New York Jets – The Optics Of Rebuilding

Joe Caporoso explores why New York Jets fans have more patience for a rebuild than they did a few years ago…

New York Jets fans have embraced low expectations for the 2017 season. There is more comfort than usual with the word “rebuilding” and already consistent chatter about positioning in the 2018 NFL Draft. This is year three of the Mike Maccagnan/Todd Bowles regime. Their current record is 15-17 with zero playoff appearances. It is fair to anticipate that record will remain under .500 and with zero playoff appearances after this season, yet the pitchforks are not out for Maccagnan, like they were for John Idzik by October of his second season. What has changed in these few shorts years and what does it have to do with personality, optics and football? 

The “Football Guy” 

The most common complaint about John Idzik was he was not a “football guy” but rather a “bean counter” accountant. This started him off on the wrong foot with Jets fans, who were exhausted of GMs without a scouting background after Mike Tannenbaum flamed out in 2011 and 2012. Mike Maccagnan came to the Jets with over a decade of scouting experience, primarily with the Houston Texans AKA a true “FOOTBALL GUY” (clipboards, notebooks, coffee, a reputation for spending long nights watching tape and all that good stuff any fan would want to hear about their new GM).

Via Rich Cimini

Well, at least they didn’t hire a bean counter/paper pusher, a la John Idzik. Maccagnan is all football. He worked the past few years as a front office executive, coordinating the Texans’ college scouting, but he also spent a lot of time on the road in a scouting capacity. This is what the Jets need — a GM whose roots are in player evaluation. Have you seen their roster? It’ll take a sharp personnel guy to fix their many problems. The last time they had a GM with a football background was Terry Bradway (2001-05). The Jets tried to sell Idzik as a “football man,” but he was in over his head. 

Due to his background and the framing of his hiring, Maccagnan came to the Jets with a high level of trust in his ability to draft, while there was more initial skepticism about Idzik. To his credit, Maccangan is also substantially better with the media than Idzik was. This is a big deal, especially in this market and social media ecosystem.

Most memorably, Idzik bombed the midseason press conference in his second year. If he does an average job in that presser, there is a decent chance he is not fired after the 2014 season. Yet, it was such an epic failure that it basically became its own meme and helped launch a very public campaign to have him fired.

Maccagnan isn’t a brilliant public speaker but he is measured and competent. The Jets have also done a better job of opening their doors to well known draft analysts since Maccangan’s hire. This is subtle but there is better relationships in place with a more diversified range of outlets, leading to more patient analysis of this front office’s performance. This shouldn’t be read as some sinister thing, it is smart media and public relations work. It was absent during Idzik’s tenure with the Jets.

The Scapegoat 

The perception of the General Manager goes hand in hand with the perception of the Head Coach. John Idzik was forced to inherit Rex Ryan, who was a media darling and the face of the team’s surprise back to back AFC Championship Game runs in 2009 and 2010. Rex is likable and has a well noted magnetic personality. He is also an incompetent coach, who began an increasingly rapid decline after the Jets 2010 playoff win over the  New England Patriots. The signs were there in 2011 and they have got worse every year since, culminating with him not even being able to make it through two years with Buffalo Bills and now spending his time brawling in Nashville bars.

All of Idzik’s misses in the draft were singularly pinned on him, despite Rex’s active involvement in the process. Rex was always happy to tell everybody himself about this, praising picks like Calvin Pryor, Tahj Boyd and IK Enemkpali and taking credit for them.

When you have a quiet, no name guy who struggles with the media and a loud, charming guy who held them in the palm of his hand, who is going to get the blame when both of them are bad? It is an easy answer.

The dynamic is currently switched. Despite perception to the contrary, Maccagnan was involved in the decision to hire Todd Bowles, despite not having him directly report to him (both men report to Woody Johnson).

Bowles is mild mannered and is average at best with the media. He struggled last season to explain his decision making and his demeanor on the sideline has been off-putting to many fans, leading to premature demands that Maccagnan should get to hire “his own” guy that reports directly to him.

Like Jets fans being tired of “bean counter” GMs, many were tired of defensive minded head coaches, where were previously coordinators. Bowles came in with a strike against him to many for having a somewhat similar background to Ryan, Eric Mangini, Herman Edwards and Al Groh.

There is always a desire to create a singular scapegoat for the team’s problems because that is an easier thing to solve than there being a multitude of problems in different layers of the organization. Maccagnan has also received the regular benefit of the doubt from many fans that all of his “incorrect” decisions were mandates from Woody Johnson, while all of his “correct” decisions came directly from him.

Similar to when Idzik was scapegoated, Bowles hasn’t helped himself with a poor performance in his second year. You can be bad at your job without being the singular problem of the organization, particularly if you are not receiving the required support from an essential co-worker.

The Results

As of now, it feels like the best thing Mike Maccagnan has done in 2+ years with the Jets is not give an Idzik like press conference or have a history of being a salary cap guru. Similar to Idzik, he has a season at .500 or better with no playoff appearance and then a season in the AFC East’s basement. He inherited a team with a high amount of cap space, a full collection of draft picks and limited talent outside of the defensive line, wide receiver and offensive line position. The team currently has less cap space, a full collection of draft picks and limited proven talent outside of the defensive line, wide receiver and offensive line position.

Despite having roster control since the end of the 2014 season, the two best skill position players on the offense (Quincy Enunwa and Bilal Powell) were acquired by John Idzik and Mike Tannenbaum. The second best offensive lineman, Brian Winters, was acquired by Idzik. On defense, two of their three best players (Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson) were acquired by either Idzik or Tannenbaum. Maccagnan made the lay-up selection of Williams but then limited the value of it by not being able to move Wilkerson or Richardson. Let’s also not forget, finding a defensive lineman in the first round who had a terrific first two years is something that both Tannenbaum and Idzik did.

Outside of the Williams selection, Maccagnan’s resume is packed with question marks. The 2015 class outside of him includes misses in Devin Smith, Jarvis Harrison and Bryce Petty (yeah, I’m calling it) and question marks in Lorenzo Mauldin and Deon Simon. He also gave up picks to acquire DeVier Posey, Zac Stacy, Brandon Marshall and Ryan Fitzpatrick…none of those players are on the team after two years and none of them gave the team more than one productive season. In the 2016, class, Darron Lee is more known for off the field news than on field play so far, Christian Hackenberg is a long shot at quarterback (Jets fans are already ready to tank for a quarterback to replace him) and while mid round picks like Brandon Shell, Juston Burris and Jordan Jenkins have shown promise, they still have plenty to prove.

In free agency, the only contract Maccagnan has handed out that has been a net positive is James Carpenter. This could change if Kelvin Beachum or Morris Claiborne pan out or if Buster Skrine bounces back from a rough 2016.

There still appears to be dysfunction at the top of the organizaiton, as Todd Bowles was thrown in front of the media yesterday to answer for the release of David Harris, which he clearly wasn’t aligned with or had just found out about. He became an easy punching bag online for how he handled questions but literally just ran a practice with him as his starting inside linebacker and was probably informed right after practice that Harris was cut.

The Conclusion 

Despite the blemishes on Maccagnan’s resume, many fans still remain confident in him because it is easier to pass the incompetence baton to the unpopular Bowles or Woody Johnson. Maccagnan’s scouting reputation and ability to work with the media has helped soften the blow on his accrued failed decisions. John Idzik never received the same benefit of the doubt because of his reputation as strictly a cap guy, struggles with the media and his pairing with a popular, well liked coach.

There were major flaws with both Rex Ryan and John Idzik, along with the organizational infrastructure throughout 2013 and 2014. Idzik was pressing the team towards the type of full blown rebuild the team is undergoing now but wasn’t allotted the patience for it because of the above issues. There are likely major flaws with both Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan, along with the current organizational infrastructure. Maccagnan is receiving more patience despite no further tangible proof that he is the man who should be leading a full blown rebuild. It is more likely than not that Bowles will be the one scapegoated for a likely ugly season in 2017, which could only be a half measure towards solving the team’s problems.

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Author: Joe Caporoso

Joe Caporoso is the Owner and EIC of Turn On The Jets. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, MMQB and AdWeek. Caporoso played football his entire life, including four years at Muhlenberg as a wide receiver, where he was arguably the slowest receiver to ever start in school history. He is the EVP of Content at Whistle Sports