Analysis: Can the Jets win with inexperienced leaders?

Santonio Holmes. Your Jets 2011 captain. Yes, the one with the towel on his head.

The Jets may have one of the most talent-laden teams in the NFL, but big name signings may not help them in the backbone department.

On Thursday afternoon, Jets head coach Rex Ryan raved about the character shown by two of his captains as he told the story of Santonio Holmes and Mark Sanchez’s early morning workout. It was Tuesday morning and the Jets had just taken the red-eye from Houston following their preseason opening loss to the Texans. The wide receiver and quarterback — along with rookie Greg McElroy — stayed at the team facility for an early morning conditioning workout. Both Holmes and Sanchez brushed aside the workout as a response to their desire to stay in shape after so few snaps on Monday night.

Ryan began the story by talking about how he “feels good about our choice of captains,” but despite his spin, serious questions surround a Jets captaincy group that is vastly inexperienced.

To provide context, last year the Jets’ captains were selected on a game-by-game basis by Ryan. This year, the Jets’ head coach changed things up by announcing his team leaders prior to the season.

Two Fridays ago when Ryan announced his captains for the 2011 season, true veteran leadership was missing from the list. The fivesome of Mark Sanchez, Eric Smith, Darrelle Revis, Sione Pouha and Santonio Holmes were the shocking selections — not for their ability on the field, but for the fact that their intangibles off the field are still very much growing.

If it is necessary to have more than sizzle to win the Super Bowl, then maybe the Jets are in trouble.

Last year the Jets could count on the locker room presences of veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Shaun Ellis, Trevor Pryce, Tony Richardson and Damien Woody. None of those players are back with the Jets in 2011.

If experience is any indicator, the Jets’ major competition values veteran leadership far more than they do.

Based off last year, New England and Pittsburgh figure to be the biggest obstacles in the path of the Jets’ hopes to play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The 2010 Patriots had four captains appointed by their head coach Bill Belichick. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork, quarterback Tom Brady, running back Kevin Faulk and linebacker Jerod Mayo averaged 8.25 years of NFL experience heading into last season. All those players played the entirety of their careers straight out of college in New England. They served as the team’s spine and a check for a young team against the temptations of the NFL.

The Steelers can point to their experienced captains as the core which carried them to the Super Bowl.

Head coach Mike Tomlin’s appointment of Hines Ward, James Farrior, Keyaron Fox and Heath Miller underscored the Steelers’ commitment to veteran voices in their locker room. All told, Pittsburgh’s four captains averaged 10 years of NFL experience entering the 2010 season.

By means of comparison, the Jets’ five captains this season have an average of just 5.4 years of NFL experience.  They collectively average 4.4 years with the team, a number that should draw into question the potential character of the team.

After all, each of the captains comes with question marks and issues they must overcome.

The seven-year veteran Pouha, the most senior captain at 32 years old, still has been a starter for just the past two years and has never entered the season penciled in to start. Sanchez, though he’s grown by leaps and bounds this offseason, is entering his third year in the league.

Smith is a solid player, but has just 20 total starts under his belt through his previous five NFL seasons. And while he’s widely hailed as the game’s best cornerback, Revis is just one year removed from a very public and nasty holdout in search of a more lucrative contract. Then there is Holmes, who has been arrested five times in three different states since 2006 and had to sit out the first four games of last year for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Oh captain my captain? Not quite.

It all must make Jets fans uncomfortable. There is no doubt that Holmes can put his past behind him, that Pouha possesses qualities which could make him a good captain and that Sanchez is emerging as a go-to player, but the Jets have a serious leadership deficiency. When all is said and done, has Ryan done more harm than good to his roster by jettisoning so much veteran leadership to make way for sexy names like Plaxico Burress?

There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of the five captains selected by Ryan, but collectively this quintet underscore the fact that this may be a team that will struggle at times to find its footing. The 2011 Jets hold plenty of promise and the franchise’s second ever Super Bowl appearance seems to be there for the taking.

But will this cast of characters show enough character to get there? There’s a reason why New England is a dynasty team and Pittsburgh can overcome difficulties from within and without to consistently be among the best teams in the league. The superstars are needed to take this team to the next level, but so too is true leadership. Pittsburgh knows that, New England knows that, but the Jets don’t seem to get it.

Follow Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer for coverage of the Jets all season long.


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