Bringing back Braxton Berrios could be the spark that ignites the Jets’ offensive fire
The best thing one could arguably say about the 2021-22 New York Jets season is that it created a healthy amount of distance between Gang Green supporters and the brutality of the prior campaign.
Even by the Jets’ star-crossed standards, the 2020 season was a disaster, a two-win horror show where Adam Gase’s voyage of the damned reached depths of the gridiron underworld that even the cursed Rich Kotite era managed to avoid.
The most recent campaign was obviously nowhere near perfect, but they were at least able to double their win total from the prior year and might as well have been a Super Bowl run compared to 2020. Last season begot its own sense of green-tinted goofiness, but nothing in the vein of the constant civil war denials and effortless Sundays that defined the start of the decade and fulfilled Jamal Adams’ harshest condemnation: the team didn’t want to win.
In contrast, a majority of the most recent New York pratfalls were caused by injuries and inexperience.
Yet, as the Jets embark on what’s sure to be a fateful offseason, the road ahead feels vaguely familiar – almost like the Jets have been here before.
Disastrous as the 2020 season was, expectations were never all too high in the first place, which was, in hindsight, made all the more disappointing by the fact the Jets failed to fulfill them. The season’s ultimate yield may be its role in ending the Sam Darnold regime and place the Jets on the path currently led by Zach Wilson. As Wilson moves toward his second season under center, the Jets must do everything in their power to avoid Darnold deja vu.
Step one could be painting Braxton Berrios’ future green.
One of the primary factors in Darnold’s decline was the fact that his offensive cabinet was constantly featuring new faces every time he opened it. Thanks to his chaotic, post-Christian McCaffrey injury experience in Carolina, more are convinced that Darnold might not be cut out for franchise quarterbacking duties at the NFL level.
But there’s no doubt that the constant turnover played a role in Darnold’s metropolitan breakup. For example, all but one of Darnold’s offensive weapons from his freshman year (the unreliable Chris Herndon) was gone by Week 1 of the tumultuous 2020 season. The names on the Jets’ offensive line changed more than those on the old departure board at Grand Central Terminal.
Such turnover was defined by the fact that Darnold worked with three different primary centers (Spencer Long, Jonotthan Harrison, and Connor McGovern) in his three seasons. The less said about his rushers (headlined by Le’Veon Bell’s failed redemption and the Frank Gore farewell tour) the better.
One of the biggest reasons the Jets had hope for Darnold was the early rapport he was able to develop with Robby Anderson. The end of their first collaboration was perhaps the most legitimate hope the Jets had in terms of a long-term quarterback/receiver battery since Ken O’Brien was throwing to Al Toon and/or Wesley Walker.
With Darnold coming back to man the Jets’ offense after a foot injury ate away at the middle stages of his debut, he and Anderson united for 312 yards on 20 receptions (including three scores) in three of the Jets’ final four games. The capper was a 140-yard output from Anderson during a forgotten classic where the Jets went toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers and a Green Bay Packers team in a rare meaningless game.
True to the Jets’ cursed nature, football fate intervened when Darnold was befallen by further medical woes (including his unfairly lampooned bout with mononucleosis). The connection didn’t get the required further fostering, but Anderson nonetheless remained one of Darnold’s favorite targets.
Upon Darnold’s return from the illness, he and Anderson hooked up for one of the longest tallies of the 2019 NFL season, a 92-yard scoring hookup that fueled the Jets’ interconference upset of the Dallas Cowboys.
— Moving The Chains Podcast 🎙 (@_MTCPodcast) October 13, 2019
Alas for Darnold’s New York endeavors, the Jets did little to retain Anderson’s services after he hit free agency at the onset of 2020.
One could hardly blame Anderson if he didn’t want to be a part of what the Jets had to offer – he told Alaina Getzenberg of the Charlotte Observer that the dour proceedings in New York were making him “lose (his) love for football”, after all – but the team let him move on without much of a fight and could only watch when he summitted the 1,000-yard plateau upon moving to the Panthers just over a year before they likewise shipped Darnold to Charlotte.
Among Darnold’s top targets in his final season sans Anderson were a first-round washout (Breshad Perriman), a New England antique (Chris Hogan), a rookie whom the next coaching administration almost immediately cast aside (Denzel Mims), and a talented slot specialist who will likely move elsewhere this spring (Jamison Crowder).
In the post-Darnold/Anderson landscape, the Jets have done what they can to ensure Wilson enjoys some form of continuity. They prepared for his arrival by stocking the roster with longer-term deals on the line (with 2023 free agent George Fant paying the best dividends so far, though the $9 million in cap savings upon his potential release could be something to keep an eye on moving forward) and in the skill sets.
Excess cap space allowed general manager Joe Douglas to offer Corey Davis a three-year deal to prove that he can be a top franchise target. In the draft, Alijah Vera-Tucker joined fellow first-rounder and Darnold era holdover Mekhi Becton (whose year-long medical woes allowed for Fant’s breakout) while the Jets also found potential staples-to-be in Elijah Moore and Michael Carter.
But Berrios could be the key to unlocking Wilson’s true potential and a way to make up for the relative sin of letting Anderson walk away.
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Flashes of Berrios’ brilliance seeped through the cracks of the Jets’ woebegone 2020 season. After ranking second in the league in punt return average in 2019, he caught 37 passes for 394 yards and three touchdowns over limited snaps in 2020, later catching the Jets’ most famous touchdown of the season, a 42-yard score earned through Crowder-based trickery.
Braxton Berrios takes flight!! ✈
Jamison Crowder throws a dime for some Jets trickery and a TD
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) December 27, 2020
But when injuries ate away at the Jets’ top offensive prospects, Berrios turned himself into the ultimate weapon one could obtain when trying to nurture a rookie quarterback.
Berrios’ special teams prowess has become valuable enough. There’s no better way for a rookie quarterback to feel more confident than some strong starting field position and Berrios is more than capable of providing that. The last seven games of 2021 with Berrios back deep to return saw him average over 35 yards a kick return in a stretch that undoubtedly played a sizable role in earning him the All-Pro accolades that keep rolling in.
By no coincidence, the Jets’ offense started to click and find a consistent rhythm. Wilson and Co. broke 20 points four times in that span (doing so three times beforehand). Berrios’ impact was also felt on punts, as he averaged over 13 yards on nine runbacks.
But Berrios also gave Wilson perhaps his most consistent form of offensive stability and consistency beyond perhaps only Carter. With both Davis and Moore sidelined with long-term issues, Berrios played a bigger role in the Jets’ broader offensive picture, picking up 263 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage over the final six games. Through that role, he helped Wilson develop the most valuable skills of all: confidence and chemistry.
— NFL (@NFL) January 2, 2022
When Wilson needed a crucial completion, Berrios was his man. Even with the injuries, the 2021 Jets were a team that had stockpiled the talents of several established receivers. Yet, Wilson made his stance on the former New England draft pick abundantly clear after the Jets’ final win of the season over Jacksonville.
Berrios already had the crowning achievement of that weekend through a 103-yard run to glory on a kick return. But as the Jets were looking to seal to deal, Wilson called his name four times on the final 11-play drive, including a crucial nine-yard third down. The initial pass was short of the line to gain, but he eventually broke through the imaginary yellow bar and endured a big hit from Andre Cisco and Tyson Campbell to pick up the vital first down.
The Jets would eventually earn a field goal on the drive, one that created a 26-21 lead and forced the visiting Jaguars to go for a touchdown they failed to earn on their own last possession.
Per notes from the Jets, Wilson said there was “not another dude I want in that position besides” Berrios.
“That guy, he is tough, and he hangs in there. You can see his passion and drive every single game we go out there and just play ball,” Wilson said. “That guy’s an absolute baller. Get playmakers the ball in critical situations like Brax right there and he’ll make it happen.”
Free agency decisions for a team trying to end a long playoff drought, especially those who produce in a “contract” year, always come down to money. While sizable and currently fourth-best in football, the Jets aren’t yet blessed with the financial windfall they had last year (potential cap casualties include Fant, McGovern, Sheldon Rankins, and Ryan Griffin, who would net the Jets over $27 million in space).
Breaking open the bank would definitely be an overreaction and it would be insane on Berrios’ part to ask for the top dollar. Compromise and discussion must prevail on both sides.
But can the Jets – a franchise desperate for any form of stability and reliability, a group that’s been searching forever for a long-term playmaker – really afford to let a relative godsend, a redemptive chance at making things right at receiver, walk away?
The Jets are a team that’s still at least another year away from realistic playoff contention. For the third consecutive season, a healthy goal would be to appear in the “In the Hunt” column on the classic playoff charts the league’s broadcasters use as Advent calendars.
The last time there were realistically optimistic expectations in New York came when Anderson was still around. His southern defection obviously isn’t solely responsible for the mire the Jets are currently trapped in, but it’s an underrated point on the franchise timeline that could’ve perhaps been avoided with some semblance of negotiation and a broader look at the future.
There’s an opportunity to make things right now. The chance to do so with Anderson has long passed, but they can do something right with Berrios. Entering a crucial third full offseason and set to oversee Wilson’s vital second season, Douglas and Co. might have no other choice but to accept such a redemption.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags
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