Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 1/4/12
The blame game in New York started almost before the Jets were eliminated from the playoffs. Receiver Santonio Holmes is the whipping boy du jour for his multiple disappearing acts. But others fault poor play calling by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, while some cite the team’s falling defensive rank as proof that head coach Rex Ryan lost his touch, and still others blame the recent talent drain.

However, no one is blaming the man ultimately responsible for the decline in performance: owner Woody Johnson. Three years ago, Johnson committed the ultimate sports sin -- he put business interests ahead of fielding the best possible team. The resulting decisions led to the current situation, and Johnson deserves more blame than the rest of the organization combined.

The story started in 2008, when quarterback Brett Favre reverted to form and lost four of his last five games to miss the post-season. And once Favre “retired,” Johnson knew that QB Kellen Clemens and head coach Eric Mangini lacked the gravitas to sell expensive personal seat licenses (PSLs) at the New Meadowlands Stadium (due to open just 18 months later).

No businessman would want to take less money for his product, and Johnson was no different. This was his once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a financial killing in a new stadium. He had to make bold moves to get fans to pony up for a chance to see the Jets.

Enter new head coach Rex Ryan, hired in early-2009. The brash, outspoken defensive guru who vowed not to kiss Bill Belichick’s Super Bowl rings and promised a championship every year. Ryan brought a new attitude to a franchise. And Johnson’s decision worked to perfection; the fans, the media, and the team bought into Ryan’s personality and championship dreams were dancing in fan’s heads.

Next up, the team needed a marquee quarterback to work with Ryan. With no big names available in free agency, the Jets traded up to the fifth pick in the first round and took a charismatic signal-caller from a big city program -- USC’s Mark Sanchez. He was immediately dubbed “The Sanchize,” even though most draft experts considered him a late-first round talent and suggested he should stay in college another year.

The decision to hire Ryan could be defended. Though a bit unconventional, he was a well-respected coach, with an impressive resume as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. But the Sanchez pick was clearly a reach, a move dictated by business needs rather than football needs.

Despite all the question marks, Ryan and Sanchez defied the experts for a while. Though they barely made the 2009 playoffs (some say they were handed the berth), the Jets advanced to the AFC championship game, before losing 30-17 to the Indianapolis Colts. And right on cue, Ryan proclaimed a Super Bowl title in 2010 -- for sure this time.

Johnson couldn’t be blamed for thinking his plan had worked; that the post-season success would translate to sold out games in the new stadium and millions of dollars for him. But the truth wasn’t quite as rosy.

Tens of thousands of Jets fans turned down season tickets because $20,000 was just too high a price for a lower-bowl PSL. The upper decks were much less expensive, so they sold out quickly. But into May of that year, 17,000 seats remained unsold. The owner needed more buzz about the team to fill the stadium, and he found a very unlikely partner.

HBO chose to broadcast the Jets 2010 training camp for their reality show “Hard Knocks.” This decision ran counter to Ryan’s attempts to seclude the team during camp, as Ryan demonstrated when he moved the team 220 miles away to Cortland, NY. Again, the business decision overrode what was best for the football team -- a business decision necessitated by too few takers for the exorbitant PSLs

In the end, the attention from “Hard Knocks” and some modest price cuts made a huge difference. The Jets sold almost every PSL before opening day, and Woody Johnson made his money after all. But on the field, the team was almost exactly like the year before; they made the playoffs as a wild card and lost the AFC championship game.

With another year of season ticket to sell, the Jets resorted to Washington owner Daniel Snyder’s formula to drum up interest -- signing big-name free agents. The team released reliable veterans and brought in players with splashy reputations but not necessarily the skills to back it up.

They signed aging stars from warm-weather climates (running back LaDainian Tomlinson and defensive end Jason Taylor) to play in the cold weather of New York. They loaded up on players of questionable character: corner Antonio Cromartie, receiver Braylon Edwards, and Holmes. And when that wasn’t enough fame, they replaced Edwards with recently paroled Plaxico Burress.

Meanwhile, productive players were let go, sometimes with no immediate replacements. Tomlinson never adequately took over for Thomas Jones. Dangerous return man Leon Washington left for Seattle. And the team lost both Brad Smith and Shaun Ellis while they were busy courting Nnamdi Asomugha (who eventually signed in Philadelphia). Smith in particular was irreplaceable, as the stagnant Jets offense showed this season.

The results of this free-agent spree were roughly the same as in Washington: a disturbing talent-drain and a “win at all costs now” attitude that resulted in an 8-8 record and no post-season berth. In other words, the chase for big-names reversed the turn-around that the Jets started two years earlier under Ryan.

So before you insist that the Jets fire Schottenheimer or that Ryan’s “act has worn thin,” and before you blame Holmes or Sanchez or insist on a new general manager. Take a long look at the string of business-first choices the Jets made the past three years. And ask if the football operation would have made those choices if they were free of influence from the business side.

Then place the blame squarely where it belongs: on Woody Johnson and his allegiance to his bank account before his football team.
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