Robert Saleh, NY Jets, Draft, Tank, Order
Robert Saleh, New York Jets, Getty Images

New York Jets fans face another rooting dilemma

We have reached a familiar point of the New York Jets‘ season. The team is already officially eliminated from playoff contention but still has to play four games with zero mathematical chance at a postseason berth.

Whenever the Jets reach this juncture, the fanbase begins to split. Some fans continue rooting for victories on a weekly basis, just hoping to see some winning football to enjoy. But others pivot their focus to the upcoming draft, looking for losses to help the team turn its misfortunes into a shiny reward that can supplement the future.

I sent out a tweet on Saturday asking fans about their rooting status as the Jets enter this four-game stretch of no-stakes football to close the 2021 season. The responses were mixed.

Let’s dig into some of the different rooting perspectives that Jets fans may have as they prepare for the final stretch of the 2021 season.

1. Root for losses to improve draft position

After a 2020 season in which much of the fanbase was already rooting for losses on a weekly basis in October, no fan entered the 2021 season hoping to do that again. But here we are.

Looking at the draft leaderboard, it is difficult not to be enticed by how high the Jets can climb.

Here is the draft’s current top-six as of the morning of Sunday, Dec. 19:

  1. Detroit (1-11-1, .536 SOS)
  2. Houston (2-11, .507 SOS)
  3. Jacksonville (2-11, .509 SOS)
  4. NY Jets (3-10, .500 SOS)
  5. NY Giants via Chicago (4-9, .518 SOS)
  6. NY Giants (4-9, .534 SOS)

The Jets are only one game back of the second overall pick and just 1.5 games back of the first overall pick. Plus, they have the lowest strength of schedule (SOS) of any team in the top-six, putting them in a position to win any tiebreaker (the team with a lower SOS wins draft tiebreakers and takes the higher slot).

Houston will face Jacksonville this week. One of those teams will (presumably) win to reach 3-11. If the Jets lose to Miami, they will likely surpass the winner of Houston-Jacksonville in the draft order thanks to the SOS tiebreaker, climbing to the third overall pick.

New York and Jacksonville will square off in Week 16 with major draft implications on the line. Should the Jets lose to Miami this week and then to Jacksonville the following week, there is a chance that the Jets could enter Week 17 positioned in the No. 2 slot with matchups against Tampa Bay and Buffalo ahead of them.

The 2022 draft features two special EDGE prospects that fans have become attached to: Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux and Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson. Both players have the talent to unleash the full potential of the 4-3 defensive scheme that the Jets are trying to instill long-term. Climbing into the top-two can ensure that the Jets get one of them – and there is a clear path for the Jets to get there.

All of this is music to the ears of any tank fan.

2. Root for wins to build promise

The problem with tanking for this iteration of the Jets is that the losses are being accrued by people who are important to the future of the team.

These are not the 2020 Jets with a lame-duck coach in Adam Gase and a lame-duck quarterback in Sam Darnold. These are not the 2018 Jets with a lame-duck coach in Todd Bowles and a roster full of disappointing veterans and uninspiring young prospects. These are not the 2017 Jets with no franchise quarterback and a barren roster featuring little useful talent.

No, these are the 2021 Jets, a team in the first year of a full-on restart that is loaded with promising young players who will be around in 2022 and is led by a coaching staff that will likely retain the vast majority of its members.

Robert Saleh is going to be here next year. So are Mike LaFleur and Jeff Ulbrich.

Zach Wilson is going to be here next year. So are Michael Carter, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Bryce Hall, Michael Carter II, Brandin Echols, Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, Bryce Huff – I can go on and on.

Wins by this Jets team are not meaningless. They would be earned by people who are important to the team’s future. These victories would represent valuable progress for young players and inexperienced coaches who are still learning how to win in this league on a consistent level.

Sure, it would be tantalizing to grab the second overall pick and take an amazing prospect like Thibodeaux and Hutchinson. But is it really that envious of a place to be in when the Jets would only be there because their core of franchise players and key coaches had such a bad year that they landed in the same draft slot as the 2020 Adam Gase-led team?

Imagine the Jets win two of the next four games and finish 5-12. That is nothing groundbreaking, but it would be a three-win improvement over 2020 and would be accomplished in spite of taking more damage from injuries than just about any other team in the league. It’s something the Jets can build off of.

If you want to drink some green kool-aid to energize yourself this morning, just imagine the future outlook of the Jets if they close with three or four wins to reach a 6-11 or 7-10 finish. Those win totals would leave fans feeling very positive about what the team is building going into 2022.

New York will make a bevy of improvements this offseason using its huge collection of draft picks and solid amount of cap space, but a good portion of the team’s 2022 opening-day starters are already in place, as are most of its coaches.

For this team, the long-term benefits of each victory are worth it for the price of dropping a draft slot or two. Plus, the Jets own Seattle’s first-round pick as well, so that does wonders to mitigate the damage of winning.

3. Root for development with no interest in the outcome

Another way to root for the team is to simply kick back and evaluate the progress of important pieces without caring whether the Jets win or lose. Final score be damned – all that matters is whether key young players are developing.

This is arguably the smartest approach to take when your favorite team enters this section of a season. The black-and-white nature of wins and losses is not what truly matters for the future of your team – what matters most is whether the players who will be around long-term are on the right track.

If Zach Wilson and other key future pieces play great and the Jets win because of it, that’s awesome! But if Wilson and other key future pieces play great and the Jets lose, it changes nothing about the positive long-term effects of their performances.

There is also such a thing as bad victories. If the Jets win a 7-6 game because of a punt return touchdown and a terrible opposing quarterback performance in spite of their defense leaving players wide open, all while doing nothing good offensively, then, yes, that’s a fairly meaningless win that does not do much for the future of the team. Losing to keep pace in the draft race would probably be a better result if the team puts out a performance like that.

For example, the Jets’ win over the Bills to close the 2019 season was a fairly bad win. Buffalo was playing its backups as it prepared for the playoffs and the Jets – using their starters – barely won, squeaking by 13-6. Franchise quarterback Sam Darnold played poorly and the defense wasn’t necessarily good, as it was just bailed out by a terrible Matt Barkley performance. There was little to feel good about and yet the Jets knocked themselves down the draft board.

Good losses are a thing, too. If the Jets lose four straight down-to-the-wire games in which Zach Wilson explodes and other key young players perform well – with the team losing because of scrap-heap replacements, backups, or players who are going to be replaced anyway – those are losses you can feel good about.

The Jets’ loss to the Packers in Week 16 of the 2018 season was a positive defeat. Darnold went toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers, quite a few other young players performed well, and the Jets lost in overtime to keep pace in the draft race. New York lost mainly because of players who were to be replaced anyway, such as Buster Skrine, Darryl Roberts, and Spencer Long.

Ultimately, regardless of whether the Jets win zero or four games across this final stretch, their success over the next four weeks will be determined by the progress of their important pieces. Watching each game without rooting for a win or a loss and instead focusing on individual talent development will help you evaluate the team through this much-important lens.

This mentality takes away the fun that comes with having a rooting interest, but it also removes the stress. Not to mention, the way you decide to root for the team does not affect the outcome anyway, so this approach lines up with that sobering fact.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at] - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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1 year ago

I’ll take #3 above. A good game by the important pieces but a loss to the Jags works for me. Those two things are likely incongruent, but young player development at this stage of the season plus draft positioning works better.

1 year ago

I always root for wins. This team needs a winning culture, and the draft is not a sure thing. I mean let’s look at some examples, root to loose, “Tank for Trevor, Suck for Sam, Tank for Tua” none of those are all that exciting at this point. In FACT Mr. Generational” from last year looks just a lost and bad as Zach at this point. Reality is, at this point if you had to pick between Lawrence and Wilson right now is it clear cut? Is Trevor Lawrence still a “generational talent”? What a joke. I root for wins.