(Long Island, N.Y.) Sitting alone at his locker stall only minutes following the game, James Ihedigbo’s face was buried in his hands. The high-energy Jets defensive back had put so much into this playoff run, just as the rest of the organization and fan base had, and it all began to sink in for him.
Even after showering and preparing for the flight home, Ihedigbo couldn’t shake off what had taken place on the grass at Heinz Field. “I can’t even think about next year,” he said in a barely audible whisper. “We just lost the AFC Championship Game.”
The 24-19 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers may have ended the season, but certainly not what the Jets have going for them. This team has changed the entire culture of the franchise, one filled with stunning losses and the ‘same old Jets’ mantra throughout their checkered history. In just two seasons, head coach Rex Ryan has put that to bed and has this team – and fans – believing in themselves, something that seemed impossible only a few years ago.
“One thing I told our players was to be proud to be a Jet,” Ryan said. “There’s a lot to be proud of. The fact that we didn’t reach our goal this year, clearly that’s a disappointment, but that doesn’t mean we had a bad season. We had a heck of a season when you look at it.”
By winning 11 games in the regular season and ousting two AFC powerhouses on the road in the playoffs in the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, Ryan is being quite modest in his assessment. They may have played somewhat inconsistent at times but learned to win games late and in spectacular fashion. Quarterback Mark Sanchez took huge steps in his development, one that is going very fast for a second-year player.
“The most important thing, personally, was trying to cut down on interceptions,” the USC product said. “I cut down on turnovers (and) ball security (issues). To improve like we did, to jump as many spots as we did in third-down conversions, on red zone efficiency, everything we improved in as an offense. That just comes with experience.”
In his rookie campaign in 2009, Sanchez threw for 2,444 yards, 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions (63.0 rating). He also fumbled 10 times and lost three. This year, he amassed 3,291 yards, 17 touchdowns, cut down his picks to 13 (75.3 rating), and only lost one of nine fumbles.
By reaching the conference championship game in two consecutive seasons, the Jets will have a difficult time matching that a year from now. But they have enough young players in the right places to put themselves in that position again.
“There’s nothing to hang our heads about,” Sanchez concluded. “It’s a tough way to go out, but we have a great group and we’ll be right back next year and, hopefully, we’ll be a little better.”