Joe Douglas and the NY Jets understand the NFL times are changing
When Bob Dylan wrote his classic, “The Times They Are a-Changin,'” in January 1964, the world felt unsettled.
The Vietnam War raged on under intense scrutiny, the United States of America was recovering from John F. Kennedy’s untimely assassination, Civil Rights were the topic of an entire nation, and flower children started to slowly come out of the woodwork en route to prancing in the late ‘60s fields (oftentimes with the enhancement of friendly plants and unpredictable chemicals).
The times were surely a-changing, and if you weren’t careful, you could wake up one day in a transformed world that passed you by without a second thought.
Wake up in May 2022 as a hardened, battled-tested New York Jets fan, and that very same unfamiliarity Dylan once wrote on paper feels extraordinarily familiar.
Closely tied to “laughingstock status of the NFL” vibes for the better part of the last six decades, the Jets rarely enjoy household status in any positive manner. From the ineptitude of the 1970s to garbage bags hiding faces in the Rich Kotite era, not even the boisterous (and initially successful) Rex Ryan era ended with applause.
Rarely has legitimate hype and the New York Jets coincided and intertwined so seamlessly as it has since the 2022 NFL draft‘s conclusion.
Yet, here they are, the New York Jets, reaping the celebratory words from every angle, each direction, as it pertains to Joe Douglas‘s football-program overhaul plan.
Few (if any) had a bad word for the organization’s 2022 draft class.
Former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Robert Griffin III recently labeled the Jets as “stacked” while proclaiming his expectation of a potential 10-win season. Another ESPN analyst, the part-time curmudgeon himself, Mel Kiper Jr.—who’s still doing his thing that commenced during the Reagan Administration—dished out an A grade for the Jets’ most recent draft efforts.
Quite frankly, there’s little point in going down the list; each high-profile NFL draft analyst for every major network and/or publisher handed down a stellar grade. (Even the usual anti-Jet folks who often point to Daniel Jeremiah’s friendship with Douglas wouldn’t dare do so this time around, for fear of acting irrationally—which is a hell of a level to reach even in today’s social media-driven sports media climate.)
Yes, sir and ma’am … the Jets surely did it this time. But what’s even more interesting than the unprecedented universal acclaim is exactly how they accomplished things in Douglas’s third crack at the NFL draft.
Again, the times surely are a-changin’.
For once—at the very least, the first time in a long time—the kids who can move quickly headline New York’s rookie draft class. Young players that are utilized on the video-game screen and tote the rock to the house (both offensively and defensively) are leading the way. Big personalities that come in smaller packages are making advertisers foam at their greedy little mouths—and fans are loving every bit of it.
Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that idea—not when on-the-field success is around the corner.
Everybody wants their team to draft the big man on campus, the kid who can go up and get it, and make other dudes miss while making fans think “tuddy” with every touch. Every fan wants that extra skilled player whose talents earn him much more play on SportsCenter and in the Madden-sphere.
That’s simply the way it is. Going with the big 300-pound fella doesn’t drive the hype drain as momentously as the wide receiver does.
Yet, critically, focusing on the speed-burners exclusively, or bringing them in before the trenches are ready for primetime, is not how football works. (My apologies to the late Al Davis, but it’s true.)
Luckily for Jets fans, they had already witnessed the big-heavy process come and go in its entirety—perhaps without even realizing it.
It’s no secret that Douglas believes in the tried and tested, old-school football philosophy that is building from the inside while working outward. The old adage that a pass rusher lifts or dooms the play of a cornerback behind him still holds much more true than the reverse—no matter the in-depth analytics attempting to prove otherwise.
Douglas, the former collegiate offensive line standout, unabashedly proclaimed this “inside-out” message on the first day of his tenure. He said what his predecessor failed to utter once over the course of five big-boy drafts: “It starts with the quarterback and both lines.”
Not only did he proclaim it, but he walked that talk to completion by drafting the team’s first first-round offensive lineman since 2006 (and then following it up with another a year later).
Just how far Douglas was willing to travel with this philosophy is what remained to be seen.
Would he gobble up Ikem Ekwonu at No. 4 with trench play and Mekhi Becton‘s question marks firmly entrenched in the mind? It made all the sense in the world, especially considering the kid has the traits to slide to guard.
Would he draft Evan Neal in spite of the idea that Becton and George Fant make for one hell of a tandem on paper? Or, would he address EDGE—a position the Jets have lacked superstardom since John Abraham was traded to the Atlanta Falcons over a decade-and-a-half ago?
Any fan that closely followed the nuances of this regime’s thoughts and activities had to think offensive and defensive line, first and foremost. It only made sense.
But as was written at the top, the times … they are a-changin’.
The regime remained true to its other philosophy that leans on targeting special talent within a specific scheme, and to them, Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner fit the bill.
Not only does the Cincinnati product deliver the personality that only the New York market can wholly capitalize upon, but this kid also fits the Robert Saleh scheme as beautifully as Bob Dylan in the war-hungry and controversy-ladened decade that was the 1960s.
Standing 6-foot-3, Gardner is the perfect bail-technique cornerback fitting the Cover 3/Quarters scheme that helped the Seattle Seahawks win their first Super Bowl (and get to another).
He can bump, bail, play physically, fit any zone in a Richard Sherman-esque fashion and also assume man assignments when the going gets tough on third down—something Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich love to lean on in nut-crunching time.
“He’s a great zone corner, he can play man, he can do it all,” Saleh said about his new cornerback after Round 1’s completion. “Football still comes down to third down, third and four, game on the line, everyone knows you’re in man coverage, everyone knows the ball is being thrown and who’s going to win. Sauce can do everything.”
Sure, on paper, there were more pressing needs than cornerback, especially with the acquisition of D.J. Reed. And sure, now there’s a log-jam that’ll see Bryce Hall on the second team—unless Reed agrees to play a little slot corner from time to time, in favor of young Michael Carter II—but the Jets thought Gardner was too good to pass up.
Score one for the casual fans who want to see the skill players reign supreme. Score two for those very same folks just six picks later.
With plenty of EDGE options on the board, Douglas and company snagged Garrett Wilson at No. 10—yet another one of those “big men (figuratively) on campus” that hogs the SportsCenter air time. With the likes of Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and Braxton Berrios in tow, Douglas once again went with the player he thought was the best bang for the buck.
Let the euphoria commence. While there’s no question that smart football fans enjoy the selections of heavy hogs such as the aforementioned Becton, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Gardner and Wilson offer something amazingly refreshing.
An inside-out team-building front office decided to go with the outer edges of the depth chart in a league where skill-position players are impacting the game more than ever. This awareness, in and of itself, no matter the old-school nature of Douglas’s football being, is beyond noteworthy.
If that wasn’t enough, Douglas added the cherry on top in true gangsta style:
That's right, New York #Jets fans … Joe Douglas just CRUSHED the 2022 NFL draft.
— Jets X-Factor (@jetsxfactor) May 1, 2022
“We’re on the f*cking clock” is how the Jets general manager announced the agreed-upon trade with the Tennessee Titans that allowed his franchise to select the free-falling Jermaine Johnson 26th overall.
The Johnson selection meant the Jets drafted three players the front office (along with many others) had tabbed in the top 10.
“We were very surprised (Johnson) was there in the late ’20s,” Douglas admitted after Round 1. “Coach (Saleh) and I got together and said, ‘Let’s start getting him,’ probably around 15.”
Vision-filled running back Breece Hall, hometown boy Jeremy Ruckert, swing tackle Max Mitchell and talented pass rusher Micheal Clemons is how the rest of the slate shook out—all coming prior to Round 5 commencing.
Drafting the consensus top cornerback and wide receiver? Check.
Allowing the possibility for the fans to get locked into an ecstatic state only speed and glamour-led positions can provide—in an ever-changing league that’s leaning playmaker as the years march forward? Yup.
Generating authentic hype with quotes that’ll force even the most apathetic fans to run through walls? Giddy up.
Hype isn’t generally tough to generate; just ask Jets fans during the 2019 offseason when Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley came to town, while J.B. Smoove helped the city welcome the new Gotham Green colors. But genuine hype can only occur when and if the boring and painful pieces of the puzzle are first executed.
Boring: Drafting a tackle and guard in back-to-back years.
Painful: Trading away the best player on the team and No. 3 overall supposed franchise quarterback.
Very few Jets fans wanted to see Jamal Adams traded. I’d argue that nearly half the fanbase wanted to roll with Sam Darnold instead of Zach Wilson—a move that would have resulted in disaster, and a decision that would have been difficult for any personnel-decision maker.
In the end, those two players (to go along with a fourth-round pick) fetched them a future:
- IOL Alijah Vera-Tucker
- WR Garrett Wilson
- RB Breece Hall
- OT Max Mitchell
- CB Brandin Echols
- DB Jason Pinnock
- DT Jonathan Marshall
Yes, the times sure have changed, and it’s not just smoke and mirrors this time.
For the first time in a long time, a burgeoning front-office mind bet on the New York Jets organization by demanding a six-year deal. He knew what a massive undertaking this challenge would be, and he preached patience and culture throughout the process. The organization itself also deserves credit for the hands-off approach that’s been firmly on display.
Granted, the 2022 NFL draft represents just one of the many steps en route to pro football legitimacy, as Chris Berman’s, “That’s why they play the game,” still rings true. But, at the very least, “doing things the right way” can easily be spotted by the football-curious aliens when they look down upon Florham Park, NJ.
No garbage hype, no front office leaks, no veteran running back signings when the offensive line isn’t yet ready for primetime, no sticking with a failed franchise quarterback, and, stunningly, not even a stubborn mindset that abides by an inside-out strategy can be pointed to in accusatory fashion in what’s rapidly turning into a playmaker-led league.
Perhaps the only thing remaining the same is the Jets’ attitude when praise is heaped in their direction.
“That’s for you guys,” Saleh said when asked how the Jets feel about the universal acclaim NFL draft pundits dished out. “I’ve also been in places where we’ve been universally mocked.
“I think we took Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson in the first three rounds and got a D grade if I remember right. It doesn’t matter. We have to develop these young men. They have to come in, they have to perform, and we have to help them. We have to put them in the best position possible, and we’ll know in about three years.”
Save for the same appropriate attitude as it pertains to actual results, for the New York Jets, the “times they are a-changin’,” and fans cannot wait until the NFL standings reflect that very sentiment.
At the very least, the mere possibility that Joe Douglas built this team with smoke and mirrors is a far-fetched one.
He stuck to his inside-out philosophy and remained steadfast in his belief in culture and patience. Now, thanks to the likes of Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall, he also proved he’s willing to adapt to a changing sport and firmly move into the next phase of the building process—because the opportunity presented itself to perfection.
Yes, the times have undoubtedly changed, and New York Jets fans are still familiarizing themselves with this new and exciting yet extremely uncomfortable football world.