Opinion: 2012 is Boom-or-Bust for Mike Tannenbaum

Kristine Reese is a guest columnist for TJB, taking on some of the toughest topics about the New York Jets.  Find more of her work at the female based sports networ, Aerys Sports, and as an integral part of the nascent Flight 5 team.  Follow Kristine on Twitter @KristineReese.

There is never a dull moment in Jets land, and the last six months have served as a constant reminder. After a 2011 season filled with great expectations ended in a downward spiral and an equally – if not more – dramatic off-season dominated headlines, there is little doubt all eyes will be on the New York Jets in 2012. And while Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and Rex Ryan will all dominate the majority of the conversation, there is another name that also deserves just as much consideration: General Manager Mike Tannenbaum.

No year has ever been more important for Jets GM, and rightfully so — his job is on the line.

It’s difficult and often uncomfortable to focus on the negative, and it’s clear the majority of fans feel the same way, especially after last season. But this is New York, and Jets Nation is ready for a ring. If this season is less than easy-breezy and the Jets fail to make the playoffs, you can bet, or better yet, guarantee that someone will have to pay the price.

It’s clear, despite the public declarations otherwise, that Brian Schottenheimer was the scapegoat for last season. We can continue to debate whether or not he deserved it, but one cannot deny that there is something to be said about fresh blood, and Tony Sparano and his philosophies have given fans a new sense of hope for what’s to come.

If the Jets don’t not turn things around, another name will have to be sacrificed in the name of change. And Tannenbaum, not Rex Ryan, is that guy.

For the past few months, media and fans alike have lambasted and criticized Rex for his hyperbole and guarantees – which ironically they applauded and found “refreshing” just a little over a year ago – coming to the conclusion that 2012 is make it or break it for the outspoken head coach. Sure, all coaches are on short leashes in the NFL, but after taking the team to back-to-back AFC Championship games in his first two seasons in New York, I think it’s safe to say Rex’s seat isn’t that hot.

Tannenbaum, on the other hand, has a much lengthier resume from which to direct “blame.” We all know he is a so-called cap genius, but what else has the GM been widely successful with aside from managing the team’s finances? It is fair to say that time has exposed Tannenbaum’s weakness, which have been fair more costly than a head coach that likes to guarantee Super Bowls.

ESPN New York‘s Jane McManus was one of the first to direct the finger pointing properly at the GM last winter while the rest of the media was worrying about which  anonymous source was blasting the quarterback. McManus eloquently wrote that perhaps a regression was overdue, given Tannenbaum’s failure to properly address personnel the past few years, particularly heading into 2011. McManus specifically cited the problems with the offensive line and the turnover at wide receiver, two points that simply cannot be argued.

Earlier this spring, Jason McIntyre of the Big Lead also wrote about Tannenbaum, concluding that if the Jets miss the playoffs, Tannenbaum will lose his job. McIntyre cited Tannenbaum’s lack of draft success and what he deemed as a few poor years of free agency as reasons for such a change.

I disagree with several of McIntrye’s finer points, particularly his insinuation that Tannenbaum “lost” Jamaal Westerman and Brodney Pool in FA this year (I think we can deal with those losses, yes?), but the conclusion  in both McIntrye’s and McManus’ arguments are spot on: Under Tannenbaum’s tenure, personnel management has been unsuccessful.

The NFL’s most successful franchises all seem to understand that Super Bowl teams are made and built through the NFL Draft. Not one draft, not two drafts, but through years and years of successful scouting and drafts.

Under Tannenbaum, things started off pretty peachy. He is, after all, partially responsible for drafting Darrelle Revis, the best defensive player in the league, in addition to other premiere talents like D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold and David Harris.

But things started to deteriorate after 2008, and not just with the high profile busts like Vlad Ducasse and Vernon Ghloston. Prior to this year’s draft, the Jets had only drafted 23 players over the last five years. The league average is 38. Under Tannenbaum, the Jets missed out on more than a dozen potential starters and, as we saw last season, valuable depth pieces.

To say that the Jets needed to walk away with a quality draft this year was an understatement, especially with so many of the team’s core players aging and becoming free agents in the next two years. And while the majority of us do feel the team walked away with a lot of high upside talent in the 2012 NFL Draft, it will be at least two or three years before we know for sure just how successful this draft was.

Because that is time the GM may not be afforded, Tannenbaum has to hope guys like Joe McKnight and Kyle Wilson (2010) live up to their potential, Muhammed Wilkerson (2011) has a breakout season and Quinton Coples and Steven Hill make a signficant impact even in their first year. The NFL is very what-have-you-done-for-me-lately and we can no longer define Tannenbaum’s draft success by his first round picks in ’06 and ’07.

Unfortunately, Tannenbaum’s poor personnel decisions are not only limited to draft day — they also apply to his free agency strategy. These two things are essentially one and the same; if the Jets had more success drafting talent, they wouldn’t find themselves with so many needs in free agency and Tannenbaum wouldn’t be forced to make such aggressive, outlandish moves.

A variety of factors have left the team with needs at safety, linebacker, offensive line, running back, backup quarterback and, of course, the revolving door at the wide receiver position. While several of these needs were addressed in this off-season – most notably the safety position – there still remains a lot of questions with several others.

None more so than at Right Tackle. Both fans and the mainstream media have absolutely FRIED the Jets refusal to address a position that was a huge liability last season. While I am hoping that the 2012 version of Wayne Hunter proves the 2011 swiss cheese model was just an aberration, there is understandable skepticism about the decision to keep him in the starting role. It is a move that could prove one of the most defining for the GM, regardless of exactly who was most responsible for the decision.

Of course, one cannot discuss the Jets off-season free agency moves without also mentioning the quarterback position, which has turned into quite the controversial subject in large part because of Mike Tannenbaum. The Jets extended the franchise quarterback they publicly admitted needs to get better – be it to boost his confidence or save cap room – and promptly followed it up with a trade for Tim Tebow. Every angle on this topic has already been discussed ad nauseum, but it is a perfect example of the kinds of overly aggressive (not to mention contradictory) moves Mike Tannenbaum has become known for.

Speaking of Tannenbaum’s most successful draft pick, Darrelle Revis and his hypothetical holdout is a narrative that not only allows us to further examine how the GM works, but to also look closely at a situation that could greatly affect the future of his job.

Whether you do or you do not agree with Revis’ stance on his contract situation, the fact remains that he is a game changer and the Jets need him on the field. The cornerback is going to remain Jet; the question is, how difficult and ugly will the process be and how much will it cost the team, financially and figuratively? If Revis misses even a small amount of time, it could potentially create a lot of problems, especially in a defensive system that relies to heavily on it’s shutdown corners to execute. We saw this play out with his holdout and subsequent injury in 2010.

The other element in this is the obvious disagreement between the two sides over semantics. Revis feels he was given a “Band-Aid” contract – one that Tannenbaum publicly called an “intermediate step” -  and now Tannenbaum is being asked to make good on his promise. It’s highly likely that Tannenbaum has not reached out to Revis because the team simply does not have the money, (no word yet on how that affects his capologist label) but that doesn’t change the fact that Tannenbaum finds himself in a delicate situation that, based on his own words, he is partially responsible for. He certainly has a history of contradicting himself – he couldn’t even keep his story consistent in interviews with the media after the Tim Tebow trade – but this time he may have put himself in a situation he can’t get out of.

Both Woody Johnson and Rex Ryan have publicly deferred to the GM on this matter, and that’s a clear indication that to them, this is Tannenbaum’s mess to clean up. While Tannenbaum’s obvious missteps in draft and free agency are problematic, the handling of these more finite personnel matters that could also detrimental.

Some believe that Tanny and Rex’s fates are intertwined. Many also believe that Rex is playing GM and Tannenabum is just falling in line. But Tannenbaum’s deficiencies preceded Rex, and even with two trips to the AFC Championship game under his belt, Mike Tannenbaum’s tenure as GM has exposed his weaknesses:  He lacks an understanding of drafting and cultivating talent and in turn, building a roster top to bottom, and his arrogance and poor, well – management -  is growing costly.

The fact is, Woody Johnson is too good of a businessman to just set Tannenabum free.  In his piece, McIntyre inferred that sources close to Woody have indicated Tannenbaum would likely be reassigned before he was fired. With Tannenbaum’s talent managing the cap, this does seem the most likely possibility.

Of course, if the Jets make it to the playoffs, this is likely all a moot point, as winning has a habit of sweeping things under the rug. But it shouldn’t take an epic meltdown for us to shed light on a team’s shortcomings, and it shouldn’t take another season of disappointment to make changes.

No doubt Tannenabum and the rest of the front office have made an effort to correct their errors and turn things around, but is it enough? Outside of handling this Revis situation, there isn’t a whole lot Tannenbaum can do to help himself now. He can only wait and hope for the best.