by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Whatever you might think about New York Jets HC Rex Ryan, there’s less of him to love or loathe in 2012. Down more than 100 pounds from high weight of 348 pounds, Ryan is now a svelte (sort of) 243 with help from weight-loss surgery.

That’s putting your money where your mouth is...or, perhaps in Ryan’s case, where it used to be. Rex’s old 12 taco lunches are as much a part of bygone days as the old New York Titans, Harry Wismer’s long-ago predecessor to the modern-day Jets.

But no one ever accused Rexy of being afraid to make bold moves. Such as his maneuvering in the offseason as he tries to position his Jets back into the AFC playoff picture after last season’s disappointing 8-8 rollercoaster ride.

That 8-8 record, at least on the surface, doesn’t sound all that bad. Yet on the heels of back-to-back appearances in the conference title game, and hopes of reaching at least that far again in 2011, last season qualified as a major disappointment at Floral Park.

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Las Vegas oddsmakers are taking something of a wait-and-see attitude with the Jets. Most wagering outlets in Nevada have posted season-win totals for Ryan’s team at 8 ½. While the consensus second choice in the AFC East (division win odds around 13/2 where offered) behind the Patriots, the Jets are somewhat down the list of potential conference Super Bowl reps, as AFC title odds have risen to 14/1 at most Nevada wagering shops after opening around 10/1 at many locales.

The Jets’ Super Bowl win price has also risen from 25/1 to 28/1 at most Nevada sports books...much higher than at this time a year ago.

Oh, yes, about Ryan’s offseason moves. The controversial Jets mentor was apparently the driving force behind the offseason acquisition of none other than Tim Tebow, the polarizing ex-Heisman winner from Florida and magician for last year’s Broncos when leading Denver into one of the most-unexpected playoff berths in recent memory.

Yet if all goes to plan, Tebow, who alternately captivated and thrilled the Rockies with his unorthodox style a year ago, will only be a bit player as Ryan looks to steer the Jets back to the postseason after fading down the stretch a year ago.

Tebow was only the most high-profile of the Jets’ offseason moves. At least as important, if not more so, was the addition of former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano as the new offensive coordinator.

Ostensibly, Sparano has been tasked with helping the Jets rediscover their ground game that mostly disappeared last fall (more on that in a moment). But Sparano also played a part in the acquisition of Tebow, of whom Sparano believes can be the perfect catalyst for the “Wildcat” looks he introduced to the NFL four years ago with direct snaps to RB Ronnie Brown in Miami.

Ryan and Sparano believe a return to an infantry emphasis is the best way to shield QB Mark Sanchez. The Jets fell to 22nd in NFL rushing stats a year ago after ranking first and fourth, respectively, the previous two years. Look for the Sparano to revolve the offense around RB Shonn Greene (left), who recorded his first 1000-yard rushing season a year ago (1054 yards).

Regarding Tebow, expect the ex-Heisman winner from Florida to be spotted accordingly by Sparano, often in short-yardage or goal-line situations where the ex-Gator’s powerful running style offers the sort of dimension Sanchez cannot provide.

But the most important development for the Jets this fall is likely going to involve Sanchez, who has not progressed (maybe even backsliding) since his rookie season in 2009.

Owning some moxie but with limited physical attributes (neither big, nor particularly fast, nor the owner of a rocket arm), Sanchez regressed markedly in 2011, tossing 18 picks and sacked 39 times as the Jets deviated from their run-first formula that had somewhat protected the former-Southern Cal signal-caller in his first two years.

Sanchez (right, after being sacked in a December loss to the Giants) was especially guilty of crucial mistakes last season, such as the ghastly turnovers that allowed the Dolphins to steal a 19-17 win at Sun Life Stadium in the regular-season finale that buried the Jets’ playoff hopes once and for all as Ryan’s team lost its last three games.

But, the risks of having Tebow as another offensive option are the peripheral distractions (no fault of Tebow’s) that might result if a) Tebow excels in his limited role, which could increase the decibel level of the Tebow backers who will want to see him on the field more often, perhaps forcing Sanchez to press, or b) Sanchez simply endures another difficult campaign as he did in 2011.

It’s a psychological tightrope act that might require Ryan consulting with Dr. Phil as well as his dietician before the regular-season kickoff vs. the Bills on September 9.

There are other issues offensively, especially among the receiving corps where the moody Santonio Holmes has underachieved while proving a divisive influence in the locker room (his latest misadventure was asking out of June OTA work because he felt he had taken too many snaps already), and an offensive line that neither run blocked as well as in the past nor offered as much protection to Sanchez, failing to keep the QB upright.

Moreover, Holmes is the only truly established threat at the WR spots, although Georgia Tech rookie Stephen Hill (who averaged nearly 30 yards on his catches for the Yellow Jackets last fall before the Jets traded up to get him in the second round of the draft) and ex-Raider FA signee Chaz Schillens could emerge.

Whatever, it looks as if Rexy and Sparano will have to thread the needle this fall to avoid many issues bubbling beneath the surface with the strike force.

Moreover, there are some significant defensive concerns for Ryan to address as the stop unit has gradually weakened over Rex’s three years in charge. To wit: the Jets’ “D” allowed 123 more points in 2011 than it did in Ryan’s first season back in 2009.

Although the Tebow addition stole the offseason headlines, Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum made perhaps their boldest moves in the offseason with hopes of bolstering the recently-sagging stop unit. The top free-agent addition was ex-Redskins safety LaRon Landry, while the Jets went for “D” with their top pick in the draft, tabbing North Carolina’s pass-rush demon DE Quinton Coples with a first-round selection.

Landry, however, might not prove the answer at one of the safety spots that has opened up with the likely departure of key performer, injury-prone Jim Leonhard (still unsigned as of late July), as an Achilles tendon injury limited Landry’s offseason work and threatened his availability for preseason action.

The secondary still feature shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis, but his partner on the other side, Antonio Cromartie, was picked on a bit too often a year ago as opponents mostly chose to avoid throwing the way of Revis.

The front seven will hopefully be bolstered by the addition of rookie DE Couples, who could provide a spark that was missing a year ago. Worryingly for Ryan, LBs Bart Scott and Calvin Pace both seemed to slow noticeably last fall.

Do you think Ryan can use Tebow on defense, too?

Summary...We view the Jets with great caution entering 2012, as several trip-wires have been laid on the field and in the clubhouse. Ryan at least knows the formula seemed to go bad a year ago, but his authorization of staff changes and other bold moves in the offseason could also backfire. The Tebow acquisition, while looking good in theory, also threatens to be an unwanted distraction, with a simmering QB controversy the last thing Ryan or confidence-shaky holdover QB Mark Sanchez need at this point. The Tebow situation is only one of several factors that have to go right for Ryan this fall; the Jets’ re-emergence as a playoff team more likely rests with Sparano’s “O” rediscovering its ground game roots, and for Rexy to reboot a defense that sprung a lot of leaks last year. There is no guarantee that the situation won’t blow up in Ryan’s face this fall.

Spread-wise, last season’s downturn was also reflected in performances vs. the number, as Rex endured his first losing season vs. the line (6-9-1) since taking over in 2009. Curiously, the Jets have also emerged as one of the NFL’s most consistent “over” teams, that way again 10-6 a year ago and now “over” 28-12 in their last 40 games since late in the 2009 campaign.


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