Three lessons the New York Jets can learn from their Islander friends

The New York Jets have been staples of the Islanders’ postseason tour on Long Island. Perhaps they can learn a thing or two along the way.

In following the New York Islanders’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, the New York Jets have traded in green and white for blue and orange. They’ve engaged in (Bud) light debauchery and have gone viral in the process as the Islanders are halfway through their quest for a fifth Stanley Cup hoist.

The next step of the journey begins on Sunday afternoon when the Islanders battle the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena (3 p.m. ET, NBC). Nassau Coliseum will host the third, fourth, and (if necessary) sixth games of the series, and it’s very likely that members of the Jets will attempt to take their usual seats for those contests. 

Is it possible that, in their fun, they might actually learn a thing or two along the way?

Class is in session, courtesy of ESM…

Have Depth Stars

On Long Island: Save for Mathew Barzal (appearances in the last two exhibitions), the Islanders are not a team of perennial All-Stars. John Tavares’ absconding for Toronto was supposed to be their downfall, but they’ve responded with playoff series victories in three consecutive seasons while the Maple Leafs have been relegated to opening round exits.

The Islanders are a team that has gotten by with a group of gritty, skilled players whose union has worked wonders. Nothing showcases their depth and consistency better than the grouping of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin, a trio of bottom-six forward staples since 2014. Nicknamed the “Identity Line”, NYI head coach Barry Trotz says that the group sets the tone for what they’re trying to accomplish on the ice.

“They give you impact. When they are playing the right way, they give you a little of that bite that you want,” Trotz said after a dominant January 2019 over Tampa, per Cory Wright of NewYorkIslanders.com. “They give you sort of that determination and speed on the puck and sort of an Islander identity. If there’s a line that’s sort of an identity line, well that’s the best way to describe them better than a fourth line because they give us an identity.”

In Florham Park: The Jets tried to go the big-spending route over the last few seasons, but marquee signings have not panned out. Right now, they’re actively paying Le’Veon Bell and Trumaine Johnson to keep their distance, for example.

Blessed with one of the highest offseason budgets in the NFL, it would’ve been easy for the Jets to fall to temptation and spend big money on a blockbuster talent (i.e. J.J. Watt). But once it became clear that the big names wanted to move on to contenders, the Jets bolstered their depth so more parts of the depth chart provide production and security.

This offseason has still seen some big contracts bestowed…Carl Lawson and Corey Davis are a combined $26 million cap hit…but many others signings have been about providing depth. They’re not the flashiest arrivals by any stretch, not the type of names that one can put on a parking lot light pole’s banner, but they’re the type of depth options the Jets needed at this point in time.

Jarrad Davis is a redemption-seeking first-round pick whose success in the 4-3 sets of the Florida Gators could come up big. At receiver, Davis is one of several names with the potential to become a No. 1 target. Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder return from last year’s team, while Elijah Moore was drafted in the second round. Uncertainty lingers at tight end and in the secondary, but the Jets’ thriftiness could pay big dividends, as undrafted free agents Kenny Yeboah and Isaiah Dunn could come up big.

Make Sure Special Teams are Special

On Long Island: Since Trotz took over in 2018, the Islanders have improved by leaps and bounds in almost every major statistical category with the exception of their power play. New York ranked 20th in the final regulars season rankings with a man advantage, though they were the only team in the NHL that did not allow any shorthanded goals.

The Islanders, however, rose to the occasion on the penalty kill, coming home sixth in the category over the regular season. Doing it in the postseason has been a work in progress…they’ve killed off only 61.5 percent of their infractions…but the power play came to life in spectacular fashion in Monday’s Game 5 showdown in Boston. Facing a Bruins squad that led the league with an 86 percent kill rate during the regular season, the Islanders scored three power play goals that forever changed the course of the series. Barzal scored on a chance in the first period, while Kyle Palmieri and Jordan Eberle earned extra-man tallies in the second.

The power play success not only provided the difference in the goal category but more or less shifted the entire course of the game. Taking advantage of the opportunities allowed the Islanders to not only withstand a late Boston rush, but they were able to earn a momentum-shifting victory on a night where they were outshot 44-19.

In Florham Park: There’s major hope for the Jets entering the 2021 season, even if reaching the playoff is still a tall task for the time being. But there’s no doubt that they’re still developing, still a work in progress, particularly on an offensive end that’s debuting a new quarterback and receiving corps. Thus, special teams must be addressed.

Confidence for a developing offense can be built by getting points on as many drives that end in opposing territory as possible. That comes through reliable field goal kicking, an area where the Jets have fallen woefully short since Jason Myers left for Seattle. Chris Naggar has been brought in to compete with incumbent Sam Ficken for that role. General manager Joe Douglas has shown that he’s not afraid to use valuable assets to address special teams. He used the last pick of his first draft to pick up punter Braden Mann and has tried to fill in the Jets’ Andre Roberts-sized void at returned through additions in the 2021 draft (i.e. Michael Carter).

Perhaps the most telling sign of Jets management’s willingness to bolster the special unit came through the retaining of coordinator Brant Boyer, who has now survived the purges of both Todd Bowles and Adam Gase’s doomed staffs.

It All Starts at the Head

On Long Island: Again, no one expected the Islanders to be in his position three years ago. This, after all, was a team that just lost the face of its franchise, perhaps the one thing it had going for it since the immortal early 1980s.

The hire of Trotz in 2018, however, may go down as one of the most fateful moves in franchise history.

Trotz had already developed a reputation as a strong nurterer of young talent and helping woebegone franchises find their path. He put the Nashville Predators on the NHL map as the franchise’s original head coach (serving 16 seasons at the helm after their 1998 inception). He then moved on to Washington, where he helped the Capitals removed the playoff monkey from their backs. Only under Trotz has Alex Ovechkin been able to reach hockey Nirvana in the Stanley Cup Final.

Once Trotz was voted out of Capitol Hill due to a contract dispute, the Islanders pounced and have been reaping in the benefits ever since. Under Trotz, the Islanders have won playoff rounds in three consecutive seasons for the first time since their quartet of Cup hoists (1980-83). Trotz’s status as a players’ coach that is nonetheless willing to hold his guys accountable has been a delightful contrast to the recent slew of also-rans. Doug Weight’s animated style, for example, was refreshing when he first took the reins but it quickly ran its course.

Trotz credits his success to looking at his status as a head coach as not a position of superiority, but one that leads to a partnership with his players.

“I look at coaching, my time, as I’m in a partnership with the players,” Trotz told Mollie Walker of the New York Post in March. “We’re in a partnership to win hockey games. The other partnership is to make you the best version of yourself, whatever that version is.”

In Florham Park: There’s no doubt that, despite the nine-win ledger, that the Jets had some talent on their roster over the last two seasons, better known as the Adam Gase era. Look no further than the names the Jets gave up on before him: Robby Anderson, Avery Williamson, Le’Veon Bell, and Steve McLendon accounted for only part of the list. But help has arrived in the form of Robert Saleh,  whose hiring has been universally praised.

The difference between the arrivals of Saleh and Gase are best contrasted by player reaction to the news. While Gase’s landing was met with mostly indifference…and whatever honeymoon there was quickly ended when he won a power struggle against Mike Maccagnan…Saleh’s arrival has been praised by players both domestically and abroad. It’s created an energy field in Florham Park not seen since, arguably, the Rex Ryan days.

“You have to give him an unusual amount of credit, and I don’t think he’s getting enough credit not only here but in the league, in general,” former Saleh pupil Richard Sherman said of his potential as a head coach in December, per the Associated Press. “He’s able to rally men. He’s a leader of men and that goes a long way.”

As the Gase era showcased all too well, talent means nothing when the right man isn’t in charge. Though vital downs have yet to be played, it’s safe to say the Jets feel that they have found the perfect curator and developer in Saleh.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills offseason preview 2021: Wide receivers

The Buffalo Bills have found some reliable top receiving targets, but will need to analyze the options behind them this offseason.

The Position: Wide Receiver
On the Roster: Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah Hodgins
Free Agents: Andre Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie
Reserve/Future: Tanner Gentry, Jake Kumerow, Duke Williams

Stefon Diggs’ first year in Western New York led to the Buffalo Bills’ single-season record book, at least the receiving chapters, to be completely rewritten.

The (Minneapolis) miracle worker made an immediate impact in his red and blue debut, earning 1,535 yards on 127 receptions…each establishing new team records and led the NFL. Buffalo had their passing weapon in Josh Allen but they now appear to have a strong tandem that can cause Kelly-to-Reed-style levels of offensive destruction. Few can question the potential future Diggs has created in Buffalo. An enduring image of the 2020-21 AFC Championship Game is Diggs watching the Kansas City Chiefs’ celebration from afar, the lone man clad in white to remain on the field.

Diggs wasn’t the only one to enjoy a breakout with the Bills. Cole Beasley likewise earned career-best numbers (967 yards on 82 receptions) while Gabriel Davis established himself a valuable day three find, as he was among four others first-years tied with seven touchdown receptions, second-best amongst rookie competitors.

Yet, the unprecedented success the Bills found last season was tough to celebrate because of the lack of Super Bowl at the end. Startling as such a leap would’ve been, Davis admitted that the semifinal heartbreak made it difficult to watch the Big Game.

“I couldn’t watch it because it made my stomach hurt. I feel like we should have been there,” the Central Florida alum told Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel. “That’s our standard, obviously, now. We set the standard and we’re playing to be above that standard every single year. So our guys are going to get back to work and we’re going to be ready to go, and hopefully, we get a big one next year.”

While the Bills are obviously pleased with the output from the top of their depth chart, they’ll have to analyze their alternative options this offseason. In addition to McKenzie and Roberts’ expiring contracts, the team also has a decision to make on John Brown. The former Baltimore Raven was unable to capitalize on a career-best season in 2019 as he missed several games due to injury. Buffalo would save over $6.3 million if they were to move Brown through either a release or trade.

Free Agents-to-be

Isaiah McKenzie

In a year where seemingly every Bills receiver was setting new career-bests, McKenzie was no exception, albeit on a smaller scale. He put up 282 yards and became a reliable red zone target with five scores. The man of many talents also earned a passing score through trickery and took a punt back for a score during Week 17 proceedings.

Andre Roberts

Roberts has been a consistent Pro Bowl representative for the Empire State, making the last three and the most recent two as a member of the Bills (he notably caught a touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson in the 2019-2020 game). Roberts continued to make himself a valuable special teams commodity in 2020, despite getting deeper into his 30s. Appropriately, Roberts led the league with a 30-yard average on kick returns.

Will They Draft?

If they do, likely not until the latter stages. Their top three receivers from last season are all back, and they also might try to develop Isaiah Hodgins, a sixth-round choice in 2020 who missed all of his rookie campaign with an injury. Their reserve/future signees could be diamonds in the rough as well. Kumerow and Williams have extensive professional experience (Williams being a CFL All-Star in Edmonton) and Gentry, a draftee of the XFL’s New York Guardians, was Allen’s favorite target during their shared tenures as (Wyoming) Cowboys. Late projects on day three could be Davis’ former UCF teammate Tre Nixon or Michigan’s Ronnie Bell, who could be a slot-mate for Beasley.

Veteran Possibilities

Curtis Samuel, Carolina

The idea of more offensive firepower in Buffalo is the subject of nightmares in East Rutherford, Foxboro, and Miami. But Samuel is an elite target that’s a realistic option for Buffalo (which likely would require Brown’s release). One of general manager Brandon Beane’s final moves in Charlotte was taking the Brooklyn native with the 40th pick in the 2017 draft. Samuel will likely be looking for some stability with his second contract, but he well could be the proverbial “one move away” from truly pushing the Bills into the aura of Super Bowl contention.

Breshad Perriman, NY Jets

If the Bills wind up letting both Brown and McKenzie walk, Perriman would be a solid consolation prize in terms of speed and experience. It was clear last season that Perriman isn’t the type of player who can headline your receiving corps, but there’s hope he can create a good NFL career as a solid support man.

Chad Beebe, Minnesota

In some ways, it’s almost fate for Beebe to don red, white, and blue. Born in Buffalo and the son of a Bills legend (Don), Beebe can be the veteran depth option the Bills need if they’re forced to part ways with Brown or lose McKenzie.

Outlook

Overall, the Bills are more or less set with their top-heavy receiver depth chart. It’s unfortunate that Brown’s Buffalo journey might not continue, but that cap space earned with his moving (Buffalo currently ranks 20th in available cap space going into free agency) might be too much to resist. Expect the Bills to bring in a free agent or two to compete for a roster spot, as well as someone with return skills if both Roberts and McKenzie walk.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Stefon Diggs, four others named to 2020 All-Pro teams

As the Buffalo Bills prepare for the postseason, five of their brightest start received All-Pro nominations.

The Buffalo Bills earned a bit of a morale boost as they prepare for their long-awaited AFC Wild Card matchup at home against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday afternoon (1:05 p.m. ET, CBS). Five Buffalo representatives appeared on the NFL’s All-Pro teams, whose rosters were released on Friday. Stefon Diggs appeared on the first-team group, ending yet another dubious streak in Bills history, as he’s the first receiver to earn the honor in franchise history.

Diggs, 27, has proven to be well worth the four draft picks Buffalo sent west to obtain him from the Minnesota Vikings. Best known for his game-winning touchdown at the end of the 2018 NFC Divisional playoffs against New Orleans, Diggs set Buffalo records with 1,535 yards on 127 receptions, both of which led the league. He earned AFC Player of the Week honors for his Week 16 performance against New England, earning 145 yards and three scores on nine receptions.

Returning to the All-Pro list are returner Andre Roberts and cornerback Tre’Davious White, who were respective first-team members in 2018 and 2019. Roberts led the league with 30 yards per kick return and ranked seventh with a 9.9 average on punts. White is living up to a four-year, $70 million extension ($55 million guaranteed) bestowed to him in September and lived up to it with 57 tackles, 11 pass breakups, and three interceptions despite missing two games due to a back injury.

New to All-Pro lists are quarterback Josh Allen and receiver Cole Beasley, both second-teamers. Like Diggs, Allen spent this season rewriting the Bills’ record books, tallying 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns through the air. Allen was responsible for 46 scores overall, picking up eight rushing tallies and one receiving through a trick play collaboration with John Brown. As for Beasley, he also set career-bests despite missing the last two games of the year with injuries of his own. The former Dallas Cowboy earned 967 yards on 82 receptions, four of which went for six.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Four plays that determined the Buffalo Bills’ Tuesday night fate vs. Tennessee

Finally allowed to kick off, the Buffalo Bills were on the wrong end of a one-sided loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Empire State football’s propensity for tough-to-watch football finally made its way up to Western New York.

Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill united for six touchdowns, while their Tennessee Titans teammates countered Josh Allen’s two scores with two interceptions. Allen’s Bills were thus doomed to their first loss of the season, falling to Tennessee by a 42-16 final at Nissan Stadium. It was safe to say that the Titans (4-0) took full advantage of the 16 days of rest brought upon by positive tests for COVID-19.

How did the undefeated trek of the Bills (4-1) come to an unceremonious end in the Music City? ESM highlights four plays that shaped Buffalo’s present and future, for better or worse, over a rare Tuesday night excursion…

1st Quarter: A Good Return

Andre Roberts has the initials “WR” next to his name on the official roster, but it’s safe to say that he has made a far bigger name for himself by removing the W and changing the meaning of the R…in other words, he’s a returner. But Tuesday saw Roberts get plenty of snaps on offense, particularly in the early going. Roberts looked out of place on the first drive, as his would-be reception became a tip into the hands of Malcolm Butler, whose interception set up the first Tennessee score of the day.

Roberts, however, made up for the gaffe on Buffalo’s next possession, a rare point in the game where they looked like the Bills of September if only for a short while. Facing 3rd and 15 at the cusp of the Tennessee red zone, an illegal shift penalty nullified a Buffalo touchdown. An Allen rollout, however, found Roberts at the edge of the sidelines, as his tiptoe catch was the last of four third-down conversions the Bills earned on their way to the end zone. Two plays later, Allen hooked up with Isaiah McKenzie to tie the game.

2nd Quarter: PI on the Case

Penalties were a major problem for the Bills on Tuesday. The Bills doubled their average penalty tally from the first four games, drawing ten flags over the course of the evening. While the infractions were mostly minor, the lost yardage reaching 56, the numbers taken turned out to be vital in the long runs.

Buffalo’s most costly penalty came in the late stages of the first half. Corey Bojorquez “saved” the season by following up a three-and-out with a punt that situated the Titans at their own 10. Tennessee, however, embarked on a methodic drive that reached Buffalo territory. Bills penalties on rare Tennessee third downs allowed the drive to stay alive. Josh Norman was called for a seven-yard pass interference at the 35, while Jerry Hughes jumped offside on third-and-four at the 22 (though it was declined after the Titans got the first down anyway). Tannehill could score from 10 yards out after the Hughes infraction to permanently set momentum in the Nashville corner, creating a 21-10 halftime lead.

3rd Quarter: The Butler Did It

Enough can’t be said about the progress Allen has shown in his third season under Buffalo center, but Tuesday showed some troubling flashbacks to his turnover-laden rookie season. Allen wasn’t afraid to take some risks, but some of those proved costly, like an underthrown cross-body pass intended for Gabriel Davis that went right into the hands of Butler, who broke out of an attempt Cole Beasley tackle to take it back to the Buffalo red zone.

From this brutal evening comes a huge opportunity for Allen. This is the first time both he and his team is facing major adversity in his junior season, and the chance to redeem themselves comes against the defending champion Chiefs on Monday. A true test awaits to see just how much he has learned.

4th Quarter: Five From New York

There were no truly dangerous or egregious penalties on the Buffalo end…no ridiculous roughing the passers, no late hits, no spot-of-the-foul pass interference calls that set the Titans up deep in opposing territory. But what the Bills did in their misdemeanors was set Tennessee up with must-win situations that were far more manageable. They put in a touchdown (a 22-yard Allen pass to TJ Yeldon that capped off a 90-yard trek) at the end of the final frame’s first-third, and had a fighting chance down 28-16 as time began to wind down.

Tennessee responded to that score with a strong drive of their own. They reached the Bills’ 29, but there was still a chance to keep things situated at two possessions by forcing a third down. Seven stood between the Bills and more time off the clock…but they were all-too-happy to wipe away a majority of the deficit when A.J. Epenesa invaded the neutral zone. Blessed with a shorter distance, the Titans took advantage with a seven-yard interior run from Jeremy McNichols that more or less decimated Buffalo’s will. Three plays later, a Henry score officially put the game out of reach.

The Bills return to action next Monday night against the Kansas City Chiefs (5 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network)

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets Special Teams’ Coach Brant Boyer is a Miracle Worker

New York Jets, Jason Myers

New York Jets Special Teams coach Brant Boyer may be the best in the NFL.

The Jets hired Brant Boyer to be their special teams’ coach in 2016. It was his first coordinator job in the NFL. He had spent four years with the Colts as the assistant special teams’ coach but had no other coaching experience.

It was a surprise hire, but nobody thought much of it. Special teams don’t really matter in the NFL is a prevailing thought amongst most fans. The Jets and their fans are different though.

They know what it’s like to have an elite special team coach, and how that can change the game. Mike Westhoff is a legendary special teams coach who was with the Jets for 12 seasons. He helped change the culture during his time with the team.

He lived through three coaching changes but retired in 2012 during Rex Ryan‘s tenure. that was the first year of the Jets long playoff drought.

After Westhoff, the Jets went through three special teams’ coaches in three years. In 2016 Boyer became the fourth special teams coordinator in four years. He was tasked with fixing a broken unit. Since Westhoff left the Jets ranked 10th, 16th, and 25th the following three years.

A far cry from the glory days of Westhoff’s unit. When Boyer was brought in for 2016 the Jets lacked so much on special teams. His first move was to fight to get a punter in the draft. He somehow convinced the Jets to draft Australian punter out of Sam Houston State Lac Edwards.

A move that has turned out to be phenomenal. Under Boyer’s guidance, Lac Edwards has developed into a top 10 punter in the NFL. He is also statistically the best punter in New York Jets history. In 2019  Edwards is fifth in the NFL in net punt yards and fourth in punts pinned inside the 20.

Even more impressive is his work with kickers. He has made every kicker he’s worked with over-perform their career averages. Including getting a scrap heap pickup in Jason Myers to second-team all-pro.

After the disaster that was finding a kicker and returner for the 2019 season, Boyer deserves credit. It’s easy to be the top team in special teams DVOA when you have an all-pro kicker and returner in 2018 as Boyer did.

However, it’s another to rank third in special teams DVOA despite losing those players. Not only that, but the guys brought in have equaled or outperformed his former all-pros.

In 2019 Jason Myers has hit just 73.7% of his field goals and 93.1% of his extra points. Meanwhile, the Jets kicker Sam Ficken has hit 70% of field goals and 100% of field goals. Ficken has also not missed a kick of less than 53 yards this year, while Myers is just 81% from inside 50 yards.

As for returners Jets punt returner Braxton Berrios is averaging 7.4 yards per punt return compared to Andre Roberts 6.9 yards in Buffalo this year. On the kick return front, Andre Roberts is averaging 28.4 yards per return, compared to the Jets primary kick returner Vyncint Smith who is averaging 37.8 yards.

It’s time that Brant Boyer got his due. He’s been overlooked for far too long. This man is one of if not the best special teams coach in the NFL.