What Can Jets Learn from Other Turnaround Teams?

David Aitken with a look at how other franchises turned around prolonged stretches of poor play and what the New York Jets can learn from them…

The 2014 New York Jets hit rock bottom. Whoever inherited the team in 2015 was not inheriting a quick fix, despite the cap situation left by John Idzik. This year has been a crash back to earth to just how far the Jets still have to go. Below are a few examples of teams that were in a position similar to the Jets in one way or another fairly recently, and how they’ve turned it around. Let’s take a look at what everyone – from the fans and their expectations, the ownership, to the men in charge of running the team – can learn from these franchises.

Oakland Raiders

Patience.

The Oakland Raiders have not made the playoffs since 2002, a streak that looks likely to end this year. At the heart of this recent promise is a man they hired back in 2012 from Green Bay – General Manager Reggie McKenzie.

As bad as it has been at times recently for the Jets, it can’t touch the despair Oakland reached soon after their 2002 Super Bowl loss. Prior to 2012, the Raiders draft and pro personnel decisions were nothing short of embarrassing. The team had a top ten pick six times between 2002 and 2012, and the haul was: Robert Gallery, Michael Huff, JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden, Darius Heyward-Bey, and Rolando McClain. They also traded a 1st and 2nd round pick for “retired” quarterback Carson Palmer who would play just two seasons with the team, traded a top-ten pick for Randy Moss who also just played two seasons, and a 1st round pick for a 30-year-old Richard Seymour. The memory of being so close to a Super Bowl cast a shadow over the Raiders, and they tried to mask poor drafting with desperate win-now moves to regain that former glory. Sound familiar?

It is tough to admit because of where the Jets were talent wise between 2008 and 2010 and the fluke 8-8 season of 2013, but what Mike Maccagnan inherited was one of the worst rosters in football and one continuing to head in a downward trajectory due to half a decade of bad drafting. The 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 drafts all have no one left on the active roster, unless you want to count Antonio Allen being brought back this offseason as a reserve safety. That’s four of five years where not a single player worthwhile was found. 2011 in comparison looks fantastic, and all it landed was Wilkerson and Bilal Powell. 2013 brought Sheldon Richardson, but it also brought a wasted top ten pick, a 2nd round pick on a quarterback that has not panned out and probably is playing his last year with the team, and a replacement level guard in round three. Just two years ago the Jets entered the 2014 draft with 12 picks, and only 3(!) remain on the roster currently. Amongst the cuts are a 2nd round pick, two of three 4th rounders, and a 3rd round pick on the practice squad.

Similar to Maccagnan, McKenzie took the Raiders position as his first general manager job. At this very point in Macagnan’s tenure, Maccagnan’s roster has accumulated a 11-11 record, and the pressure is already starting to turn up after things don’t look as good now as they did a year ago. McKenzie after three years kept his job despite Oakland winning a combined 11 games over three entire seasons. McKenzie inherited a worse situation than Maccagnan in terms of cap and draft ammunition in year one, but McKenzie’s early returns still weren’t great.

There are growing pains, wins and losses. McKenzie’s first two drafts, a typical huge indication of a general manager’s long-term prospects, are not that special. In fact, they are actually pretty disappointing (though it’s unfair to hold 2012 against him with how many picks were traded away due to previous regime). The first ever first round pick his regime made in 2013, DJ Hayden, is a bust. Third round pick Sio Moore is no longer on the team. Fourth round pick and the first quarterback drafted by McKenzie, Tyler Wilson, did not even make it to the active roster as a rookie. There was a failed trade for Matt Flynn. Hitting on Carr at quarterback did not happen until year three. McKenzie’s first handpicked head coach (who he selected over keeping Hue Jackson), was fired into year three.

Spending to compete right away digs the team out of the cellar in the short term, but the youth rebuild still needs to happen regardless for the team to compete consistently. That project is one that spans multiple years, and Maccagnan too will make mistakes as a first-time GM just like McKenzie. Yes, it is important to hold a man responsible for building a competitive roster to a high standard, but putting intense pressure on him to turn this around quickly just brings the Jets back to square one. Unless there is an opportunity for an experienced, proven winner to take control of the franchise (that’s rare), the Jets should be giving Maccagnan real time.

Seattle Seahawks

Know when to admit defeat.

This is a challenge Maccagnan and Bowles are currently going through, and is one that can define their tenure here as things in year two get a little more tumultuous. Big money players are failing to perform like they did in year one and it took six games to bench the worst quarterback in the NFL, probably in part due to a 12-million dollar price tag.

There is a snowball effect that often buries coaches and general managers when a bad decision is made and they keep on going with the player in a desperate attempt to justify it rather than cut losses and move on. The steadfast backing of Ryan Fitzpatrick until this week is a good example.

Under GM John Schneider and HC Pete Carroll the Seahawks have become the definition of a consistent contender. They’ve pulled off some of the biggest steals in recent draft history, been aggressive in the trade market and opportunistic in free agency. Just as crucially, they haven’t been afraid to admit a mistake decisively and move on. It’s been crucial in both establishing a culture that fights against complacency and aggressively pursues “the next guy up” rather than trying to save lost causes.

They signed Matt Flynn on a 3-year deal worth 8 million annually in 2012, which isn’t too far off from signing a quarterback for 12 million in 2016. Though paying him “starter money,” Flynn still had to compete for his job and lost the starter role on merit to Russell Wilson (a third round pick rookie), never starting a game before being traded a year later. 2011 third round pick OG John Moffitt was traded away after just two seasons. Last year Cary Williams signed a 6 million annual deal as Byron Maxwell’s de facto replacement, but was swiftly cut midseason after poor performance. Perhaps the biggest example though is Percy Harvin, who Seattle acquired by giving up a first rounder in 2013 and a third rounder in 2014, and also signed to a six-year deal worth over 11 million annually and had over 25 million in guaranteed money. After missing nearly his entire first year due to injury, Seattle surprisingly traded him away midseason during his second year when it was clear he wasn’t fitting in.

There are plenty of overpaid starters on this team heading into the offseason. There’s an argument to cut Fitzpatrick once Petty is healthy. A veteran running back the team is locked into paying for two seasons is eating up too many carries. There’s an excellent young defensive lineman that continues to be shoehorned out of position as a linebacker due to overstocking at defensive end, exacerbated by Muhammad Wilkerson’s extension. Maccagnan has a Bachelors degree in economics, so he should be familiar with the concept of a sunk cost.

Cincinnati Bengals

Keep and seek additional draft picks in the first few rounds.

The thought ten years ago that the Jets could learn a lot by how the Bengals draft is insane, but they’ve really been one of the best teams in the league drafting since the turn of the decade.

Below is a chart I created starting from 2009. It compares not just the quantity of picks yearly the Jets have had compared to the Bengals, but compares the draft value using the footballperspective.com value chart the teams had annually. For additional reference, the draft value for an average draft (owning the 16th pick in each round) is also shown. The green/red shading is the score for each team relative to average.

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This chart shows to illustrate several things. For one, not only was the player grading poor for the Jets around the turn of the decade, but draft capital management was also terrible. That’s obvious when you recall the 3 and 4 pick drafts of 2009 and 2010 respectively, but 2011 and 2012 were still below average too. 2011 actually had the lowest score despite 6 picks, the result of having to wait until 30th to pick, lacking a 2nd rounder, having two essential throwaway picks in round seven. This chart also shows that Idzik was onto something with his accumulation of draft capital, though his execution left a lot to be desired.

The Bengals meanwhile consistently have at least 7 picks, often more and with the additional picks coming within the first few rounds. They’re below the average just twice, and that is due to having picks in the 20’s due to playoff runs. Yes, you need a quality scouting operation to get it right in the draft. But in a player acquisition arena as fortune-driven as the draft, giving yourself more quality swings of the bat goes a long way.

Photo Credit: NewYorkjets.com