A 10-6 record and six win improvement from the prior season. Franchise record breaking acquisitions. A painfully blown opportunity for a hot entrance into playoff football. Reflecting on this past season, determining whether to categorize Todd Bowles’ first season as a success or failure can be a hard and frankly arbitrary question to answer. Is it a success based on the massive improvement, or a failure based on the lack of playoffs? Fortunately, I am not going to bother to answer that question. Instead, I’ll look at what Bowles has done and answer the most important question – has he shown he has what it takes to lead the New York Jets forward?
Reshaping the Roster and Talent Utilization
This is where it all begins, and to me the most important aspect of being a head coach. Rex Ryan lost his job in 2014 for a number of reasons, but the most important reason is that the team had totally collapsed from a talent perspective and certain players simply were not playing as well as they could have been. When in 2009 defenses were being built around an out-of-this-world Darrelle Revis and a rookie quarterback was wisely being protected by a relentless commitment to running the football, by 2014 we were seeing wildcat quarterback Michael Vick, Quinton Coples at outside linebacker and Calvin Pryor playing out of his comfort zone. Obviously being an Xs and Os mastermind can have huge value and as the Giants have brutally shown this year poor in-game management can help derail a season, but at the end of the day it is teams that show the ability to find and develop talented players and put those players in useful positions that win consistently.
As a parting gift, John Idzik gave Bowles and Maccagnan a very healthy cap situation and the two made the most of it. Bowles laid down the needs – a complete secondary overhaul, a veteran backup quarterback with starting experience, a mauling interior lineman and a legitimate receiver across from Eric Decker. Maccagnan, to his credit, delivered the goods and generally on very good value. We all know the names, and more on their impacts in a moment.
Simply adding the players, of course, is only part of it. Many marquee acquisitions have blown up in a team’s face because a team misjudges a player’s abilities or a coach is stubborn in how the player is used (i.e. Revis in Tampa). Teams use the free agency market best not only when they are able to match value with a player’s utility, but when they are able to identify a player’s specific skill set as a match for their own needs and get the most out of a player where other teams cannot. In year one for Todd Bowles, he has done this with overwhelming success.
Starting with the major moves, the Jets swung for the fences with signing Darrelle Revis and trading for Brandon Marshall and hit it on both tries. In the case of Revis, they paid a handsome sum for a number one corner and they got one. He was not super-human Revis of old and never will be again, but on the balance of the season was still one of the best corners in football. Per Pro Football Focus, his 56.5 passer rating against was third best in the league. Meanwhile in Brandon Marshall, the Jets saw the best receiving season in franchise history and arguably the finest of Marshall’s ultra-productive career.
Often overlooked, Marcus Gilchrist and James Carpenter are also extremely encouraging cases. Both hit free agency as relatively important draft picks for their former franchises, Gilchrist a Chargers second rounder and Carpenter a Seahawks first rounder. Neither player was retained because they were not consistent enough as starters to warrant second deals in those team’s minds. The Jets swooped in, signed them to reasonable team-protecting contracts, and have reaped the benefits of career years from both players.
The ultimate feather in Bowles’ player elevation cap though is undoubtedly Ryan Fitzpatrick. When the Jets made the trade with Houston for Fitzpatrick, I was excited that the Jets had acquired a backup that had real starting experience, knew Chan Gailey’s system better than anyone else, and could step in on occasion and keep a team’s quarterback situation from falling apart. Little did I, or anybody for that matter know, that the Jets had just acquired the team’s single-season leader in touchdown passes. In lieu of the Jets having an immediate long-term answer, they have a competent veteran to hold down the fort with excellent chemistry with the team’s key targets and a Ph. D in Chan Gailey’s offense.
It is easy to say that the Jets were destined for a huge improvement given the amount of money available to make upgrades, but spending money and spending money wisely are two very different things. The Jets made a huge improvement with their spend, but two other infamously active teams from last year’s free agency in the Dolphins and Eagles both took a crippling step back. When given a huge amount of money to spend, it seems teams shoot themselves in the foot more often than they take a huge step forward.
Getting back to talent utilization, it’s not just about who just recently came aboard. Already established players in Chris Ivory and Muhammad Wilkerson had career years. Eric Decker put in a season that fits right in with the work he did with Peyton Manning. Calvin Pryor, a first round pick that was apparently destined to be a bust after a quiet rookie season, has arguably become indispensable to the defense. Quincy Enunwa, a sixth round nobody that could have been cut without notice by most of the fans in preseason, has carved out a niche as an important role player on offense. Brian Winters – yes, that Brian Winters – has gone from turnstile at guard to someone the Jets could reasonably enter 2016 with as a starter without needing to panic.
It’s just one aspect of being a coach, but it’s of fundamental importance. Make players better and get the best out of them. In year one, the early signs of Bowles’ staff to do this are overwhelmingly positive.
Setting the Tone
When a team fires a head coach, the personality of the next guy will usually be a stark contrast. You see it in the NFL all the time, and the Jets are no different. Rex Ryan could not have been any more polar opposite from Eric Mangini, whose Belichick Jr. personality was the antithesis of heart-on-his-sleeve Herm Edwards, who brought the energy and belief when Parcells disciple Al Groh came up flat and left after one season. Different can be good, but it isn’t always good. The Jets jumping from one extreme to the other over the past decade is a testament to that.
I, like I’m sure a lot of people did, wanted to see the Jets pursue a forward-thinking offensive minded head coach who would make it his one mission if anything to develop a franchise quarterback. Certainly, that’s different than what the Jets have had going all the way back to Parcells. When it was Todd Bowles and Dan Quinn who were in the discussion, I relaxed on that idea a bit and realized that it is not about getting a different coach, it is about getting the right coach.
When it comes to changing the culture of the team and getting players to buy in, Bowles has handled this magnificently. There have been plenty of opportunities for Bowles to show no one is above the team, and he has done just that. The infamous Geno Smith broken jaw situation was handled swiftly and effectively. IK Enemkpali was cut immediately, yet at the same time there was no sympathy for Geno Smith. The team would move on and it would be up to Geno to earn his spot back. Quinton Coples, who was seeing playing time drop on merit, was released after an alleged incident on the plane following the loss to Houston. Muhammad Wilkerson, arguably the best player on the entire team, was fined, warned and benched for a quarter in a pivotal December game versus the Giants for being late to a meeting.
Bowles’ “one game at a time” mentality has also clearly resonated with the players, and has led to a much more even-keel approach to games and having players consistently prepared. The Jets had just one loss by two possessions this season (that nightmare in Oakland), while they have won six games by such a margin. That level of competitiveness puts them favorably amongst the AFC’s top teams. Those numbers are identical to the work of the Patriots this season. It’s twice as many multiple possession wins and the same amount of losses as Denver. Cincinnati had one multiple possession loss and seven multiple possession wins. Simply put, the Jets this season were consistently competitive under Bowles.
Game Day Gripes
When it comes to the big picture thus far, there isn’t much to complain about. When it comes to managing the game and certain game-planning performances however, Todd Bowles cannot escape criticism.
Managing the clock has been an issue more than once this season. While I think some incidents are overblown – calculated gambles more so than just incompetence (i.e. late in New England) – there have been enough times where valuable time has been left on the clock for the offense to have a two-minute drill only to see a few runs or kneels and the offense head into half time. There have been times where the team has been trailing late by more than one score and the offense has taken it’s sweet time running plays. That’s not always a problem if the team is leaving time for a defensive stop and another more possession, but it raises a question over whether Todd Bowles’ team has that “killer instinct.”
The defense on the whole played well this season, but for a man Richard Sherman called “the best D coordinator I’ve seen,” some individuals plans leave much to be desired. Derek Carr put on a clinic in a game where Bowles learned the hard way that the coast-to-coast blues can be a real thing. In games where there really is just one danger man such as Sammy Watkins this past weekend, Odell Beckham and the Giants, or offensively J.J. Watt and the Texans, the plans mostly failed. These players had performances as good as anything they’ve done all year against the Jets. The most damning of them all though was the performance against Houston. I’ve never seen a team so shellshocked by the introduction of wildcat plays since New England in 2008. Trick plays were a way of potentially getting a cheap score against this team until the very end of the season. When you play a team that is as low on their QB totem pole as to be starting T.J. Yates, these are the type of offensive strategies you need to expect, even if there was little prior evidence of Houston doing such things.
These are things that in time you hope are correctable. Bowles after all is as much a rookie in his position as Leonard Williams or Lorenzo Mauldin. It is a frustrating thing to think about how maybe a little more urgency ties it up against the Eagles, or how different strategies could have led to victory in Houston or Buffalo, but it isn’t something you can tie to Bowles as a staple of his teams just yet.
It might be a little unfair to be so hard on Bowles for the unit that mostly makes up the back end of the roster as he can only change so much so quickly, but the special teams performance this season was well below par. I’ll leave out the kicking situation which obviously was not good, on the balance that losing your starting kicker to a season-ending injury is already a bit of a fluky occurrence. It is hard enough to find one reliable kicker, much less go looking for a second one. It certainly was not a great year for Ryan Quigley by any stretch either, but when judging the punt unit he is not nearly as big an issue as the coverage.
The Jets were non-threatening and dull when returning kicks and punts and a danger to put the defense at a real disadvantage when defending them. The Jets were the third-worst team in the league with 12.7 yards given up per punt and only the Colts gave up more touchdowns on punt returns. The decisions at kick returner were also head scratching. Before settling on Cromartie, we saw *cringe* Zac Stacy returning kicks and disastrously a Devin Smith totally bereft of confidence who took one return and provided the worst case scenario.
Going forward Bowles will have to put a lot of thought into how to improve this part of the team. This unit was not just a far cry from the brilliant units under Mike Westhoff, but also a step back from the still decent units that followed Westhoff’s retirement. Special teams can often be the difference in winning or losing, and it has already played a major hand in losing the Jets a game or two already this past year. With Bobby April’s dismissal Bowles is wasting no time making changes, we’ll see if over the course of this offseason he makes the right ones.
The Challenges Ahead
Bowles has done a massive amount of work on the team already. He’s completely changed the culture, earned the franchise back a modicum of respect, and put the team back into relevance with some quick fixes. All of these things are great, but Bowles was not brought in to be a quick fix. He and Mike Maccagnan inherited a desolate roster, and while they made the roster much more talented they also made it a much older one. The fact that the team now has pieces to compete immediately does not change the fact that the true path to being a consistent competitor and how Maccagnan and Bowles will ultimately be judged is on building a deep and talented roster through the draft. In this aspect Bowles remains unproven, but early signs are good with the likes of Leonard Williams and Lorenzo Mauldin as well as Bowles’ staff already having elevated some young talent from the previous regime.
There is a challenge to also not fall into the dreaded “win now” trap that helped make the Jets such a mess the last few years. There is no such thing as “win now” mode, only teams that sacrifice their future for present success and teams that do not. Teams that are consistently in the playoff picture are by and large the ones that are using their draft picks wisely and can afford to lose some players in free agency due to having developed the next guy up. There will undoubtedly be pressure to take the “next step forward” to surge into the playoffs, but Bowles and Maccagnan must be methodical. Regardless of the instant success, they’re in this for the long haul.
While Bowles has in-game flaws he must iron out, it is satisfying to say that thus far he has proven to have the important big picture traits without any fundamental flaws. I remain steady in the belief that Bowles’ ultimate measure of success here will be in his ability to turn the Jets into a “football factory” of young talent over the long term and that is hard to measure so early in his tenure, but the early signs overall are strong. Was this season a success? I don’t know. What I do know is that Woody Johnson’s hire as given the Jets a great chance for a lot of success in the future.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com