HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) – Jonathan Vilma comes from a school where expectations are always high, where trash talk is a way of life and winning is more of an eventuality than a fragile hope.

So, naturally, the former University of Miami linebacker boasted about the expectations for his Jets team heading into 2005. After all, New York came within inches of the AFC championship game in January, when Doug Brien missed two field goals that would have beaten Pittsburgh.

In a nationally televised interview during the summer, Vilma was asked to give the odds of the Patriots winning a third consecutive Super Bowl. His response: “I’d say a billion-to-one.”

What about the odds for the Jets? “A lot better than a billion-to-one,” he said.

Three months later, a billion-to-one seems frighteningly close. Three of the Jets’ most important players are out for the season. The offense has forgotten what the end zone looks like, while the defense barely remembers how to tackle. What started as a season with high expectations has turned into a 2-5 nightmare.

“It seems like we lost our way from last year to this year,” cornerback David Barrett said about the defense. “Last year, we were more dominant, more aggressive, and way more patient. This year, it seems we’re striding away from that.

“We came in a little too relaxed, thinking it was just going to be a cakewalk. It’s not happening that way.”

The seeds of disaster were planted long before Vilma went before the cameras. Losing franchise quarterback Chad Pennington, Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae and defensive leader Eric Barton only compounded the situation.

Go back to February, when Pennington had surgery to repair a torn right rotator cuff. Though he hurried through his rehab to be ready for the season opener, he clearly was not effective in the three games he got to play before his season ended in September with another right shoulder injury.

The offensive woes have continued with 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde, signed when Pennington and backup Jay Fiedler got hurt. Even with Pennington, the Jets might be in the same situation because of four critical decisions they made in March and April.

First, right tackle Kareem McKenzie left via free agency. Without McKenzie to anchor the right side, the line has been unimpressive. Guard Brandon Moore is the only player who has started in the same spot all season. The Jets have given up 25 sacks and have no ground game after Curtis Martin won the rushing title in 2004. Meanwhile, McKenzie’s new team, the Giants, are 5-2 and in first place.

Then the Jets traded speedster Santana Moss to Washington to get Laveranues Coles back. Moss is second in the league with 777 yards and has five touchdown receptions. Coles has 385 yards for the Jets and one touchdown reception.

In April, the Jets shipped the No. 26 overall pick in the draft to Oakland for tight end Doug Jolley and a second-round pick. Both have been disappointments. Jolley has seven catches for 79 yards and his role has been diminished to the point that third-string rookie Joel Dreessen got more playing time in the team’s last game in Atlanta.

The second-round pick? Kicker Mike Nugent, taken to replace Brien and remove any reminders of the Steelers playoff loss, has shown some flaws, too, missing three of eight field goal attempts. The Raiders shipped the No. 26 pick to Seattle, which drafted a center – something the Jets could use now.

Then there is the defense, ranked seventh last season. The Jets lost Jason Ferguson at tackle, but thought they were getting an upgrade at cornerback with Ty Law. Even Law has struggled, still fighting through the foot injury that sidelined him for most of last season.

Missed tackles, blown assignments and too many long drives have hampered the Jets, though the ineffective offense has kept them on the field way too long. The team has three touchdowns passing.

“Maybe the hype got to us a little bit,” defensive end John Abraham said. “Maybe it did relax us a little bit. But there’s still no reason for us to be 2-5.”

Whether the Jets can turn things around is irrelevant when it comes to planning for next season. They will be left with an aging corps on offense and a quarterback whose future is uncertain. The Jets will be forced to bring back Pennington because of his huge salary-cap number of $12 million, but they might ask him to defer some money. They need to bring in another quarterback to compete for the starting job.

And what about Martin and Mawae. The 32-year-old Martin is due to count $8.1 million against the cap, and he might also be asked to take a cut.

Mawae, 34, is due $4.5 million, so the Jets also must make a hard decision on him. This could be a vastly different Jets team in 2006.

But for now, the Jets are worried about whether they can mount an unlikely run to Detroit.

“You can’t let your circumstances become a part of what you are,” coach Herman Edwards said. “You have to find a way to get out of it.”

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