It's one of the most tried and true statements in the NFL: winning the turnover battle goes a long way in ensuring victory. Indeed, a study done by coldhardfootballfacts.com showed that from the 2008 through 2012 seasons, the team that won the turnover battle had a win percentage of .786. The idea is simple: winning the turnover battle means essentially earning more opportunities to score, at the same time limiting your opponent's opportunities.
The fact that the Jets won eight games despite one of the league's worst turnover differentials is at the same time both disconcerting and encouraging. For one, it is an indictment not only on the struggles Geno Smith had as a rookie last season but also highlights the lack of playmaking ability the Jets had on defense. On the other hand, it can be seen as a testament to Rex Ryan's coaching ability the team even won eight games and shows how much the Jets can really improve by cracking down on offensive mistakes and having a more opportune defense.
All eyes will be on Smith's progression as a second year quarterback and rightfully so. Smith may not have been the most turnover-laden quarterback in the city, but the former West Virginia star was not far beyond Eli Manning's 29 giveaways with 25 of his own. Last year's second round pick is expected to make a marked improvement after a turbulent first season as the starter, and an offseason filled with offensive additions is expected to provide Smith a legitimate NFL supporting cast to make his job easier. His rookie season was no doubt difficult, but Smith should find he now has what he needs to succeed in additions such as RB Chris Johnson, former Denver receiver Eric Decker and Texas Tech's standout tight end Jace Amaro.
Though progress should no doubt be expected, even his greatest supporters know it is unrealistic to expect Smith to be the superstar next season the Jets hope he may one day become. Before Smith can become a player capable of consistently providing explosive plays, he must become a quarterback capable of efficient play. If Tony Pauline's pre-draft report is to be believed, the Jets are expected to revert to the conservative run-first philosophy that helped propel the team to two back-to-back AFC Championship games. The hope is that by taking pressure off of Smith he can play more within himself, protect the ball and keep the Jets in games with smart play rather than feeling the need to win games on his own. Of course the success of this plan will depend on a strong running game, which the Jets can hope for in the continuity on the offensive line as well as depth at running back featuring a potentially major addition in Chris Johnson.
When Smith does throw, it is key a young quarterback has targets he can trust. Eric Decker comes from Denver as a sure-handed receiver with a strong catch rate of 66.4% the past two seasons. A young quarterback's best friend is a competent receiver out of the backfield and Chris Johnson is a natural receiver, having averaged 45 receptions each season over his career. Smith will also hope rookie Jace Amaro can hit the ground running, providing a big target in the red zone and natural move-the-chains instincts that saw him catch over 100 passes last season for Texas Tech.
Winning the turnover battle is not just about Smith limiting turnovers though, as the defense was as fruitless taking the ball away as Smith was eager to give it away last season. Given the lack of turnovers forced on the defensive side of the ball, the first round selection of Calvin Pryor makes a lot of sense. Pryor is a wrecking ball of a safety that made plays all over the field for Louisville, from sacks and tackles behind the line to spectacular interceptions and jarring hits. He'll be part of a new-look secondary that will be looking to pick off more passes than the mere 13 the Jets came away with in 2013. Six of those came from players no longer on the Jets roster with Antonio Cromartie and Ed Reed each responsible for 3. Free agent addition Dimitri Patterson picked off four passes in just six games last season for the Miami Dolphins and should help replace the total for as long as he remains healthy.
The real focus will be on the front seven to generate the kind of pressure that force quarterbacks into making errant throws. The tandem of Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson provide an interior rush as good as any in the league, but the Jets need Quinton Coples to step up and another specialist such as Antwan Barnes or one of the young unproven talents to provide an outside boost to have a truly strong pass rush. The Jets could use some impact plays from the middle linebackers, as well. David Harris has had a few seasons of strong all-around productivity but the last true one was in 2011. DeMario Davis is another player the Jets would like to see make more plays. The intangibles, athletic ability and motor of Davis make him an easily likable player but in his third season will be expected to be more of a difference maker. If the team's young group of pass rushers can continue to grow (it is a particularly big season for Coples), than a lot will take care of itself.
The Jets could certainly do with creating more fumbles defensively as well. Getting takeaways through forcing fumbles is part skill and part luck, and unfortunately the Jets last season had the perfect mix of ineptitude and misfortune – just 11 fumbles forced was second-to-last in the entire league, and two recovered was the worst in the league, leaving the Jets with a fumble recovery percentage of just 18.2%. The good news is that the law of averages suggests that percentage of recoveries is certain to increase, and forcing fumbles in general can vary from year-to-year. More pressure this season would lead to more strip-sack opportunities, but if nothing else the Jets defense should find they're a little luckier this time around when it comes to loose balls.
The simple answer in assessing how the Jets will do this season is that the season is tied to the quarterback play, and that would be a fair statement. Smith's ability to cut mistakes and play efficient football will be a huge step in the right direction. With that being said, to really turn things around, Smith's supporting cast and the defense will certainly have to play their part as well, building on a strong end of the season and developing more of a knack for takeaways.
*Statistics used courtesy of ESPN.
*Decker catch rate courtesy of footballoutsiders.com