Commentary

Confident Gang says best is yet to come

Rex Ryan's famous for talking up his team -- but from all indications, he has a point

Updated: October 29, 2010, 11:47 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- For all the talk about what an incorrigible trash-talker Jets coach Rex Ryan is, the underplayed truth is he's an even bigger, more flagrant optimist.

Ryan routinely comes shambling in after Jets practices talking animatedly about some "great" or "tremendous" or "outstanding" thing he's just seen. You get the feeling that if they someday put only one line on his tombstone, it probably will be, "Hey, I love all my guys!"

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesHead coach Rex Ryan is his team's biggest cheerleader, but he's not the only one in Jetland who sees big things ahead.

In an almost comical two-day span in training camp, his enthusiasm was whitecapping along so high, he called Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, center Nick Mangold, left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and now-injured nose tackle Kris Jenkins the best at their positions in the NFL, pronounced LaDainian Tomlinson the best third-down back in the league, and good-naturedly groused how new wideout Santonio Holmes, the ex-Steelers star, cost him a couple of Super Bowl rings when he still was coaching in Baltimore -- an impressive shower of valentines even by Rex's standards.

So when Ryan stood at the news conference podium early this week and said the Jets haven't even approached their ceiling as a team yet -- "I don't think we're close on either side of the ball" -- his remark deserved more attention than it got, because it wasn't just coach-speak. And it wasn't just Ryan's mouth taking off on some naked bootleg without him really thinking about what he was saying.

The Jets are 5-1. They're tied for the best record in the NFL. And yet, the feeling around the team as it shakes off its bye-week break and gets ready for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday is that the best is yet to come.

The Jets are not even close to what they could be.

And there are a lot of concrete reasons to think they're right.

"It's not just that I see that -- I think the whole team sees that," Ryan said Thursday.

The days right after a bye week are always a natural time to hit the reset button on a season. What went right? What went wrong?

Remember how the Jets talked a lot during training camp about being a "historic" defense that could be better and more punishing than the top-ranked unit they threw out last season? They haven't been close to that. They're currently ranked just 14th overall, in the middle of the pack. As linebacker Bart Scott pointed out Thursday, the Jets have been good at getting teams into third-and-long situations -- "hunting season, we call it, because you know our blitz will be coming" -- but they haven't been nearly as good at winning those downs and getting off the field.

Then again, Sunday will mark the first time the Jets have had a fully healthy Revis to bookend with Antonio Cromartie at cornerback. And the entire defense is looking forward to it. As linebacker Jason Taylor says, "There's no better thing for a pass-rusher than having good cover guys. ... People talk about our sacks [being down]. But we don't care about the stats. ... If you can get a quarterback chucking and ducking, you're happy."

The Jets' offense has even more room to grow.

Holmes, a big-play receiver during his Steelers career, has been little more than a glorified possession receiver for the Jets in the two games he's played since serving his season-opening four-game suspension. But the Jets didn't bring him here to run 6-yard slants.

Ryan has hinted all week that he expects Holmes' involvement in the offense to finally tick up, perhaps as soon as the Green Bay game. Jerricho Cotchery can play better, too. Throw in Tomlinson, who has exceeded expectations, and tight end Dustin Keller, who has continued to develop into the closest thing quarterback Mark Sanchez has to a security blanket, and the offense still has a huge upside.

Sanchez has been impressive at cutting down his interceptions (he's on pace to throw only five, down from 20 last season), but Ryan called out his second-year quarterback a little Wednesday anyway, saying Sanchez was bailing out of the pocket too much in the Jets' previous game, a come-from-behind win against Denver. Ryan also rattled off a wish list of other things he'd like to see the offense improve, starting with raising Sanchez's completion percentage, improving the communication between him and his receivers on routes, the receivers' yards after catch, the offense's third-down conversion efficiency, performance in the red zone and, well, you get the idea.

So much can improve. And they're still 5-1.

"We're not surprised," Taylor said. "But we're not satisfied. We can clean up a few things."

And when they do?

Keller smiled at the thought. And he laughed.

"It's going to be football heaven," he said.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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