ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:
1. Turning the calendar: Sunday marks the final game of the decade, a milestone that should elicit only one emotion: Good riddance.
The 2010s were bad for the Jets. The decade began with an 11-5 season and a trip to a second consecutive AFC Championship Game, and it ends with a meaningless game (at Buffalo, 1 p.m. ET, CBS) at the conclusion of a ninth straight season out of the playoffs. Maybe former coach Rex Ryan cursed the Jets by guaranteeing a Super Bowl before the 2011 campaign.
The Jets are 67-92 in the decade, a .421 winning percentage — 27th in the NFL. Let’s take a quick look back at the top themes, followed by an analysis of how they can learn from past mistakes as they head into the 2020s.
— Blunders by ownership: After presiding over five playoff seasons in the 2000s, the Johnson family made a handful of costly mistakes that prevented the franchise from building on its positive momentum. The common thread: bad hires and bad marriages. There were five coach-general manager tandems, three of which were undermined by dysfunction.
Owner Woody Johnson retained Ryan in 2013 and used an independent search firm to find his general manager. The result was John Idzik, a salary-cap expert with limited scouting experience. His mistakes, coupled with his toxic relationship with Ryan, left the organization in disarray.
Starting over in 2015, Johnson once again solicited outside help, hiring consultants Charley Casserly and Ron Wolf to lead the search for new football leadership. The Mike Maccagnan-Todd Bowles pairing, Casserley’s brainchild, was a union of football strangers. It slowly deteriorated.
Johnson left for London to work for President Donald Trump and in came CEO Christopher Johnson, whose inexperience and lack of decisiveness played out over a bizarre five months. He fired Bowles, kept Maccagnan, hired coach Adam Gase and, sensing a lack of synergy between Gase and Maccagnan, fired his GM after the draft. It wasn’t one of the franchise’s finest moments.
Lesson learned: Compatibility matters.
It took a decade, but maybe they finally got it right with Gase and Joe Douglas, who is about to embark on his first offseason as GM. No one knows if they will succeed in their respective jobs — Gase’s coaching performance certainly raised questions — but they have been friends for a few years and appear to be aligned philosophically. After all, Gase basically handpicked Douglas for the job. That could complicate matters in the future, considering both report to Christopher Johnson. Woody Johnson’s inevitable return from his ambassadorship could add a wrinkle. For now, Douglas and Gase are joined at the hip, preparing to attack the offseason and remake the roster according to their vision.
Ten starting quarterbacks in 10 years is not a recipe for success. Throw in Tim Tebow and Christian Hackenberg, a couple of all-time disappointments, and you’re talking about a decade of failure at the game’s most important position. The Jets probably will finish with the second-highest interception total of the decade. They have 175. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, receiving a late flurry from Jameis Winston, have 180. It’s no wonder the Jets’ offense finished 22nd or worse in total yards in eight of 10 seasons.
After failing with draft picks (Sanchez and Smith) and stopgaps (Fitzpatrick and McCown), the Jets finally have stabilized the position with Darnold, who in 2020 will be the first since Sanchez to start three straight opening days.
Lesson learned: It’s important to build around a young quarterback. The Jets failed with Sanchez and Smith, and, quite frankly, they’re not off to a great start with Darnold, who has yet to play behind a quality offensive line. He has two years remaining on his rookie contract, plus a team option. Douglas sees that as a window to build a championship-caliber team; he has no shot unless he upgrades the line. He also needs to improve the backup quarterback position. The Jets were 2-15 this decade with replacement starters, including 0-3 this season.
— Bad/narrow-minded drafting: Not only did the Jets blow a lot of high draft picks in the 2010s, but they also wasted many of them on the same type of player. In five of the 10 drafts, they used a first-round pick on a 300-pound defensive lineman — Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples, Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams and Quinnen Williams.
They should have an all-time defensive line, considering how much they invested in the position, but Quinnen Williams is the only one left on the roster. Of their 11 first-round picks in the decade (they had two in 2013), 10 were on the defensive side of the ball, with Darnold the lone exception. That’s inexcusable.
The inability to identify and develop talent is a major reason for the Jets’ current plight. Of the 71 players drafted in the decade, only two were selected to the Pro Bowl — Wilkerson and safety Jamal Adams (twice).
Lesson learned: Being different doesn’t mean being better. While the rest of the league was embracing the offensive revolution, the Jets remained stuck in a defensive mindset, perhaps because they had a defensive-minded coach for nine of the 10 years. Hello, anybody home? Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. The Jets never figured that out, which explains why they were 29th in scoring for the decade. Douglas needs to address the deficiency and invest resources to make it better, especially the offensive line, which hasn’t had a first-round pick since 2006.
— Money for nothing: Because of their poor drafting record, the Jets had to rely on free agency to fill holes, often overpaying for talent. It was a vicious cycle. They blew big money on Darrelle Revis 2.0 and Trumaine Johnson, who will be released. The Jets spent like crazy last offseason, but haven’t received much return from Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley (injured).
Lesson learned: Championships aren’t won in March. When will the Jets learn that? They won’t be a legitimate contender until they build through the draft and resist the temptation of the quick fix via free agency. It’ll be interesting to see what happens this offseason. They should have at least $80 million in salary-cap room, but that doesn’t mean they have to dole out market-setting contracts for other teams’ castoffs.
2. Bell’s hell: Bell’s lack of production will be one of the great debates of the offseason. How much of it falls on him? How much can be blamed on the offensive line, the system and coaching?
This is what makes football such a fascinating sport. As former coach Rich Kotite used to say (I can’t believe I’m quoting Kotite), “There are no cookbook answers.”
Based strictly on numbers, Bell has had a historically bad season. Only 4.4% of his rushing attempts — 10 out of 229 — have gone for at least 10 yards, the lowest percentage among players with at least 200 rushes in a single season over the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
No doubt, the offensive line has to shoulder its share of the responsibility for this staggering stat, but it would be wrong to exonerate Bell. Great running backs make defenders miss and make yards on their own. Bell hasn’t done that. As a result, he might barely get over the 800-yard mark. Who could have anticipated that at the start of the 2019 season?
3. Darnold vs. Allen: In the 2018 draft, the Jets rated Darnold the No. 1 quarterback in the class, followed by Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen. (They didn’t regard Lamar Jackson as a top prospect; neither did most teams.) In my opinion, Jackson and Allen have moved to the head of the class, based on production and team success. Darnold hasn’t developed as quickly as them, but he’s certainly capable of closing the gap.
“It’s pretty cool to see kind of how far everything has come since [Week 1],” Gase said of Darnold.
One area Darnold has to improve is his footwork. He has a tendency to throw before setting his feet, which can affect accuracy and velocity. That will be a coaching point in the offseason. One thing that puzzles the coaches: Darnold has a significantly better completion percentage when throwing to the left side of the field.
4. 20/20 vision: The Jets’ schedule for 2020 is almost set. Their non-divisional opponents:
With three West Coast trips, the Jets will be jetting a lot. Another certainty: The schedule will be a lot tougher than this season. In 2019, the Jets have had the easiest schedule in the league, per ESPN Stats & Info.
5. The last word: “We just didn’t start off fast enough. Whatever the reason, it’s irrelevant. We’ve played better in the back end of the season. There’s a lot better complementary football. Guys understand how we want to play week to week. Hopefully we can build off our experiences this year.” — Gase on the 2019 season.