Commentary

Gang's top priority? Corner Cromartie

Forget Plaxico Burress and Randy Moss -- it's defense that will make Rex's Jets soar

Updated: July 23, 2011, 2:48 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

If the Jets plan on winning an additional amount of football games this upcoming season, it might bode well for them to go and get Plaxico Burress. If they want to look flashy while doing so, then Randy Moss is their man. But if a Super Bowl berth is, indeed, at the top of the agenda -- along with finally fulfilling a multitude of guarantees bloviated by coach Rex Ryan -- then Gang Green needs to ignore both of them, along with all this rhetoric about their growth at quarterback, and focus their attention on keeping Antonio Cromartie in town.

Even if the corner is no star, evidently devoid of loyalty and rife with the sole purpose of selling his services to the highest bidder.

Antonio Cromartie
Andrew Weber/US PresswireThe Jets simply can't let Cro go.

This is the attitude you must have when winning a Super Bowl is your top priority. When you've come up short twice in the last two AFC Championship Games. When you've promised -- yet again -- that this is something that will not happen a third consecutive time.

If you're the Jets, the focus has to be on stability. On building off a season in which your defense was third in the league in yards allowed per play (4.76) and per game (291.5). You can't get caught up in Cromartie's apparent lack of loyalty, reminiscing about coming through for him when child-support payments were tugging at his heels, thinking emotions and nostalgia will trump straight business once free agency rolls around.

"I'm not giving no hometown discounts," Cromartie reportedly expressed, when asked by Sirius/XM NFL Radio the other day whether he'd stay with the Jets for a lesser offer. "I'm looking forward to testing the market."

The rest of us should be looking forward to testing the Jets.

As the 2011 season rapidly approaches, it's Super Bowl or nothing. Mark Sanchez's love life doesn't mean anything to us. Neither does Ryan's reported foot fetish.

What matters most is whether the Jets should keep Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards or both. Whether they should let one of them go and bring in Moss or Burress. Or whether the priority should be a defense that's good, that's impressive, but far from a finished product.

Let it be said right here that nothing should jeopardize the latter.

You don't get better as a team by diminishing your greatest strength and, clearly, the Jets' defense is their strength.

The Jets were fifth in the NFL in pass yards per play allowed (6.05). They were sixth in pass yards per game surrendered (200.6) and third (behind Pittsburgh and Chicago) against the rush (90 yards per game).

But the Jets did finish last season tied for 19th with 24 touchdown passes allowed. That means even with Darrelle Revis and Cromartie, their inability to touch the quarterback -- to allow one after another to sit back in the pocket, take pictures and call their loved ones before a Jet was able to breathe in their direction -- hindered New York's defense significantly.

When you have problems like that, obviously, more offense would help. Better receivers help. But what difference does it make if you have a quarterback who's talented but can barely see over the line of scrimmage half the time and has far too many moments of inconsistency?

"You can always tweak something here and there," said soon-to-be free-agent tackle Damien Woody, destined to return to the Jets after being let go at the end of last season. "You can always get better. But I believe in the guys [the Jets] have. I believe that whoever we have going between the lines, we can get it done."

I'm glad he feels that way.

For the rest of us to feel the same, however, the Jets need to heed Woody's words: "Rex Ryan always taught me that his teams' success was predicated on what he was able to do defensively. That's his thing. Everything starts from there."

Notice Woody didn't say offense.

He didn't talk about Moss catching fly patterns from Sanchez, who'd probably have his eyes closed while tossing the ball. He didn't allude to the Jets adding Burress to the mix, even though it's always good to have a reclamation project with something to prove on your hands.

You take care of your strengths. If you're the Jets, you understand that even with a bevy of corners in the league (Revis, Nnamdi Asomugha, Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and others) comparable to or better than Cromartie, very few are blessed with the size, athleticism and versatility the Jets' other cornerback brings to the table.

Particularly if you are a Jets franchise with a quarterback entering his third season. One who's still developing, still growing -- and still may be incapable of carrying the mantle of expectations if New York's defense doesn't measure up.

Points win football games. Preventing others from accumulating them, more than anything else, is what has pushed the Jets into the realms of relevancy.

"I believe we're gonna win the Super Bowl this year," Ryan deadpans over and over again.

For some reason, he's quite believable.

Here's betting that vote of confidence has little to do with who's catching touchdown passes at New Meadowlands Stadium and more to do with who's preventing them.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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