ tendon against the Patriots and was lost for the year. New York limped to 8-8, but it was Parcells’ final year. Al Groh took over in 2000, the Jets went 9-7 and missed the playoffs, then left to coach the UVA Cavaliers.

Enter Edwards.

“In the offseason, when you are a head coach, the first thing you do is sit down with a GM and owner, you don’t know the contracts, or who you’re stuck with because of salary cap,” Edwards said. “You look at the age and a three year horizon and start to map out the direction you want to go, whether it is offensive lineman getting old, wide receivers, whatever. The key to it all is the team’s philosophy. All the good teams – the Steelers, Packers, Giants, Patriots, teams like that – have one. They know what they want to be, whether it is a passing team, running, defense, whatever. Right now, the Jets really don’t know what their philosophy is.”

I must have asked Edwards half a dozen times who got the final say on personnel decisions, and he was steadfast in his response: “You can’t get involved in egos about wanting a guy. It’s about the team. And the team’s philosophy.”

Therein lies the Jets’ main problem. What is the team philosophy? It appears to be: Play strong defense, run the football, and have the QB manage a good game. That formula worked in 2009 and 2010.

But if that’s the case, why did Mark Sanchez throw the ball 59 times last year against the Giants on Christmas Eve with the season hanging in the balance? If that’s the team philosophy, why was Sanchez throwing the ball so much Monday night – even after the three picks – including on 1st down with two minutes left from the Tennessee 20? If that’s the philosophy, why they let the offensive line deteriorate? Why did they let the linebackers age to the point that the defense is 29th against the run this year, when they were 8th and 3rd in 2009 and 2010, respectively? [Obviously, a season-ending injury to the best cornerback in football, Darrelle Revis, didn’t help.]

The Jets right now, Edwards said, don’t know who they are or what they want to be.

“The Ravens are running into the same problem,” Edwards said. “The defense is getting old. They’ve had injuries. And instead of being a team with a tough defense and big running game, they’re now putting the ball in the hands of Joe Flacco.”

Without getting too off-track, the Ravens have gone from 9-2 to 9-5 this year, fired their offensive coordinator, and Flacco, at times, is Sanchez-like. (Of course they have significantly better offensive weapons in Rice, Boldin and Torrey Smith.)

I believe the Jets’ identity problem starts at the top, with bumbling owner Woody Johnson. He’s a businessman, not a football guy. He likes flashy things, like Brett Favre (result: failure, embarrassment), and Tim Tebow (failure, embarrassment) because he wants to sell tickets and be the more talked-about New York football team and make money. Frustratingly, he always keeps the Jets well under the salary cap. Jets fans have long-believed Johnson is cheap. I asked Edwards, if, during his time in New York, he found Woody Johnson frugal: “there’s a reason for that, it’s … he goes about his business.”

Back to the GM/coach dynamic. I asked Edwards about his biggest draft miss during his time with the Jets. Clearly, it was No. 4 pick DeWayne Robertson, a defensive tackle from Kentucky. Edwards got a tad defensive – pointing out his many draft hits – but eventually said, “He wasn’t a good player. He wasn’t the player we thought he’d be. He got hurt. We were trying to build a defense because the defense was old. We went from 3-4 to a 4-3. He was a three technique, and he was the best three technique coming out. A lot of people had that opinion. But he was immature, he got injured, and he got overweight.”

So who did that “miss” fall upon? Edwards or Bradway? Edwards refused to assign blame, sticking to the team/philosophy concept.

Edwards said there were no disagreements on Robertson in the war room, but I persisted – what about these Jets? Kyle Wilson, taken late in the 1st round, appears to be a bust, and while Wilkerson and Coples appear to be keepers, why aren’t the Jets looking to get offensive help for Sanchez in the first round in the same way the Falcons have upgraded their offense around 1st round pick Matt Ryan?

Since drafting Sanchez in 2009, the Jets have spent three picks in the first three rounds on offensive players. Shonn Greene in 2009 (3rd round, free agent this year and may not return), offensive lineman Vlad Ducasse in 2010 (can’t crack the starting lineup), Stephen Hill in 2012 (2nd round, has potential, but can’t stop dropping passes).

Later-round picks include:

* Joe McKnight (4th round in 2010: at best, a kick return specialist, 5-carry a game back)
* Bilal Powell (4th round in 2011: has played OK at times this year, but doesn’t look like a No. 1 back)
* Jeremy Kerley (5th round in 2011: punt returner, solid slot receiver)

Said Edwards, who drafted Santana Moss in the 1st round in 2001 to help then-QB Chad Pennington: “when you have a QB, how are you going to surround the guy to have success. you give him guys where the pressure isn’t always on him to make a play. that hasn’t happened for Mark Sanchez. With the defense struggling, and the running game struggling, you don’t try to change course in the middle of the stream. Well now, the guy has no weapons.”

There are no quick fixes here for the Jets. [Good salary cap breakdown here.] Bringing in Mike Vick isn’t going to work. He’s been a turnover machine the last two years (when healthy). Might Alex Smith – who seemed to cure his turnover problems this year and last with the 49ers – be a better solution? The more I spoke to Edwards, the more it seemed like maybe Smith would make sense.

“Those teams we talked about earlier with the good philosophies, the ones who know what they want to be – Giants, Packers, Patriots teams like that – they keep their head coach for a long time,” Edwards said. “They don’t switch coaches every 2 1/2 years. Look at Ozzie Newsome with the Ravens. They know what their philosophy is, and get coaches and players to fit it. You don’t want an internal struggle. People were surprised when the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin. He fit. He was the perfect guy!”

So what’s the move – bring in Alex Smith, have the new GM focus on upgrading the OL and RBs this offseason, along with the linebackers and safeties? That’s at least a two-year project, unless they are able to hit 2-3 home runs in the draft and free agency.

“Woody Johnson needs to sit down with some GMs who have built something this offseason,” Edwards said. “The conversation he has to have is whether or not Tannenbaum is going to be GM. They need to settle on a philosophy, figure out what money they’re going to spend, and execute. I don’t think if you get rid of Tannenbaum, you need to get rid of Rex, too.”

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