One of the first things Ted Cottrell learned when he came to New York City was how easy he'd had it, media-wise, with the Bills. Here in the world's media capital, every day is an all-out blitz, beyond any defensive coach's imagining. Buffalo is a tea party by comparison.
"We're in New York," Cottrell said earlier this week. "The press and publicity here is a lot different than it is in Western New York, so you're under more scrutiny, the talk shows and everything. I don't listen to them."
He knew what they were saying early in the year, though. Word got back to him, eventually. The legion of columnists, the posse of beat writers, all the Vinnies from Brooklyn on talk radio -- everyone was killing the Jets' defensive coordinator during the first five weeks of the season.
And Cottrell couldn't blame them. "The numbers speak for themselves," he said, and the numbers were screaming off the page, questioning the coordinator's competence. Through the first five weeks, the Jets were allowing 32.4 points and 190.8 rushing yards a game.
The defense was a sieve, an embarrassment. The Jets were 1-4, and they would have been 0-5 if the Bills had been able to cover kickoffs in the opener. They were being written off in the AFC East playoff race. They were in disarray, a confused, demoralized bunch.
"I tell you what," Cottrell said, "it was the worst stretch I've gone through in coaching. Ever. So much had been expected. I thought we would be a lot better than we were. So the disappointment was just tantamount, huge. Teams were running through us like a hot knife through butter. We were not a good defensive football team back then."
The Jets had added six proven free agents to their defense -- cornerbacks Aaron Beasley and Donnie Abraham, tackles Josh Evans and Larry Webster, safety Sam Garnes and linebacker Sam Cowart, the former Bill. The newcomers were expected to help a playoff team take the next step, to make the Jets a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
For Cottrell, the inevitable benefits would follow. For several years, he has been longing to get his chance at a head coaching job. For a while, he couldn't even get in the door. Now at least, he gets interviews. But he's 55 now, and he knows that while it can take longer for black coaches to get a chance, they tend to get written off a lot quicker.
When the Jets' defense struggled in the first third of the season, writers suggested that Cottrell's head coaching prospects were being dashed. Friends told him some of the same things were being said on the talk shows. This guy thinks he should be a head coach?
"That was in the back of my mind, of course," Cottrell said. "You get into position. You're starting to get interviews for jobs. Then the bottom falls out all of a sudden and people see what's happening on the field. They judge you by that. People are out there saying, 'My God, he can't make any adjustments and get his defense going.'
"I'm supposed to have a good defensive mind. People must have thought I lost my mind."
Cottrell had a good chuckle. He's a funny, engaging man, prone to a good laugh. He can afford to laugh now, because his defense has been a totally different unit since the fifth game. "It's been a 180-degree turnaround," said cornerback Ray Mickens.
The Jets had a bye week after falling to 1-4, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The coaches used the extra week of practice to pull the defense back together. They simplified things, refocused on some basic concepts -- tackling, for one -- and challenged the players to do a better job of communicating on and off the field.
Cottrell was honest with himself, too. He realized he had expected too much from the free agents. He thought they would pick up the defenses he'd used at the end of the 2001 season, and that the defense would pick up where it left off. He was wrong.
"I thought the guys from last year would help the new guys get acclimated," Cottrell said. "But it was just the opposite. There was too much unfamiliarity. The guys left over were just trying to take care of themselves. We don't have a lot of real vocal leaders on our defense. I said, 'You guys have to talk to each other -- on the sidelines, in the locker room, in the classroom. Look at tape and talk about what we're doing.'
"During the bye week, we did a lot of self-scouting. We looked at about every play we had in the first five weeks. We had a week of practice where we didn't have to worry about a game. After we made some changes and the guys got more comfortable with things, communication got a lot better in practice. You could see it happening. We began to play better. It was a big change, a welcome change in our team. Because boy, we needed it."
The results have been stunning. In the last five games, the Jets have given up just 13.6 points a game and 75.6 yards rushing. The numbers have been reduced by more than half. The free agents have come around. Cowart, who was still recovering from his Achilles injury at the start of the year, has been his old, dominating self in recent weeks.
Still, if Cottrell was getting bashed during the bad times, he has to get a lot of the credit for the Jets' defensive turnaround. The man didn't become stupid all of a sudden. His Bills defenses were perennially ranked near the top of the National Football League. But this is as good a job as he's done in his coaching career.
"Well, I guess I've got my mind back," he said with a big laugh. "I found it. I found my mind."