Timing is everything in the NFL. Unless you have an elite quarterback or Head Coach (or both), the windows to field a competitive team snap open and shut quickly. The Jets have missed the playoffs for nine straight years mostly because of their incompetence in acquiring players but their timing has also never clicked together properly. 2020 does not have the makings of being an exception but it can be an unpredictable league. We are well into Joe Douglas’ first offseason as the team’s General Manager and the contours of a strategy and style are becoming apparent. The question now becomes, when does that strategy pay dividends in the continually elusive win column?
It is an imperfect and arguably impossible exercise to predict when a General Manager will succeed or fail. On paper, Douglas has a pedigree that qualifies him for his current position. In practice, he is seen alongside Sam Darnold as the answer to how the Jets finally become a competitive team. From his contract structure, comparative popularity to the Head Coach and the general media understanding of where the franchise is currently situated, he has a long rope and thus far this offseason, has acted like it.
Mike Maccagnan’s first offseason was marked by a feverish spending on veterans that provided a short term sugar rush to the organization before it almost immediately collapsed. John Idzik’s first offseason was not different in many ways from this offseason but he followed it with a repeat performance in 2014 that played like a double helping of vegetables paired with the sour milk of his drafting failures. Douglas has mirrored the free agency frugality of Idzik in some ways but has a resume and supporting cast that will hopefully lead to him drafting like Mike Tannenbaum did when he was paired with Eric Mangini.
We can argue specifics all day but if you are being a realist, the Jets currently have a bottom ten roster in the NFL. Free agency hasn’t changed that. They have made tangible improvements to their interior offensive line, taken a half step back at tackle and receiver, while likely taking a half step forward at cornerback. They are getting a boost at inside linebacker and at tight end by key players returning from injury but questions about durability remain on a concerning number of projected starters ranging from Alex Lewis (missed 7 games over the past 2 years), Greg Van Roten (missed 5 games last year) to Pierre Desir (missed 4 games last year) and George Fant who has never played over 63% of snaps in a regular season. Jets fans already know about CJ Mosley, Chuma Edoga and Chris Herndon’s missed time in 2019. Injuries and missed time are going to happen and the Jets depth is not robust enough yet to take many hits.
The good news is the NFL Draft is still on the way (along with more time to further boost the roster with lower cost signings). Ultimately, Douglas is going to sink or swim based on how he handles the portion of the offseason that has absolutely killed the Jets in recent years. It won’t just be about finding a plug and play cornerstone player in round 1. It will be about finding mid round talent to build depth and make life easier for Sam Darnold. The Jets need their version of Devin Singletary, Dawson Knox and Cody Ford that Buffalo found for Josh Allen on day two and three of the NFL Draft. The Jets need their version of Nick Chubb that the Browns found in round two for Baker Mayfield. The Jets need their version of Mark Andrews that the Ravens got in round three to ultimately help Lamar Jackson.
Douglas and the Jets organization are in a weirdly timed position. It was completely sensible not to go crazy in free agency this offseason, yet the clock is ticking on Sam Darnold’s development and rookie contract. You would also be hard pressed to find any credible Head Coach rankings that doesn’t put Adam Gase in the bottom five and his Offensive Coordinator, Dowell Loggains, in the bottom two, in the league at their respective roles. The offensive staff may yet turn a corner but it isn’t a sound bet that they can carry this roster to a winning record and/or a playoff appearance next season. Douglas and his newly constructed front office are acting more like they are gearing up to seriously compete in 2021…which in many ways makes sense.
Plans can change quickly in the NFL. Sam Darnold is the x-factor who may make “the leap” in year three to expedite any alleged planning. All the injury dominoes could fall right and a daunting schedule on paper could turn softer than expected for a multitude of reasons. The Jets made some upside bets in players like George Fant and Breshad Perriman that could hit and a historically good draft class can change things faster than you expect (remember the 2006 Jets coming out of nowhere to grab a wild card spot?).
A higher probability bet is the timing is again just a bit off for the Jets in 2020. Douglas doesn’t need to sugar rush Maccagnan fix the Jets, especially with a shaky Head Coach who could be on his final year. The Jets need Sam Darnold to make a jump but so far aren’t making it as easy as possible for him. With this organization, we don’t know if 7-9 or 8-8 will be celebrated as a success and everyone, including Adam Gase will be brought back, or if Woody Johnson will return to his former role waving a playoff mandate in the coming year or so.
For now, Jets fans need to root for a 2006 type transformational draft and a supporting cast around their young quarterback that makes a prospective “leap” as easy as possible on him. Even if a playoff run doesn’t happen in 2020, there is a world where the Jets offense gets demonstrably better on the back of Darnold’s talent and they enter 2021 with a coaching staff and roster that makes everyone as excited as their quarterback and GM does…