The end of the Super Bowl yields power and extended responsibilities for the New York Jets
Happy New Year, New York Jets fans.
Sure, we’re far beyond the greeting’s normal statute of limitations set forth by notable Gang Green fan (and new face of cryptocurrency) Larry David, but the NFL’s yearly calendar has officially flipped upon completion of Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles. It’s a new year’s celebration marked by a countdown, musical guests, and this one even featured a ball drop.
As of Monday, standings columns are emptied, points ledgers are scrubbed clean. Essentially, each of the NFL’s 32 squads is undefeated.
Super Bowl Sunday is a day often defined by hope. The final hours before kickoff are no exception. Even Jets fans, those farthest from their last Super Bowl taste at 53 years, often commemorate the day by observing the anticipation felt by the supporters of the evening’s competing clubs and assuring their green brethren that they too will be visited by those February butterflies that migrate only to the towns of conference champions.
Jets fans..,one of these Sundays in February will be ours. Eventually.
— Brandon Tierney (@BrandonTierney) February 13, 2022
Thus begs the question: how do the Jets get back to that fateful day?
Let’s start by getting the cold hard truth out of the way immediately: it’s not happening next season, barring the unforeseen folding of multiple franchises. Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor was any NFL dynasty. It’s downright cruel to ask the Jets to erase five-plus decades of Super Bowl futility in a single swoop, especially with the team mired in what’s the NFL’s longest active playoff drought by far (11 seasons).
With that in mind, Jets X-Factor opens the NFL’s calendar year by pondering the current state of Gang Green and the expectations behind it.
Take Flight to make it right
One thing that the era of general manager Joe Douglas has accomplished is that it has developed a reputation of attacking New York’s needs head-on.
Mike Maccagnan, Douglas’ immediate predecessor, sank the Jets further into the gridiron abyss by opting for flair rather than necessity. One of his final big-ticket moves, for example, was to grant Le’Veon Bell $27 million in guaranteed money, spurning needed blocking help like Rodger Saffold and Mitch Morse. Over $19 million of that total is being paid through dead cap space after Bell lasted less than two seasons in green while Saffold and Morse are staples on the starting lines of consistent contenders.
By contrast, Douglas has, at the very least, checked boxes on the offseason checklist by finding replacements. The past two offseason budgets were primarily spent in the name of the franchise quarterback’s comfort, be it Sam Darnold or his successor Zach Wilson. The high-profile acquisitions of his first offseason at the helm were of the blocking variety, as George Fant, Connor McGovern, and Greg Van Roten helped partly atone for years of blocking negligence under Maccagnan.
Working through his third full year in the New York front office, Douglas’ greatest strength has been asset management. The Jets have a healthy amount of cap space to work with, armed with just over $48 million as the new year rolls through.
Little more needs to be said on how he converted the rollercoaster antics of disgruntled safety Jamal Adams into two first-round picks. A year later, Douglas turned Darnold (a career 76.9-rated passer) into a second-round pick from Carolina and two additional draft picks (fourth and sixth rounds).
In the 2020 draft, Douglas had his cake and ate it too by picking up a potential shutdown blocker in Mekhi Becton and a big-play receiver in Denzel Mims. The general manager repeated the feat the following spring. He shipped one of the Adams picks to Minnesota in an effort to move up on the draft board and take interior protector Alijah Vera-Tucker.
Wilson’s cabinet also earned a big-play target in Elijah Moore, his arrival coming just over a month after Douglas acquired the best receiver a rebuilding two-win team’s money could buy in Corey Davis.
Adding a big-budget running back is likely out of the question after the Bell disaster, but Douglas and Co. have appeared to have found a diamond in the fourth-round rushing rough through North Carolina’s Michael Carter.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) January 20, 2022
While Wilson and his cabinet need to showcase further progress, the Jets appear to be using ink on their offensive blueprints. Now, there’s an opportunity to highlight the other side of the ball moving forward, to make New York defenses scary again.
As several pivotal playoff points proved (i.e. San Francisco’s snowy slugfest in Green Bay), a good, reliable defense can still neutralize the NFL’s downright horrifying offensive units. While the Jets will undoubtedly look into further Wilson weaponry, expect them to bolster a defense woefully thin on proven talents. There’s certainly potential, but Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh need to have a little bit more certainty as they embark on another year together.
The 2022 season has already started. pic.twitter.com/DGk8SZ4oA3
— New York Jets (@nyjets) February 14, 2022
Nothing to lose… in a make-or-break year
It’ll likely never occupy the air of a Super Bowl halftime show, but Bob Dylan famously closed out “Like a Rolling Stone” by declaring “when you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
With the Jets’ playoff drought at 11 seasons, that might be where they’re at from a franchise perspective. But for Douglas and Saleh, next year could mean everything.
Playoffs might still be a little too much to ask for at this point in time, though the extra wild card slot makes the light at the end of the tunnel seem even a tiny bit closer. Brutal as this past 4-13 season was to bear, the Jets earned some intriguing wins over playoff contenders from Tennessee and Cincinnati, earning the latter triumph with their backup quarterback.
In fact, had the Jets held on for 15 more seconds against the defending champions from Tampa Bay in their Week 17 matchup, some bold prognosticators might’ve labeled them a playoff darkhorse entering 2022.
But one thing’s for sure: four wins, while cute in the sense that it doubled 2020’s output and was half-built against playoff squads, isn’t going to cut it next year.
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There’s a plan to make things right in Florham Park/East Rutherford. Saleh is a cool, collected prescience rarely seen amongst the perpetual rebuilders. Wilson’s stats were mediocre at best, but rational analysts are willing to give him a mulligan thanks to injuries and factors beyond his control. Douglas, as described above, has managed the Jets’ assets well.
But the proverbial leashes of NFL decision-makers are shorter than ever. By casting out both Adam Gase and Darnold and entering his third offseason as general manager, Douglas is officially responsible for whatever happens to the Jets moving forward. He’s no longer playing with “Macaggnan’s Team”, it’s his. Gang Green’s oval logo is now smudged with his fingerprints and teams’ patience is at an all-time low.
The latest batch of head coach firings featured three coaches with two years or less at the helm: the Giants bid Joe Judge farewell after one, while the Houston Texans opted not to bring back David Culley after one. In Jacksonville, Urban Meyer couldn’t even last a full, single NFL season before even the lowly Jaguars tired of him.
The playoffs might still be a pipe dream, but the Jets at least have to place themselves in the “In the Hunt” columns come December.
Adding to the Douglas/Saleh urgency is their relatively sweet set-up before the offseason even gets truly rolling. the Jets’ staff was called upon to coach in the 2022 Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL, giving the team a valuable inside look at the prospects whose names they’ll write on the upcoming draft cards.
Too much is required for an instantaneous fix, but there’s certainly a precedent for Senior Bowl staffs to enjoy future success. Saleh, for example, was part of the San Francisco group that guided the South squad in 2019. At that time in the following year, he was preparing for Super Bowl LIV while Zac Taylor and the Bengals groups took over for him in Mobile. Taylor, of course, wore the top headset for Cincinnati in Sunday’s Big Game.
There's only one Zach Wilson. pic.twitter.com/Q02SrpQzAO
— JUN (@jetupnationcrew) February 14, 2022
Playtime’s over for the players
The players aren’t entirely blameless in this endeavor. It’s some for some valuable, committed names to live up to the potential the Jets saw in them.
Douglas has found the right pieces of the puzzle, but they’re starting to form an ugly picture. Becton had a strong first season but Saleh has held no secrets about a coming competition for the offensive line anchor position between him and Fant after a 4-6 week medical absence became a whole year.
Many Jets fans have already bid their metaphorical farewells to Mims after the new staff’s confidence in him seemingly plummeted overnight. For the time being, only fifth-rounder Bryce Hall appears to be an assured long-term option from the 2020 draft class.
On the free agency front, Davis failed to fulfill the No. 1 receiver potential that’s been placed upon him since his Tennessee days (eventually losing the Titans’ honor to A.J. Brown) while newly-minted $15 million man Carl Lawson missed the entire 2021-22 season with a preseason injury.
To cap it all off, any progress from the Jets’ 2021-22 campaign would be predicated (unfairly, but this is the way the modern NFL works) on any progress Wilson made under center. The second overall pick from last spring undoubtedly stepped his game up after returning from an October injury – he notably developed a intriguing mobile game and he hasn’t thrown an interception since the pink Advent candle was lit (his last five games).
But, even with his medically induced absence, it’s safe to say that Wilson’s nine touchdown passes and zero 300-yard games will not be tolerated in this league.
Of course, the most important metric Wilson can be judged upon (again, unfairly) is wins. A 2021 draft classmate learned this in both the easy and hard way. While clearly the early standout of the throwing group (if only by default), Mac Jones was able to mask his shortcomings by piloting a postseason team. It undoubtedly helps that he was able to do so in lauded New England, but some early wins helped mask his weaknesses, some of which came to light in the Patriots’ one-sided Wild Card loss in Buffalo.
No matter what happens, progress must be the theme of the Jets’ 2021-22 season. That seems like an obvious statement but the team has waded too deep into the NFL’s most dreary cesspool.
Even though several offseason landmarks linger (i.e. the draft, free agency), it’s fine to place a reasonable minimum on the team if they want to avoid further wholesale changes this time next year.
Again, playoffs still seem like a tall ask (primarily thanks to the idea that the division belongs to Western New York until further notice), though that could change pending further developments. For now, it’s perfectly acceptable to place a number and an accomplishment ledger that would afford the Jets a quantum of comfort if their drought extends to another season.
The Jets’ latest success stories have come mostly through small budget breakouts but their big ticket, marquee attractions must start producing if they’re going to get anywhere. It’s great that the team was able to top playoff contenders, including the AFC champion, in 2021, but beating the Titans and getting shut out by the mediocre Denver Broncos isn’t “cute” anymore.
As they stand, the Jets aren’t perfect and no amount of 2022 offseason work is going to get them to that point. For now, there’s a reasonable, uniform goal to obtain, one whose reaching should get easier if New York plays its offseason cards right.
The reasonable goal: 7 wins, “In The Hunt” column
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags
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