3 steps to success: Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith, Jets need to move forward

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The Jets turned from a potential powerhouse in the AFC to its biggest joke in two seasons. What can Rex Ryan's squad do in 2013 to become respectable?

The New York Jets! It doesn't matter what the joke was; in 2012, that was the punchline. The team wasn't completely awful -- they did win six games -- but the ways they lost were comical and mind-boggling.

They were led by an overmatched quarterback in Mark Sanchez, whose season was encapsulated by the famed buttfumble. His backup was Tim Tebow, a laughable scenario of its own right, as calls for Tebow to start -- or play in any role besides punt protector -- grew louder and louder as the year went on. Rex Ryan, who just a few years earlier had taken over with swagger and made the team a contender, watched meekly as the squad fell further from the playoffs, too meek even to quiet the quarterback riot.

Much of the Jets' ability to maneuver was wiped out by salary obligations, but the team looks to turn over some new leaves in 2013. Darrelle Revis, brilliant as he was, had turned into a distraction after the past season. Without money to pay for him, the team had to let him go. Instead, they'll have first-round pick Dee Milliner. Geno Smith is in the mix at quarterback, providing a legitimate threat to Sanchez' starting gig.

Can a newish Jets squad get back to league-wide relevance just three years removed from back-to-back AFC Championship games? Well, probably not. Can they manage to be not funny to everybody that isn't a Jets fan? Well, that's a start, and it's certainly possible. Let's take a look.

3 Steps Towards Success

1. Dee Milliner pans out, Antonio Cromartie stays strong

Misconception: Because the Jets were a laughingstock last year, so was their defense. It wasn't, not even close, especially in shutting down opponents through the air. Even after they lost all-everything cornerback Revis to an ACL tear early in the year, the Jets had the No. 2 pass defense in the league, allowing just 189.8 yards per game. Antonio Cromartie was a worthy Pro Bowler, and Kyle Wilson had the best year of his career after being drafted in the first round in 2010.

The Jets lose Revis, but since he didn't play last year, it's not as dramatic a loss as it usually is when your team trades away the best player in the league at their position. And they pick up Milliner, indisputably the best cornerback in this year's draft. Pass defense is a strength, and one the Jets can't afford to lose.

2. Ground and pound

Chris Ivory could break out in New York.

The Jets will likely start either Geno Smith, a rookie not deemed worthy of a first-round pick, or Mark Sanchez, who is Mark Sanchez. Although Santonio Holmes returns, he is the team's most competent receiver by a few miles. Long story short? The Jets' passing game will likely be somewhat poor in 2013.

The Jets' successes in 2009 and 2010 came with Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson leading a rushing attack backed up by Shonn Greene. The two stars are long gone, and Greene sputtered in a feature role in 2012. The Jets don't have anybody as good as those guys, but do have a host of middling backs who perhaps combined can be something greater than the sum of their parts. Chris Ivory showed bright spots for the Saints when not injured, and could break out in New York. Bilal Powell showed the ability to follow his blockers, even if he's lacking explosion. Joe McKnight has shown off his speed as a return man, though it hasn't translated to his time at running back. And Mike Goodson's been a quality backup, even if he might have legal issues.

These guys have to manage something, because they aren't going to get it done in any other way.

3. Be diverse defensively

There isn't as much Grade A talent across the board anymore, but as John B of Gang Green Nation writes, the team might have raised its bottom line of talent. They don't have Revis, they don't have menaces in the pass rush, but they're a more solid squad top to bottom. By maximizing the different ways the team can hurt opponents — and continuing to show multiple potential rushers and utilize young, versatile talent in intriguing ways — the team can be solid defensively.

3 Feats Towards Failure

1. Quarterback controversy

We've officially logged four years of evidence on Mark Sanchez, and the results lead to one big conclusion: the dude isn't a Pro Bowl-level quarterback. He's got a decent arm, but struggles with accuracy and — more worrisome after four seasons — decision-making. Interceptions have been a problem that doesn't seem to be going away.

The specter of QB switches week in and week out can only hurt.

Here's the thing, though: last season, nobody was going to be a good quarterback for the Jets. The team was brutalized by issues with wide receiver depth, and didn't have any semblance of a dangerous run game. Sanchez was bad, but few quarterbacks in the league would have crafted a strong season in New York.

What made things completely awful was the media haze surrounding whether or not Sanchez or Tim Tebow would show up under center each week — and when Tebow clearly wasn't the go-to guy, Greg McElroy thrust his head into the picture. It caused an unnecessary ruckus that presumably didn't help the shaky psyche of Sanchez.

Tebow's gone, and with him Tebowmania. But now Geno Smith enters the picture, and there will be a quarterback battle. It has to end after training camp, though: the specter of QB switches week in and week out can only hurt. If Sanchez is the guy while Smith develops, that's fine, even if we know his ceiling as an NFL QB. But if Smith gets the chance to start as a rookie and sweat out the growing pains while Sanchez earns millions on the bench, don't make it a circus. Hopefully, Marty Mornhinweg can adjust his offense and new quarterbacks coach David Lee can once again demonstrate a golden touch at career revival.

2. Coordinators don't mesh

New offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is a guy with a reputation for pass-based offenses, and the Jets are gonna need to run the ball. New defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman has a long history with Rex Ryan, but has never been in charge of a defense. If Mornhinweg tries to manipulate the team to his preferences rather than play to the team's strengths, and if Thurman tries to change, well, much of anything at all, things could get even more dysfunctional under Rex Ryan.

3. Turnovers don't improve

The Jets were one of the worst teams in the NFL at holding onto the ball — 37 turnovers, 19 picks and 18 fumbles, as Mark Sanchez couldn't keep a handle on the ball or stop throwing it away. Even with a ballhawking defense, they gave the ball away 14 times more than they took it back, the third-worst margin in the NFL.

If Mark Sanchez is still quarterback, one hopes a year of maturity improves his play in that regard, although his first four years showed no real improvement. If it's Geno Smith, one would hope he's better than Sanchez at not coughing up the ball, although he's a rookie. What's sure is that if they're just as bad, the team will probably be close to as bad.

Ultimate answer

This season will be a wild, unmitigated success if the New York Jets make the playoffs. Laugh, hahahahahahaha, but the Jets were relatively close last year. Remember, the reason you were laughing as Mark Sanchez fumbled away the Jets' postseason chances in a hideous Week 15 game against the Tennessee Titans is because the Jets still had postseason chances in Week 15.

More realistically, going 8-8 would be a solid season for New York. There's been a lot said about this team, and they'll be running out a relatively young squad by necessity as they press up against the salary cap. If [INSERT NAME OF JETS QUARTERBACK] can display competence and the team's defense stays strong, that would show some promise for a team that's gone from contender to punch line in a few short seasons. And with relevance out of the question, promise is the next best thing.

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