New York Jets: Time Is A Flat Circle

David Aitken on the New York Jets problems being more complex than just a one person issue

For the past decade, the post-Parcells core Jets have followed a similar path: hire a new coach and/or general manager, surpass low expectations in year one, try to build on that fragile success, fail to meet increased expectations, blame someone and fire them. Repeat. And here the Jets are, 3-6 after a 10-6 season, 26-38 the four years prior, and the hot seat is warming up again.

By Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric for overall team efficiency, the Jets are the 31st best team in the league. You can point to a number of reasons why the team has regressed so terribly, but let’s look big picture. By that same metric, the Jets finished 9th last year, 27th in 2014, 24th in 2013, 27th in 2012. 2015 was not the start of something special, but the outlier of a sad reality of how far off this team is. The band aids that led to a 10-6 team last year have worn off and can no longer stop the bleeding. Some of that falls on Todd Bowles, both in terms of any personnel say he has and roster management. But there’s also a second-year GM escaping blame for decisions that all of a sudden don’t look as bright from year one and a second year he cannot wait to put behind him. And as a pair, whether by influence of ownership or not, there was that same attempt to build on year one by keeping the veteran core all together at it’s own peril (Fitzpatrick, Wilkerson) rather than make the smart long-term (and arguably short-term) decisions needed to put this team on the right track. Smart, patient decision making has not been this team’s MO for a while.

So at this point where the Jets once again seem no better than they were two seasons ago, there are two questions that must be answered. Will the Jets actually go with the start from scratch approach that is quite clearly needed after this year? If the answer is no, we’re probably just in for more of the same. Maccagnan and Bowles get “one more year” to basically do 2015 over again, and hope some of those draft decisions in 2015 and 2016 come good. If the answer is yes, is it worth giving Bowles and Maccagnan what is essentially a reset?

Bowles has taken the most heat. Undeniably, the fact that he is facing the media weekly compared to the public scarcity of Maccagnan or owner Woody Johnson is factoring in. His stubbornness in defense of veterans, which could just as well be an organizational decision, is falling squarely on him publicly. His “I’m always disinterested and slightly annoyed” attitude to press conferences also doesn’t help.

Let’s not misconstrue, Bowles’ flaws deserve attention in the spotlight. It hasn’t been a good year for him in several cases. He has not developed as a game-day manager, calling games more like a defensive coordinator and less like a head coach. He fully admitted he wasn’t paying attention in the Bills game when they should have decided to go for two late in the game and instead kicked the PAT. He’s done little to inspire confidence that he can have the Jets punching above their talent level, one thing for all of his flaws Rex could manage in spurts. He’s mismanaged situations on game day as well as personnel as a defensive mind. Unlike his defensive philosophy, he has shown a complete unwillingness to take risks with in-game decisions and playing new players. Now it sounds like the locker room might be falling apart.

Still, I think Bowles is getting a raw deal right now. I’m not convinced he’s a good head coach, but I’m not convinced he’s a disaster at the helm either. Simply put, I think he’s been just “ok.” He’s gotten too much credit for last year and is taking most of the fault for this year. Firing Bowles could make sense if there was overwhelming evidence that he would hold back a good team, but is that really the case? The Jets won 10 games last year and were competitive nearly every single week. Penalties weren’t a problem. The bad teams were handled, the losses came in (mostly) close games to teams of similar talent level, they managed a win against a superior New England team. Bowles was not exactly a coach of the year candidate in his first season, but they weren’t on this run in spite of his leadership either. The team simply came out every week prepared and played more or less to their talent level. That’s not an outstanding job, but not something to take for granted either.

When this season started turning sour, his honeymoon period abruptly came to an end and fair criticisms were raised. But as the wheels come off entirely, is this season something he could have really saved? Poor game management and a futile attempt to push on with veterans has been tough to watch, but the Jets are being outclassed each week mostly on the strength of the roster. There are no real alternatives that are going to turn around the team in the stead of Ryan Fitzpatrick or Darrelle Revis. The outrage of playing Fitzpatrick after Geno Smith’s injury is less about there being someone better on the bench and more about preferring to watch a team suck with a younger, fresh face at the helm.

Those two young quarterbacks are an important part of this equation, and for some reason the conversation of why aren’t they playing is laid more at Bowles rather than at Mike Maccagnan, architect of this roster. Maccagnan won Executive of the Year as a rookie GM, almost exclusively on the back of shrewd short-term signings. But when the term “competitive rebuild” is used, the latter word is more important than the former. How, after two years, has the rebuild looked so far?

Uncertain, to say the least. The selection of Leonard Williams had this regime off to a strange start – how often does the best player in the draft fall to you, and it’s at literally the only position on the roster where you’re stacked with great young players? His selection was both a gift and a problem, and one Maccagnan has yet to solve. Williams has been an instant hit, but not without questions of opportunity cost that will continue to linger until one of Wilkerson or Richardson is moved.

What is there to make from the rest of the haul from two drafts? It’s a lot of question marks. Some good ideas, but questionable execution. In theory, the idea of being aggressive each year getting new blood in at quarterback until something hits makes some sense. Speed in the front seven has been a need, there’s been a concerted effort from the start to make it happen with day one and day two draft capital. But we can’t say those ideas have been executed well as of yet. A lot of how these two drafts will be looked at years from now depends on what the Jets get from Lee, Mauldin and Jenkins as starters. The group of receivers the Jets came away with in the 7th and UDFA in the 2016 draft has been arguably the highlight.

But looking back at the 2015 GM/HC search, if there was one thing any Jets fan would have demanded Woody Johnson prioritize when hiring, it would be finding the team it’s long-term quarterback. There needs to be serious questions about this regime’s quarterback eye already, and that falls on Maccagnan. Bryce Petty doesn’t have starting ability right now and probably never will. Petty the prospect was a long-term project entering the league at 24-years-old. The odds were always against him, more so than the average 4th round pick at quarterback. Still, to have one developmental quarterback on the roster and to take him in the mid-rounds is not a terrible strategy. To go into the following draft though and use a second-round pick on the polarizing project of all projects at quarterback seems insanity. It leaves the Jets in year-two of this “competitive rebuild” with a failing starting veteran and no actual hope to turn to. Fitzpatrick starting over Petty makes no sense for a team not going anywhere, but it’s just as much a sign of how far away Petty and Hackenberg are than it is Fitzpatrick getting special treatment as a veteran.

It’s hard to really put into words how frustrating a pick Christian Hackenberg was. He is the kind of player you could talk yourself into in a situation the Jets had drafted Petty in. There would be no problem admitting he was a project, but with youth on his side and some tools to work with and no real pressure to start.  By taking him in the second round, he’s become this regime’s QBOTF™ and all the pressure and expectations that come with it. Even if they liked Hackenberg’s potential, the sheer odds of him reaching it are low. Players that are not good in college tend not to figure it all out somehow in the pros. And if he somehow does resemble a starting quarterback at some point, it’s not going to be in 2017. Are the Jets really going to be that patient?

A “competitive rebuild” is a hard thing to balance by nature, and requires calculated risks to not make too many decisions that weigh on the short-term at the expense of the long-term. In most cases the contracts for players signed in 2015 are solid enough in terms of giving the team control from 2017 onward, but last year there were new decisions made that prioritized stability for it’s own sake. Maccagnan caved in on Ryan Fitzpatrick, paying him 12 million to guarantee he’s in camp despite competing against nobody for his services. Now the team is on the hook next year for $5 million for a player who probably won’t even be on an NFL roster in 2017. Bringing back Wilkerson was celebrated when it happened at the 11th hour, but was it in the team’s best long-term interest? Now we know he’s far from the model team leader some thought he was.

They’ve made mistakes. Will they get the opportunities to learn from them and start over? Whether you’re a staunch backer of the two or you’ve had enough already, the decision has to be pragmatic: who are the alternatives? Is there an opportunity to hire a proven winner on the horizon? Probably not. To fire Bowles and/or Maccagnan for an opportunity to hire a special candidate is one thing, but those opportunities are few and far between. They’re nearly nonexistent, in fact. If either of Maccagnan or Bowles go, the Jets are looking at hiring a first-timer from a limited pool of recent impressive coordinators/executives that are looking at their first real head gig. It’ll be just like Bowles, and it’ll be just like Rex Ryan, Eric Mangini and Herm Edwards before him. Remember, Bowles was hired off the back of being named Assistant Coach of the Year and with an impressive list of mentors while Maccagnan was the choice of a consulting brain trust that had built multiple Super Bowl winning rosters.

It is fair to bring them both back for year three, but what will be their approach and measure for success? This is not a patient market nor a patient ownership. Regardless of how much improvement the Jets are actually capable of from this year to next, Bowles and Maccagnan are both in year three of their project. Does that make playoffs the expectation? Will there be an acknowledgement that this team is far away from having a real core capable of consistently competing for the playoffs? To bring them both back is to give them both the time to make this right, or else it’ll be the same old cycle we’re used to.

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