For the New York Jets to achieve major success this upcoming season, it comes down to the play of center Nick Mangold and safety Calvin Pryor in the grand scheme of things.
Okay, it’s true, there is no way to verify definitively who is the most important player on the team. And certainly, cornerback Darrelle Revis, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick would all be candidates. It is unfortunate but true that Pro Football Focus gives center Nick Mangold a ranking of 18 and a grade of 77.4, towards the high end of average for 2015. Yep, average. But what is really needed is something like a wins above replacement (WAR) stat.
Unfortunately, that is beyond my reach. However, what we can do is a little investigation into what happened when Mangold and safety Calvin Pryor were not on the field. And when we do, their importance becomes painfully obvious.
In the loss against Oakland, for instance, the Jets managed only 74 yards rushing and the Jets’ quarterback was sacked three times. And Mangold played how many snaps, you ask? You guessed it, zero.
Perhaps the worst example came a week later in Jacksonville where he did play, but only a little over a quarter of the offense’s snaps. They gained just 29 yards on the ground and running back Chris Ivory, of the 4 yards/carry career, gained 26 of those yards on 23 carries, approximately .9 yards per carry. Chris Ivory! The quarterback was sacked twice in this one.
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Against the Texans (another loss), the Jets ran for 70 yards, were sacked three times and Mangold played only 11 of 67 snaps.
Now, not all the statistics go in one direction, but it is at least interesting that against Miami when he played all but one play, they gained 137 yards rushing and had only one sack and the story is similar against the Tennessee Titans (183 and 1).
Certainly, counter-examples appear. The New York Giants game was not great on the ground, but then they needed to throw almost exclusively in the second half to make their comeback.
The three sacks may suggest that the Giants were teeing off.
The worst counter-example came against the Philadelphia Eagles where they had only 47 rushing yards on 16 carries. Not as bad as the Jacksonville game, but certainly no banner day either.
Several things are worthy of note, however. First, no Ivory or wide receiver Eric Decker for this game; the Jets’ offensive weapons were slim, to say the least. Second, the Jets fell behind 24-0 in this one and the run game was not going to bring them back. Third, Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions ironically resulting in a need for more passing to try and catch up. There is not much the offensive line could have done, even if they did keep Fitzpatrick relatively clean (one sack).
What we cannot find is a truly strong offensive effort when the golden one is not in the line-up.
Pryor may be the more difficult case to make and any rigorous case would need to argue that he is actually more important than players like Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. But make no mistake, when Pryor is out, it matters to this defense.
With Oakland, we get the double whammy. Not only was Mangold out, but Pryor as well. The Raiders went for 333 yards passing that day.
In the first New England game, when he played about half the snaps, the Patriots went for 337 yards and against the Jaguars, when he was again out, the Jags threw for 338.
Dec 19, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; New York Jets strong safety Calvin Pryor (25) rushes Dallas Cowboys quarterback Kellen Moore (17) during the first half at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Now Buffalo only managed 137 when he was out, but that was by Rex Ryan’s ground-and-pound design more than anything else.
The second New England game provides an interesting contrast to the first. In the second game, Brady netted only 221 yards through the air. Pryor played 51 snaps or 91% of the defensive plays that game. And he beat up tight end Rob Gronkowski so badly whenever he caught the football that Belichick removed him rather than risk losing him for the post-season.
For anyone watching the Jets, the importance of these two players shows in other ways as well. Mangold’s football I.Q. is through the charts; he is the cerebral center as well as the literal one of that offensive line. If everyone knows their role, it is because Fitzpatrick and Mangold direct them. If Mangold brings the brains, Pryor brings the fire. Pryor provides energy and a kind of joy to that defense. He seems to pick everyone around him up. And the bone-crushing hits don’t hurt either (well, at least they don’t hurt us).
Now all kinds of qualifications can be made and should be made if we are trying to make some kind of fail-safe statistical argument. The statistical side of things only goes so far. Nevertheless, if your eyes told you these two players are essential to the Jets’ success, they did not deceive you. The numbers say the same thing.