The NFL is a cruel mistress. One minute you’re the savior of the franchise ushering in a new era of prosperity and Super Bowl dreams – and the next you’re a bum, a punchline, an unfortunate chapter in history. Although it may not seem that way sometimes, that line between bum and Belichick is razor-thin; where the margin between success and failure is no larger than the tip of a finger or the bounce of a ball.
With the Jets officially closing the proverbial book on the Todd Bowles era, you can’t help but look back and wonder whether we would all be writing postmortems had two games that were decided by a drop and a missed extra point, respectively had gone differently.
Over the past 24 hours I have been reading plenty of “what ifs” about that fateful January day in Buffalo in 2015. Riding a five-game winning streak where they just knocked off Belichick and the hated New England Patriots in dramatic fashion, it was something of a foregone conclusion that the Jets, who in spite of their penchant for gut-wrenching collapses, had fared reasonably well in “Win and In” games, would take care of business against Rex Ryan and his woefully inconsistent Buffalo Bills. But from the moment that they kicked that ball off, everyone watching knew that the Jets were in for a nail-biter against their former Head Coach’s squad. In hindsight, we all should have known that the other shoe was bound to drop; that Ryan Fitzpatrick, in spite of all his side-armed, head-first dive heroics was bound to turn back into the journeyman pumpkin he had been his whole career when the Jets Cinderella season struck midnight.
However, even with the aforementioned Fitzpatrick doing everything in his power to hand the game to the Bills, Chris Ivory getting knocked out of the game with a leg injury, Muhammad Wilkerson, who was still playing as if he cared at the time, breaking his leg, the Jets still controlled their own playoff destiny down five with 44 seconds left. After scrambling for nine yards on first down, Fitzpatrick managed to find Kenbrell Thompkins, a spare part who found himself thrust into a pivotal role on the most important play of the season, with not a single defender in a 15-yard radius on the right sideline. For a second all of Jets Nation held its collective breath and allowed their imaginations to wander for a brief second about the possibilities of their first playoff run in five years. But those dreams came and went as the pass from the journeyman quarterback went off the hands of the journeyman receiver – and with it went more than anyone watching, participating, covering or in anyway involved with that game could have anticipated.
Seldom do we recognize defining moments as they are happening. And unlike collapses of years past such as 2008 or 2011, this one just felt more consequential – like the cosmic groundhog seeing his shadow, consigning the franchise to five more years of irrelevance and mediocrity. But with the deflation there still remained hope that this core that had come tantalizing close to the playoffs the year before would make another run at it the following year – and for the first three and a half quarters of the 2016 season it appeared as though those hopes were well-founded, which brings us to the second bounce of the metaphorical ball that ended up defining Todd Bowles’ Jets tenure.
After an off-season in which the General Manager bungled the handling of the Muhammad Wilkerson extension and fell into the trap of playing chicken with Ryan Fitzpatrick in a weak QB free agent market, the Jets re-loaded in the most band-aid of fashions to take another run at a playoff berth. With hopes and energy high, the Jets faced the Cincinnati Bengals at home to open the season on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. After forcing the Bengals to punt on their opening drive, it appeared as though the Jets were going to pick up right where they left off the previous season, making quick work of the Bengals’ defense on their first offensive possession that culminated in a Quincy Enunwa touchdown. The momentum continued to build after the Jets picked off Andy Dalton on the fourth play of the following drive, setting the Jets up with a chance to take a commanding early two-score lead.
That drive stalled out on the Bengals’ four-yard line and what ensued from this point forward was either bad luck or a cruel joke from the Football Gods as the Jets’ typically and historically clutch kicker, Nick Folk missed the chip shot of all chip shots, a harbinger of things to come. This kick gave the Bengals life in a game that should have been out of hand after the first half and forced the Jets into a last possession dog fight. The Bengals scored 10 unanswered points after that missed chip shot field goal. When the Jets answered back with a touchdown of their own, the football fates conspired against Todd Bowles’ Jets as the once-reliable Folk missed the extra point that would prove to be difference in the 23-22 loss.
Many may remember the 2016 season for the debacle it eventually became with certain veterans poisoning the metaphorical locker room well after the Jets were unable to survive the tough early season schedule, digging themselves a hole they could not dig themselves out of. Unfortunately, we’re only left with the benefit of hindsight to wonder what could have become of that season had they started 2-0 instead of 1-1 but such is the way the cookie crumbles sometimes for NFL teams. NFL seasons are delicate and can be undone by simple things such as missed extra points or field goals (just ask the 2017 Chargers).
At the end of the day, Todd Bowles revealed himself to be a tragically-flawed or perhaps just a stubborn NFL Head Coach but you can’t help but wonder what could have become of him and whether we would be talking about him in past tense had Kenbrell Thompkins thought about the catch before the run and Nick Folk just kicked like Nick Folk. The fickleness of the NFL fates chew up and spit out the Todd Bowles of the world on an annual basis. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. Only time will tell for Bowles but for now the rest of us will just have to sit and wonder.