By Kristian R. Dyer
Consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in eight years. Making back-to-back conference championship games, something never done before in franchise history. Tallying 11 wins for just the fourth time ever — life is good for Jets fans right now.
Well, it was — it may not be this good again.
The Jets are at a crossroads right now as a franchise. A young core with several top-heavy salaries means that the team won't be slipping down the slope to the Rich Kotite era any time soon. But limited room under the salary cap means that several of the pieces that helped make this a 20-win team over the past two seasons have to go.
GM Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan have raised the level of success for this franchise. After the 24-19 loss in Pittsburgh in the AFC title game, Dustin Keller said that it isn't good enough for the Jets to just make the AFC championship game. "We need to take the next step," the tight end said.
Tannenbaum and Ryan have built the team; now it's up to them to keep it there. What that means is that the Jets are faced with some crucial decisions this offseason that will dictate how the team lines up in 2011 — assuming there's no lockout — with the hope of improving on the consecutive conference championship game appearances. The situation is magnified by the media crush that is New York and by Ryan's statements dating back to the 2010 offseason that this team is good enough to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It also isn't made any easier by a desperate, and at times despondent, fan base that clings to the hope that their team will make its first Super Bowl appearance in what will next season be a span of 43 years.
The Jets were a veteran team built to win, and built to win now. In New England, the Patriots managed a 14-2 record despite boasting one of the league's youngest lineups. The Jets' best chance to win was in 2010, having brought in veterans such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor and Trevor Pryce to make a run. They let that chance slip through their hands and they may not get it again.
There is reason to believe that the Jets' golden age may have just ended, that the era of good feelings lasts just two seasons. New England holds seven of the top 100 picks in this spring's NFL draft, giving Bill Belichick the ultimate flexibility to plug holes with young talent and trade for veterans. The youth movement in Foxborough means that the time is once again now for the Jets, because it surely won't be tomorrow with the young Patriots retooling again.
The Jets can't go the route of New England and make major additions through the draft, especially having lost a second-round pick to obtain Antonio Cromartie from San Diego last year. Instead, the Jets are handcuffed to max out the free-agent market. The team had an iffy draft last year, with only CB Kyle Wilson making a start among their four draft picks, and he disappeared come crunch time. There is not enough young talent already on the roster to step in for the veterans who will leave or retire. In other words, Tannenbaum must have a mistake-free offseason in terms of signing players and the ones on the roster he can afford to let go.
That leaves the Jets with tough decisions about their own free agents, especially players such as the aforementioned Cromartie and WRs Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Brad Smith. If Ryan is able to sell his current group of free agents on the fact that they should re-sign with his team, albeit below market value, to make another run at the Super Bowl, then it would be a boon for the franchise. That may be the only hope for Jets fans this offseason.