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Pro Football | J.A. ADANDE

Coaches, Results Link Trojans, Jets

November 20, 2001|J.A. Adande

USC's jaunt past UCLA in the Pacific 10 football standings would occupy all of my free brain cells if not for this unbelievable fact: The New York Jets are 7-3 and atop the AFC East division.

Time to multitask, number-crunch and stare a little deeper into the cosmos for some answers.

The first thing is that these stories aren't as unrelated as you might think.

Although 2,800 miles separate the Coliseum and the Meadowlands, the coaching staffs of teams that play in those stadiums are as intertwined as the Christmas tree lights that are about to come out of storage.

Pete Carroll was the Jets' coach in 1994, after four years as their defensive coordinator.

When Paul Hackett was hired as USC's coach in 1998, he offered the defensive coordinator's job to Herman Edwards, who was on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' staff at the time. Edwards declined.

Now Edwards is the coach of the Jets. He made Hackett his offensive coordinator and hired Phil Petty, an assistant at USC two years ago. It worked out for everybody.

Well, sort of. Under Hackett, New York's offense works like a government bureaucracy. It's inefficient, frustrating and time-consuming, but ultimately accomplishes its objective.

The Jets managed to beat the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in a game in which the Jets produced 162 yards. Their only touchdown on offense capped a 35-yard drive. They rank 14th in the AFC and 26th overall in offense.

How does this team win? Think turnovers. Coaches always preach their importance; the Jets prove it. They lead the NFL in takeaway-giveaway margin at plus-22.

They recovered two Miami fumbles and picked off three of Jay Fiedler's passes--returning two of the interceptions for touchdowns. The Jets didn't give the ball away once.

The Jets talk about how they feel fresh and can play with clear heads for the man they call "Coach Herm."

It wasn't always this way. The Jets were 3-3, with all the losses at home, and people wondered if Edwards was in over his head.

This team needs Edwards to work out.

More than most organizations in sports, the Jets have been beset by coaching turbulence. Some of it is self-inflicted. (After all, anyone who knowingly hired Rich Kotite after his undistinguished stay in Philadelphia deserved what inevitably came next.)

They went from Bruce Coslet to Carroll to Kotite. Even their best move, hiring Bill Parcells away from the New England Patriots, came at a hefty price. They gave five draft picks to the Patriots after some bickering.

When Parcells retired, his handpicked successor, Bill Belichick, left before he could even be announced as coach. They turned to Al Groh, who lost the team in training camp, then took off to coach at the University of Virginia. .

Parcells couldn't deliver on Belichick, but his most important legacy will turn out to be running back Curtis Martin, whom Parcells signed in his capacity as general manager. Martin is the NFL's leading rusher and gives the offense at least one threat.

The defense gave up 45 points to Indianapolis, but the team was still adjusting to Edwards' new alignment. There has been progress in recent weeks, the Jets giving up 12, nine, seven and zero points.

There's some frailty to the Jets' record. Of the teams they've beaten--Miami, New England, Buffalo, Carolina, New Orleans and Kansas City--only the Dolphins and Saints have winning records, and the Dolphins appear to be physically incapable of beating the Jets. They've lost to them eight consecutive times.

Last year, the Jets started 9-4 before dropping their last three games and missing the playoffs. But everything's in order right now. They look good and appear to be legit.

Just like USC.

When I first got a look at Carroll's Trojans in September, I thought they could be a bowl team if they shored up some things.

Their biggest adversary was a tough schedule. The games against Kansas State, at Oregon, at Washington and at Notre Dame stood out as their biggest obstacles.

UCLA looked like a superior team, but you figured both schools always have a chance in that meeting just because it's USC-UCLA.

For UCLA, the USC game almost looked like an afterthought after their three-game stretch against Stanford, Washington State and Oregon. UCLA dropped all three, just as USC had lost to Kansas State, Oregon and Washington early this season.

Perception is everything in a sport that doesn't determine national champions on the field, and one thing that's always held true is that it's better to lose early than late.

USC lost early ... then often.

But here's where Carroll gets the credit, and gets the edge over UCLA Coach Bob Toledo this season. Carroll didn't let the Trojans fall apart. He gave them something to believe in, convinced them that the season could be salvaged and now they'll be going to a bowl game after all.

And they've done it without their best offensive player, Sultan McCullough, for the last five games.

Looking back, their five losses can almost be reduced to five plays that decided the fates of those games. If a couple of them had gone their way, it could have been a great season. Then again, Oregon State could have beaten USC in regulation if the Beavers' kicker could have made a field goal.

So ultimately, the Trojans are about where they should be. But they're hot and gave themselves reason to feel good about next season.

They have the third-best record in the nation's best conference.

As hard as that is to believe, stranger things have happened. In fact, they're happening right now on the other side of the country.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at: j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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