Edwards helps Jets take off again

Rookie head coach in first place with N.Y.

November 30, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Herman Edwards is no stranger to perception, but the New York Jets coach is a lot more familiar with reality.

That's the lowdown he gives the Jets each week, wading through the pitfalls of the NFL season, separating fact from fiction. It's part of his job description, and he does it well for a rookie head coach.

With six weeks left in the regular season, Edwards' Jets are tied with the Miami Dolphins for the AFC East lead at 7-3. Even if the numbers don't quite add up - the Jets are 30th in run defense and 27th in total offense - they appear to have something special working here.

That would be Edwards, 47, who got the job last January after Bill Parcells, Al Groh and Bill Belichick all beat a hasty retreat from a team that collapsed down the stretch last season.

"He's an outstanding communicator," said first-year general manager Terry Bradway, who hired Edwards off Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay. "I think he can do it all. He's smart from an X's and O's standpoint, and he really understands it. He has his finger on this thing."

Ten years in the league at cornerback, including nine with the Philadelphia Eagles, gave Edwards a perspective he draws on daily. As a coach, he preaches attention to detail, focus and execution. But perhaps his greatest trait is his ability to communicate with his players, a trait he first developed while coaching defensive backs at San Jose State from 1987 to '89.

That skill enables him to show players how to block out the distracting factors in their job and focus on the pertinent ones.

"There is reality and there is perception," Edwards said. "At times, perception becomes foggy and you have to break things down to their simplest terms. I always bring it back to earth for the players, the simplest form. This is perception, this is what everybody is saying. But the reality is this.

"It's kind of how we got about our business here."

The mantra was put to the test early. The Jets got off to a 1-2 start after installing new systems on defense and offense.

The perception then was, this is a bad team.

The reality? "It was not a focused football team," Edwards said. "When [the media] said we were no good, I'd tell the players, `You can't buy into that.' "

That wasn't Edwards' only early crucible. There were issues that threatened to divide the team in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde was one of several players who threatened to boycott the team's Week 2 game if the league decided to play. Edwards stood firmly behind Testaverde and the others, a fairly bold posture.

Even as late as Week 6, when the Jets looked ragged in a 34-14 home loss to St. Louis, there were concerns about the direction of the team. But the Jets have won four straight games since then to reinforce Edwards' realities.

A staggering take-away count and a revived defense spawned the winning streak. The Jets lead the NFL with 33 take-aways and a turnover differential of plus-22. Their new 4-3 defense has allowed just one offensive touchdown and only five penetrations inside its own 20 the past four games.

The fact they were able to adapt so quickly to the new scheme not only put them in excellent position for the playoffs, but makes Edwards a strong candidate for Coach of the Year.

"It's mind-set," Edwards said of the turnaround. "We started to establish that in our first meeting with the players March 20. `Here's the plan, here's the road we're going to travel.' From then on, I mapped it out for them.

"It was more staying on course, maybe at times becoming more simple and making them understand the importance of details of how to play their position. As it kept going, I didn't back down. The players said, `OK, this is how this thing works.' "

Edwards has been forging relationships with his players ever since. He cut back on excessive hitting in training camp so the players would be fresher in December. He formed a veteran's committee to allow players to have a voice. He listened.

One example concerned team travel. Edwards was going to have coaches sit in the first four rows when they bused. Testaverde's routine was to sit in the third row, on the aisle, in the first bus. Edwards adjusted his travel plans to accommodate Testaverde.

"It all comes back to trust from the players," Bradway said. "To me, Herm is a player's coach, but in a positive way. He's very aware of what needs to get done. Because he's been in every facet of football, he knows what the players are thinking and he's very positive with them. He tells them the truth, he's an honest coach. They know that and respect that."

Running back Curtis Martin says the success the Jets have achieved is related to the atmosphere Edwards created.

"I think it's the environment that he's implemented," Martin said. "It's a fun, relaxed, yet very, very hard-working environment. I believe you get out of something what you put into it. And just the work ethic that he has instilled this year, I think that is what you are seeing out on the field."

Edwards may be a player's coach, but he isn't soft. Wearing that label means the lines of communication are always open.

"The players are always going to know where I stand, what is expected of them and will always get an answer for what we do," he said. "They can always come talk to me. My door is always open."

Reality and perception? Edwards says Sunday's game against the New England Patriots, who trail the Jets in the AFC East by 1 1/2 games, is not as big as some are making it.

"If you think this is a big game, what's next week's game going to be?" he asked. "If we lose, what can I tell them? There isn't a lot I can tell them."

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