“We’re 4-5. We have nothing to be overconfident about.” – Todd Bowles
“There are still some areas we need to improve upon – We’re still only 4-5.” – Mike Maccagnan
The above quotes from the current New York Jets Head Coach and General Manager were given shortly before their favored team would take on the reeling Tampa Bay Bucs, in a game they would lose 15-10. Despite talking about avoiding a let down and being overconfident, the Jets played like a team who thought they would be entitled to a win. It seems ludicrous that a 4-5 team who hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010 could play in such a way but that is exactly what happened.
It has been an uneven three years for Bowles and Maccagnan but their quotes heading into the Tampa Bay game showed an appropriate alignment on an important reality: the Jets are mediocre and people need to stop being content with it if this organization ever wants to pull itself out of the purgatory muck of mediocrity they have been mired in the past seven years.
From 1997, the year they hired Bill Parcells, until a 2010 loss in the AFC Championship Game, the Jets stereotyped reputation as a circus of losing was wildly misplaced. Over those 14 seasons, the team was .500 or better 11 times, including a stretch of six straight years from 1997-2002. They made seven playoff appearances, won seven playoff games and reached the AFC Championship Game three times. Over those 14 years, their longest playoff drought was two seasons. Reputation aside, the Jets were one of the most successful and consistent franchises in the NFL. The run culminated with the franchise’s best win since Super Bowl III, knocking off the New England Patriots in the Divisional Playoffs in 2010 as heavy underdogs.
Since that upset, they have played to their reputation of a laughingstock. Let’s call it the “Can’t Wait Curse.” Bart Scott gives an epic post game rant after the Jets beat New England, immediately followed by his defense forgetting to show up in the AFC Championship game en route to a 24-0 deficit and an eventual loss. The Jets were just a little too happy with a second round win, ominously foreshadowed by quotes given by Deion Branch after the game.
Since 2010, the Jets have not returned to the playoffs. Their overall record is 45-61. If they miss the playoffs this year, it will be their longest playoff drought since 1970-1980. Since 2010, the Jets and only seven other teams (Cleveland, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Jacksonville and Tennessee) have not made the playoffs at least once. If the season ended today, that number of teams would drop from eight to four, further leaving this franchise in embarrassing company in a league built for parity.
Without a 2017 playoff appearance, Maccagnan and Bowles will be the first Jets GM/HC combo since Jim Kensil and Walt Michaels (1977-1982) to not make the playoffs in their first three years. Where has this franchise went off the rails and how can they can get back on track?
Scott’s rant and the team’s subsequent no-show kicked off a cultural problem around the Jets organization, which can roughly be described as a habit of over celebrating minor accomplishments and a more general embrace of mediocrity.
We saw it in 2013 when a playoff-less 8-8 season with a horrific point differential was celebrated with a gatorade bath and a locker room scene reminiscent of a Conference Championship win. There was actually Coach of the Year chatter for Rex Ryan, including from a media member who would be hired by the team shortly after to lead their next hiring search for a GM and Head Coach. The search was taking place because the Jets followed up this 8-8 love fest by starting 1-8 in 2014 en route to a 4-12 record.
Time is a flat circle and two short years later, a playoff-less 10-6 season was coronated with an Executive of the Year Award for new GM Mike Maccagnan. The organization was then held hostage all offseason by Webster’s Dictionary of a journeyman, Ryan Fitzpatrick, because he “had one of the best seasons in franchise history for a quarterback,” forgetting that historical comparatives to the quarterback position for the Jets are useless, as it is the quintessential example of being the tallest person in a room full of midgets.
Two years after that we have been treated to Todd Bowles Coach of the Year chatter for being 4-5. We have seen videos from fans and quotes from players beating their chest for being 3-2 and then 4-5 because the media (#haters!) thought they might not win a game. The reality is despite some hyperbolic predictions, many who follow the team thought they’d win between 4-6 games. Beyond that, a common refrain from fans and players is that the media doesn’t know what they are talking about, so who cares what their pre-season predictions are? It doesn’t make a 4-6 record impressive. Every year there are teams who are predicted to be bad who end up over .500 and make the playoffs, it is why 24 of the 32 teams in the league have made it into January over the Jets playoff drought. Clearing the bar of the media’s lowest expectations is not a barometer for success.
Every fan base is guilty of overrating their own players but this low barometer leads to players like Fitzpatrick and now Josh McCown being lionized. Fitzpatrick holding a franchise record for touchdown passes and McCown holding a franchise record for completion percentage mean nothing in terms of building a sustained winner. Muhammad Wilkerson was never a top ten defensive player and was never going to be traded for a first round pick prior to 2016. Leonard Williams is a good young player. He is not one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Jamal Adams is having a good rookie year. He isn’t going to be Rookie of the Year and has arguably been outplayed by other rookie safeties, including one on his own team. Bilal Powell is a pretty good running back. He is completely replaceable.
The Jets prolonged playoff drought has coincided with a consistent investment of major resources in non-premium positions, along with a “play if safe” approach from their front office.
Since their last playoff appearance, the Jets have had eight first round selections. All eight of them have been used on defense, at the following positions: four defensive linemen, two safeties, one inside linebacker and one cornerback. None of those defensive linemen’s primary strength was rushing the passer and only one of the four have ever cracked double digits sacks in a season. The Jets have ignored quarterback, pass rusher, cornerback (outside of the failed Dee Milliner experiment) and offensive tackle with their most valuable picks.
The Jets have had a good to great defensive line during this entire playoff drought but it hasn’t mattered. They may be great at safety in the next few years but if the premium positions aren’t improved, it will not matter. A touchy subject with Jets fans but a reality is both Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams could be very good to great NFL players but it does not necessarily mean they were the right picks at #6, best player available be damned.
They were safe picks with very high floors but limited ceilings compared to taking a swing on Vic Beasley or Deshaun Watson, who had more question marks but higher ceilings at more important positions. The Jets have tip toed around fixing the quarterback position since aggressively going after Mark Sanchez in the 2009 NFL Draft. They have selected two second round quarterbacks, a fourth round quarterback, a sixth round quarterback and a seventh round quarterback. They have paid relatively low cost, short term contracts to veteran journeymen.
It stings a little less when you miss on a second round quarterback like Geno Smith or Christian Hackenberg rather than missing in the first round but it still stings when you demonstrate such poor evaluation and do nothing to solve the position. Players like Fitzpatrick, McCown and even Mike Vick in 2014 allow you to compete most weeks but put a hard ceiling on your offense and prevent you from ever being a legitimate contender. The floor might not fall out with a 1-15 Browns style season but you keep yourself in a purgatory of 5-11 to 8-8 football.
Pass rusher has been handled the same way. The Jets have compiled low ceiling, high intangible mid round picks like Lorenzo Mauldin, Jordan Jenkins and Dylan Donahue. Every time one of them is selected, we hear how they aren’t a top flight pass rusher but can set the edge effectively next to an elite pass rusher, who never seems to come. The Jets haven’t spent in free agency at pass rusher either, instead doubling down on paying Wilkerson who has largely been a disaster since getting paid and funneling money into slot corner (Buster Skrine), offensive guard (James Carpenter and Brian Winters) and running back (Matt Forte and Bilal Powell).
Right now, here are the ten highest paid players on the Jets
Two running backs, two guards, two defensive ends, a slot corner, a wide receiver, a safety and an offensive tackle. The Jets have drafted one offensive lineman in the first two rounds since 2006 (Vladimir Ducasse) and outside of Kelvin Beachum (3 years, 24 million dollars) have not been active on the open market at improving the tackle position.
You cannot win in the NFL building your team around 3-4 defensive ends who do not consistently sack the quarterback, offensive guards, safeties and running backs. You cannot win the NFL if you play $5 dollar blackjack at the quarterback position by compiling mid round fliers and cast off journeymen. You cannot win in the NFL if your only answer to fixing cornerback is investing massive contracts in players over 30 years old and then only drafting a fourth rounder and two sixth rounders for development behind them.
The Jets are likely to keep both Maccagnan and Bowles after this year, for better or worse. An interim owner is going to be hesitant to make major changes shortly after assuming the job. Patience generally doesn’t have the successful track record that many think it does, particularly when you start out with three non-playoff seasons (please don’t use Oakland and Reggie McKenzie as an example as they are about to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years and have a 34-56 record under him) but everything can pivot if you fix the premium positions, particularly quarterback. The AFC is bad and the league is built for parity. It is inexcusable to miss the playoffs seven years in a row in today’s NFL. The Jets are basically due to fall in by accident at this point.
They have eight draft picks next year and still have a good chance of a top ten selection (maybe even top six). They will be loaded with cap space to try rebuild 2.0 under this regime. The only thing that matters this offseason is investing their premium resources into premium positions. Stop thinking your coaching staff can allow you to get away with a mid round flier at quarterback. Don’t think about Josh McCown starting a game for you next year. Attack the market in free agency and the draft to build your offensive line, pass rush and depth at corner. Remember that running backs and receivers are a dime a dozen and always replaceable.
More importantly, kill any notion throughout the organization that going 5-11 or 6-10 in a season where some people thought you may be worse is a success. It isn’t. A losing record is a losing record. Nobody should be beating their chest about anything in a season that does not end with a drought breaking playoff appearance. No more gatorade baths for 8-8. No more awards for a team watching playoff games at home. End the culture of mediocrity that is rotting this organization from the inside out.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com