CORTLAND, N.Y. -- For five years, ever since Brett Favre left town and Rex Ryan arrived, the New York Jets have been a defensive-minded team. That probably will never change as long as Ryan is the coach, but it has to be closer to a 50-50 balance for them to challenge for a championship. Maybe this will be the year it changes. Maybe, with the additions of Chris Johnson and Eric Decker and fewer growing pains from Geno Smith, the offense will have a ball instead of being the ball and chain.
"We've got weapons, man," said linebacker Calvin Pace, who has endured plenty of mediocre offense in his six seasons with the Jets. "The pieces are in place."
After a pause, Pace deadpanned, "I've seen worse here."
On Thursday, the key parts were together on the field for the first time, something that rarely happened last season. Johnson, who sat out the offseason as he recovered from knee surgery, was in the backfield, chipping off the rust at full speed. Decker, seven months removed from Peyton Manning, was on the outside, showing the young cornerbacks how a precise route-runner gets open. Smith ran the show, spreading the ball around.
For a change, the Jets actually have hope on offense.
"It's night and day for our offense," defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said.
The Jets finished 25th in total offense last season, and they're talking like they expect to take a Bob Beamon jump into the top 10. Is that even possible? Can a team improve that much in one season? Actually, yes.
Since 2000, there have been seven instances in which a team improved its ranking by at least 20 spots, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In fact, three occurred last season: The San Diego Chargers (31st to fifth), the Chicago Bears (28th to eighth) and the Arizona Cardinals (32nd to 12th). So there's hope for the Jets, right? Well, take a closer look at those teams. Each one had an experienced quarterback -- Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler/Josh McCown and Carson Palmer, respectively.
The Jets don't have a seasoned quarterback, so it's probably a stretch to predict a top-five or top-10 offense. They're better on offense than a year ago, but this isn't an elite group -- not yet anyway. But they don't have to be. With Ryan's defense, all they need on offense is a middle-of-the-road ranking. That would be good enough to get them into the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks finished 17th in total offense, and they did well for themselves.
A significant improvement will hinge on at three factors:
Fewer turnovers by Smith, a healthy season for Johnson and the emergence of a legitimate No. 2 option in the passing game -- i.e. someone to take the pressure off Decker, who was targeted on every other pass in practice. Or so it seemed. Maybe rookie tight end Jace Amaro can be that guy. Maybe it will be David Nelson. Maybe Stephen Hill finally will show up. That will be one of the stories in training camp, hoping someone separates from the pack.
No matter happens, the Jets can't be worse than last season, when they managed only 20 points during a three-game losing streak that wrecked their playoff chances. Decker and Johnson will help, no doubt. In the first practice, they made an impact, if only in subtle ways. Decker was constantly open, frustrating the defensive backs with his precise routes.
"I mean, the top of his routes are unbelievable," quarterback Michael Vick said. "He knows how to create space. You can just tell that him working with Peyton over the last couple of years has helped him blossom as a receiver."
Johnson, too, made an impact in the passing game, splitting out wide and catching balls in space -- a new dimension for the Jets' offense. He's so fast that linebackers will have to cover the flat routes, which will create room in the middle of the field. For a change, the Jets can attack all areas of the field. It's not a phone-booth offense anymore.
"The offense can be extremely good," Vick said, "as good as we want to be."