Let’s not beat a dead horse and get this out of the way first. Since the end of 2010, the New York Jets have the 28th best record in the NFL at 50-78. They are one of three teams not to make the playoffs (along with Cleveland and Tampa Bay). Over the past three years, ostensibly the start of TRUE REBUILD portion of the Mike Maccagnan era, they are 14-34, the 30th best record in the NFL.
Entering this offseason, the Jets will be top three league wide in available cap space for the second year in a row and top five in cap space for the third time in five years. This will be the fourth time in five years they have a top six pick in the NFL Draft. Their General Manager is entering his fifth season with the organization and their newly hired Head Coach will be entering his fourth straight year as a NFL Head Coach, with all years spent in the AFC East.
Long story short…the time for the rebuild, the competitive rebuild, the true rebuild, the whatever rebuild…has passed. With that being said, what should expectations be for the New York Jets 2019 season?
There is not going to be an exact number of wins that can be pinpointed by the end of this article because records can periodically be somewhat misleading. There are different types of 8 or 9 win seasons and you know it, when you see it. Did you go 8-8 despite multiple critical injuries, upsetting multiple contenders along the way, narrowly lose a few tight games and gradually improve as the season went on? Or did you go 9-7 because you played a team resting all their starters in week 17, beat up a bunch of basement dwellers and were wiped out whenever you played a team over .500?
Let’s look at recent history, both for the Jets organization and for other organizations with quarterbacks on their rookie contracts and/or new Head Coaches to figure out a standard the Jets should be held to in 2019. Before diving in, the Jets decision to not “start over” by firing Mike Maccagnan and decision to hire an experienced NFL Head Coach in Adam Gase, indicates they believe they are close to competing (or should be close to competing) and did not want to wipe away whatever “progress” Maccagnan had made or deal with a hypothetical learning curve for a first time Head Coach.
Internal History: Year One Success
Ironically. Gase is inheriting a nearly identical situation to what Todd Bowles hired in advance of 2015: An excessive amount of cap space, Maccagnan as his GM and a team who went 4-12 the year before…the only difference is Gase will have a top three pick, instead of a top six pick and has a theoretical franchise quarterback in Sam Darnold instead of Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Bowles won 10 games in his first year, a six game improvement, despite not making the playoffs. In 2009, Rex Ryan inherited a nine win team with a holdover GM and matched the previous year win total, except he netted a playoff appearance. Before Ryan, Eric Mangini took over a 4 win team, improved six games like Bowles, except he made the playoffs with ten wins. Before Mangini, Herman Edwards also won ten games in first season and made the playoffs. In Al Groh’s only year, he won nine games but missed the playoffs. Finally, in Bill Parcells first year, he took over a 1-15 team and moved them to nine wins.
Over the past six Head Coach hires, the average win total in year one has been 9.5 games and the average win improvement total has been 3.6 games. Three of the six coaches made the playoffs in their first year. Every coach except for Bowles and Groh (who only lasted one year) made the playoffs at least once and two of them (Rex and Herman Edwards) made the playoffs multiple times.
Gase’s average win total over three seasons has been 7.6 games, which ironically exactly lines up to the Jets average 3.6 game improvement in year one with a new HC. This would put them at 7 or 8 wins in 2019, depending how generous you are feeling with your rounding.
External History: New Coach, New Quarterback
The NFL is a league built for quick turnarounds and for teams with good quarterbacks on rookie deals to succeed..AKA it is a league that should be conducive to the Jets succeeding in 2019. Recent examples are littered everywhere:
- Matt Nagy taking a 4 win Bears team to 12 wins in his first season, an 8 game improvement with a second year quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky.
- Sean McVay taking a 4 win Rams team to 11 wins in his first season, a 7 game improvement with a second year quarterback in Jared Goff, followed by a Super Bowl appearance in their second season together.
- Doug Pederson jumping his 7 win Eagles team to 13 wins in Carson Wentz’s second season, a 6 game improvement, capped with a Super Bowl victory.
- Bill O’Brien moving a 4 win Texans team to 11 wins in Deshaun Watson’s second season, a 7 game improvement.
- Andy Reid moving a 10 win Chiefs team to 12 wins in Patrick Mahomes second season, a 2 game improvement.
- John Harbaugh switching quarterbacks midseason and winning 10 games with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson en route to a playoff appearance.
- Going further back, Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians winning 11 games back to back years in Andrew Luck’s first two seasons after the Colts were 2-14 the season before, a 9 win jump.
- Jason Garrett won 13 games in Dak Prescott’s rookie season, after the team won 4 games the year before, a 9 win improvement.
- Pete Carroll moving the Seahawks from 7-9 to 11-5 in Russell Wilson’s rookie season, a 4 win improvement and then winning the Super Bowl in his second year.
- Hell, even Doug Marrone made the playoffs in his first year as a Head Coach with Blake Bortes on his rookie contract and reached the AFC Championship Game, moving the Jaguars 3-13 to 10-6 in 2017, a 7 game improvement.
Over the past two years, of the 24 playoff teams, 11 of them have had a quarterback on their rookie contract (counting the Eagles). Five teams over the past two years have had a first year Head Coach (Matt Nagy, Sean McVay, Doug Marrone, Sean McDermott and Frank Reich). Five teams over the past two years have had a Head Coach who has made the playoffs multiple times within his first four years of being on the job. There have been 19 different playoff teams in the NFL over the past two years with only New England, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Philadelphia making back to back appearances.
The Jets playoff drought remains a mathematical anomaly in a league with so many quick turnarounds and filled with so much parity, at least when it comes to playoff appearances. Five year building plans don’t exist in a league where every contract has an easy out after one or two years, nearly all teams are flush with cap space flexibility and rookie quarterback contracts leave immense gobs of spending room to build the rest of your roster. Forget five years, three year building plans don’t exist.
What Is Enough? When Is Enough, Enough?
The Jets overachieved on the backs of aging veterans against a soft schedule in 2015 and made the mistake of doubling down to failed results in 2016. They gutted everything in 2017 but then got worse from a record perspective in 2018, despite adding a quarterback and having 100 million in cap space to utilize. Maccagnan kept his job because he found a quarterback (and because he has an impressionable interim owner and a friendly media ecosystem around him) but his job is not to find a quarterback…it is part of his job but his job to field a competitive roster. He has failed at that job in four of his five years. From a front office perspective, time is up. The Jets should be competing for a playoff spot this year, considering the amount of cap space that has been available and the amount of top six draft picks that have been utilized.
From a coaching perspective, Adam Gase has went one for three on coaching a playoff contending team. (Sorry, we aren’t counting last year’s 7-9 Dolphins who were wiped out their final three games by non-playoff teams and only didn’t go 5-11 thanks to Spencer Long and the Miami Miracle). From a Jets PR/fan perspective: The narrative is that Gase was failed by his personnel executives and will be improved with better support there. The narrative is that Maccagnan was failed by his coaching staff and will be improved with better support there. Both should theoretically be receiving that now, providing a bump to Gase’s career 48 winning percentage and Maccagnan’s career 37 winning percentage.
With all the above under consideration, this should be a team who is .500 or better and playing meaningful football into the final two weeks of the regular season. Based on resume, Gase should have a longer leash to show improvement than Maccagnan but if Maccagnan is held to the standard he should be, he will be pushed out first if the team is underachieving which would leave Gase’s evaluation in the hands of a newly hired General Manager. It is not an ideal situation but it is the situation the Jets set up by not fully cleaning house after 2018.
At the end day, the thin lines between 7-9 and 9-7 need to be accurately, candidly assessed. There is no excuse for 6-10 or worse that doesn’t merit everybody being fired. There is no excuse for 10-6 or better that doesn’t merit everybody being back and celebrated for a massive step forward. When you are looking in-between those numbers, it shouldn’t be about selling a narrative of progress at 7-9 or 8-8, if the team was actually worse than that record indicated, just like 8-8 or 9- 7 shouldn’t be scoffed at, if the team was better than that record indicated and has further context of development of young players, an ability to beat playoff teams and avoidance of no show/blowout games.
This is not an easy question to answer but Jets fans (and ownership) have every right not to be patient at this point. Ownership in particular should be demanding playoff caliber football for the duration of Darnold’s rookie contract, starting right now. If you accept a mediocre product, you will continue to receive a mediocre product.