How do you reflect on what we just went through? The Jets were bad, arguably worse than record indicated, and the lack of progress feels depressing. A typical “grades and awards” type review isn’t necessary to tell anyone this. There’s no joy in naming a team MVP for the season when the best candidate literally admits that he had no choice but to play for himself. And peering into the crystal ball, there’s no guarantee any of this is going to get any better any time soon.
Sins of the Past
Let’s start off by admitting a sobering truth – the Jets have not been a good franchise for basically the entire decade. It is entering playoff drought watch status. The team that peaked at the turn of the decade has crumbled to the point of nonexistence on the back of some of the league’s worst drafting. The sins of Rex Ryan, Mike Tannenbaum, and John Idzik (who is beginning to earn a bit of a posthumous reprieve) still haunt this team. The 2009-2013 drafts should be where the core of this team’s strength is from – players now in the mid-to-late 20’s age range in the prime of their careers. The Jets have a total of just 5 drafted players from this 5-year period remaining on this past season’s roster: Muhammad Wilkerson, Bilal Powell, Sheldon Richardson, Geno Smith, and Brian Winters. Sneak peak: safe bet is on at least 2 of them not returning in 2017. Through this lens, why the Jets were such a harsh disappointment doesn’t look surprising.
This is not to make excuses for Bowles and Maccagnan’s shortcomings, because we can still fairly judge them based on their contributions thus far. The pair were hired in 2015 with a barren roster but also a blank check. Thus began the “competitive rebuild” – an inherently flawed idea to attempt to appease ownership in the short term while trying to build the backbone of the team’s future through the draft. Some of this money was spent on players with long-term value, players like James Carpenter and Buster Skrine coming on long-term deals in their mid-20’s. A large chunk of the spend though went to a 32-year-old journeyman quarterback, a 30-year-old receiver, re-signing a 30-year-old linebacker, and making a 30-year-old corner the highest paid DB in the league. For a season, things clicked. The team won 10 games in a year where that happened to not be good enough to make the postseason.
As preparations began for the 2016 season, the question was whether Maccagnan’s strategy would lean toward the “competitive” side or the “rebuild” side. The intent was clear with the signing of a 30-year-old running back for three years and taking a trade gamble on an injury prone but talented 30-year-old tackle. There were also difficult decisions to be made regarding whether to bring back Ryan Fitzpatrick and Muhammad Wilkerson at asking price. Keeping the 2015 team together to “push on” was the priority.
Against the Odds
The NFL is all about odds. Nothing is a sure thing so the trick is to stack odds in your favor to increase likelihood of favorable outcomes.
— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) December 27, 2016
One of the best twitter follows for football is @NFLosophy, who perfectly sums up the goal of team-building in 140 characters. Maccagnan thought by adding more experience to the roster, and prioritizing bringing back key contributors no matter the cost, he was increasing the odds for 2016 success. He had to measure these moves against an enormous potential backlash: going all-in for the playoffs on a top-heavy veteran roster also set the conditions for the locker room mess the Jets would eventually become. An older roster that expected playoffs is not going to be playing with the same motivation at 3-7, particularly when many of them see the writing on the wall for their futures with a failed season. Still, he rolled the dice.
2016 was always going to be a tougher season, based on some fortune the Jets were blessed with in 2015. While not the murderer’s row schedule once thought, the Jets had the 29th hardest schedule in 2015 and it jumped considerably to 12th in 2016 according to Football Outsiders. The Jets were amongst the best in the league in several volatile year-to-year categories in 2015: turnover margin, offense red zone efficiency and defense red zone efficiency. Regression is not just a possibility, to an extent it’s expected. It happened in the worst way. The Jets plummeted significantly in all three categories, dead last in the former two. Then there’s Fitzpatrick’s 2015 season that benefitted from a large amount of dropped interceptions, good fortune that was unlikely to repeat.
Rebooting the Rebuild
To spend for short-term winning is not building a core, it’s placing bandaids. Decline in the NFL can be swift. FItzpatrick, Brandon Marshall and Darrelle Revis followed successful 2015 seasons with the worst of their careers. The good news is the majority of the overpaid, underperforming veterans can be dumped for sizable cap relief, giving the team a lot of flexibility going into this upcoming year. The bad news is this all has a square one feeling to it – the Jets don’t feel much better off than they were two years ago. The frustrating part is that even with the money spending failures, there is no reason it should feel like square one.
The team has made 13 draft picks in two seasons. The only definite jobs well done here at this point are Robby Anderson and Leonard Williams, and Leo’s development comes with basically a net zero positive team impact given the position group has been one of the team’s few strengths for the last few years. There’s no indication that the team’s two second round picks, oft-injured receiver Devin Smith and Jets Shop Winter Catalog model Christian Hackenberg, are anywhere near ready to contribute to the team (or ever will.) Where we’re at is a long list of essential hopefuls. Darron Lee, Juston Burris, Jordan Jenkins, Brandon Shell, Charone Peake and Deon Simon have all shown to varying degrees some potential for greater roles in 2017. But there’s no guarantee as Lorenzo Mauldin’s disappointing 2016 shows.
The lack of any clear quarterback answer on the roster only amplifies the feeling this team is walking in place. No area exposed the flaw of the “competitive rebuild” like this year’s quarterbacks. To compete, Maccagnan wanted last year’s starter to return and while also keeping a competent backup with starting experience. With an eye to the future, he also wanted to make sure the team held onto the rights of it’s two recent developmental QB prospects. Instead of something giving, the team held onto all four. The Jets are now left with a failed season and a 2nd round prospect in desperate need of reps barely seeing any until late in the season. And what of those selections themselves? As far as taking a chance on two projects, it’s as uninspiring as it gets.
In regards to the job Todd Bowles has done, it’s a bad look when after six years of Rex Ryan the Jets still have a coach more interested in being a defensive coordinator than head coach on game day and having to question whether the man in charge can control an NFL locker room.
To some 2016 has merely exposed Bowles as the “bad coach he was even last year,” but I’d argue this was a regression. There are issues that have plagued Bowles since his first season, starting with basically any type of game management responsibility. But the 2015 Jets were on the whole a disciplined and well-prepared team that outside of one mess in Oakland competed consistently. Bowles’ defense was stifling and brought turnovers while Chan Gailey used what he had at his disposal near flawlessly to scheme one of the best Jets offenses in recent memory. The saddest aspect of Bowles’ second season is that even his bread and butter was a disaster. Hands-on with defense and coaching a veteran group, the Jets in year two were making elementary and costly mental mistakes that led to huge passing plays all year. There’s simply no excuse for that.
What year two has also done is shine a light on some of his staff’s inadequacies in player development. Particularly in the linebacker and defensive back position groups, the amount of regression and lack of youth improvement has been alarming. Creating a pool of young talent on a roster is not just about finding them in the draft, it’s also developing them. This is a key measuring stick for Bowles when we talk about how his tenure has been, and besides some surprises along the offensive line and at wide receiver, the growth has not been strong enough.
You can never really expect a team to compete consistently out of the gates when a team’s core of prime year talent is near nonexistent. But two years into a rebuild, we should be starting to feel optimistic about where this team is heading and yet it’s difficult to do so. The quarterback situation remains a mess. Who are the Jets’ blue chip players? Does year three mean desperation from Bowles and Maccagnan, or can Woody’s call for patience and a long-term model be taken at face value? With their honeymoon periods long gone and mistakes piling up, the direction of this franchise feels as uncertain as ever.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com