Going worst-to-first will be tough, but the NY Jets can still try to go from worst-to-playoffs
The Jets do not need to come within two minutes of winning the Super Bowl for this season to be a success.
Despite the hype about the Cincinnati Bengals’ Cinderella 2021 season, going worst-to-first is a relatively uncommon prospect. In fact, in the last 10 seasons, only 10 teams have done so – one per year.
But becoming a playoff team after having missed the playoffs in the previous season is not uncommon at all. In fact, on average, close to half of the playoff teams are new each season. Over the last 10 years, an average of 5.8 new teams have made the playoffs each season. Over the last five seasons, that number has climbed to 6.8.
The parity in the NFL is such that it’s very difficult to sustain success. Once a team is paying its quarterback top dollar, the rest of the roster usually suffers. That’s why the Kansas City Chiefs were forced to trade Tyreek Hill and were unable to come to a deal with Orlando Brown Jr. It’s why Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson have won only one ring despite sustained periods of success.
The salary cap forces teams not only to build through the draft but to keep hitting on both top and lower-round choices to replenish talent that is no longer affordable.
The Jets have a young quarterback on a rookie deal and roster cornerstones on cheap contracts. Now is the time to start building towards a playoff run, before the team has to pay its stars.
While making the playoffs is an ambitious expectation for the 2022 season, two team captains have already declared it an unimpeachable goal. Braxton Berrios and C.J. Mosley both said that it’s “playoffs or bust” this year. While we at Jets X-Factor may be hesitant to make such a declaration, general manager Joe Douglas set a definitive bar of playing meaningful games in December.
The 2021 Bengals may not be the best comparison, though. Although the Jets have their own second-year QB in Zach Wilson and rookie first-round receiver in Garrett Wilson, the Bengals had more veterans on the team. They also came out of nowhere, taking advantage of the Ravens’ ravaged roster, Baker Mayfield’s rapid decline, and Ben Roethlisberger’s failing arm. The Jets do not have such a luxury in their division, with possibly the best team in the NFL, a perennial winner, and an up-and-coming roster to contend with in the AFC East.
Most importantly, Joe Burrow played like a top 5 quarterback last season. That is not a reasonable expectation for Zach Wilson this season coming off his statistically awful 2021 season. Burrow’s rookie year was far better, making his 2021 breakout less of a jump.
Instead, I sought a more realistic comparison for the 2022 Jets. Here are a few possible models that the Jets can try to learn from and follow.
This was Year 3 of the Derek Carr era in Oakland. Although Carr’s fantastic season may be out of reach for Zach Wilson, there is still a lot to compare with this team.
First of all, prior to that season, the Raiders had been putrid for over a decade. Following the team’s 2002 Super Bowl defeat and through 2015, the Raiders had not had a single winning season. They had failed to eclipse five victories in an astonishing 10 seasons out of those 13. The high point was a pair of .500 seasons in 2010-11. Even the Jets do not have a claim to that level of futility (at least, not yet).
In his third season, Carr changed all of that. His overall Pro Football Focus grade of 85.3 was fifth in the NFL, as was his 87.2 passing grade. Those might not be realistic numbers to expect from Wilson, but Carr’s 63.8% completion rate is, as are his 3,937 passing yards.
Carr’s 5.3% big-time throw (BTT) rate is high, but Wilson will not be asked to make so many big-time throws. Lowering his turnover-worthy play (TWP) rate from 3.8% close to Carr’s 2.6% is a realistic ask, as that’s the main thing the Jets need from Wilson.
The Raiders did not have any major compiler in the run game, but they spread the wealth well. The team’s committee of Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington, and Jalen Richard combined for 1746 rushing yards at 4.8 yards per carry, scoring 15 rushing TDs. The Jets’ committee is really a two-man show, with Tevin Coleman as a third-down option. But those numbers are a realistic number for the team’s tandem of Breece Hall and Michael Carter.
Oakland’s 24th-rated defensive DVOA attests to some defensive struggles. They were better against the run than the pass, which will probably be flipped for the Jets. Oakland’s 10th-rated offensive DVOA made up for that. The Jets will probably be more towards the middle on both offense and defense, but the idea of having strengths counteracting weaknesses is one the Jets can emulate.
Additionally, the Raiders were in a tough division in 2016. Their 12-4 record was not good enough to win the division, as the Kansas City Chiefs beat them out on a tiebreaker. The Denver Broncos also had a record above .500 at 9-7.
The Raiders’ 12-4 record from 2016 is probably out of the Jets’ reach. But some of the ways they got there, and the concept of a turnaround with a young QB, can be emulated.
The 2018 Buffalo Bills were a rebuilding team. Having drafted raw but talented prospect Josh Allen with the No. 7 overall pick, they were looking to get on their feet. Allen did not play well as a rookie and was largely written off. Even in Year 2, Allen improved in some areas, but he was hardly a game-wrecker at quarterback.
In fact, in 2019, Allen was 26th out of 32 qualified quarterbacks with a 64.2 PFF grade. Even his run grade, which was the strength of his game, was only 15th at 65.8. His BTT rate was fourth-worst in the NFL at 2.7%, and his TWP rate remained high at 4.0%, 25th among QBs.
However, there are aspects of this Bills team that are relatable for the 2022 Jets. Although the team ranked 7th in overall defensive DVOA, that ranking is based completely on the sixth-best pass defense. Their run defense ranked 22nd in DVOA. This split could very well be the Jets’ for 2022.
The team’s top running back, Devin Singletary, rushed for 775 yards at 5.1 YPA. Allen added 510 yards at 4.7 YPA and 9 rushing touchdowns. Frank Gore was less effective, rushing for 3.6 YPA, but overall, the Bills were able to run the ball.
Overall, the 2019 Bills were the NFL’s 13th-best team according to overall DVOA. If the Jets can get there, they may be in line for a playoff spot. However, the 2019 Bills had the second-easiest strength of schedule, per Football Outsiders, which makes their unlikely 10-6 rise harder for the Jets to get to.
Although this comparison is not perfect, there are a few numbers that stand out as emulable for the 2022 Jets.
First of all, Jared Goff was mostly a game manager and not the focal point of the Rams’ winning strategy. Obviously, that is not something that they were happy about, since they traded Goff for Matt Stafford in the offseason.
But these were Goff’s 2020 stats: 3,952 yards, 20 TDs, 13 INTs, and 7.2 yards per attempt (YPA). His 71.4 PFF grade was 21st out of 35 qualified quarterbacks. Although his BTT rate was ghastly at 2.3%, the worst in the NFL, his 2.9% TWP rate was 13th, a good benchmark for Zach Wilson. Overall, many of Goff’s numbers would indicate a successful second season for Wilson.
The Rams had an excellent defense that season, ranking fourth in the NFL in DVOA. Their offense was not too shabby at 10th, as well. But they played in a competitive division with the 12-4 Seahawks, 8-8 Cardinals who were competitive much of the season, and the 6-10 49ers who were better than their record indicates. Their strength of schedule was 10th toughest in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. Their winning via a game manager QB is emulable for the 2022 Jets.
I like the comparison to the 2021 Eagles rather than the Bengals for a few reasons. The main one is that Jalen Hurts was serviceable but hardly amazing. The second is that the Eagles were a run-first offense. The fact that Hurts is a running quarterback is less relevant than the fact that Philadelphia set up teams via the run.
Hurts ranked 10th among 33 qualified quarterbacks in overall PFF grade at 80.8. However, his passing grade was 15th at 73.4. That is a reasonable benchmark for Zach Wilson in 2022. Surprisingly, Wilson was one spot ahead of Hurts in rushing grade at 86.8 vs. 86.6, albeit on far fewer attempts. Hurts’s TD:INT ratio of 16:9 is a little bit low for a Wilson 2022 goal, but it shows, once again, that the Eagles were a run-first team.
Rushing the ball, the Eagles had a three-man committee at running back, plus Hurts. Hurts led the team with 784 rushing yards (5.6 YPA) and 10 TDs, although he fumbled nine times.
Miles Sanders had a strong season, contributing 754 yards at 5.5 yards per attempt, although he did not score a touchdown. Boston Scott was the TD-making running back, scoring seven times at 4.3 yards per attempt. Jordan Howard added another three rushing TDs, and Kenneth Gainwell had five. As a team, the Eagles rushed for 2715 yards and 25 TDs at 4.9 yards per attempt.
The Eagles were 15th in the NFL in DVOA last season: dead average. Their offense was 11th in DVOA, while their defense was 25th.
Although Football Outsiders predicts an opposite and more extreme split for the Jets in 2022 – 29th in offensive DVOA, 8th in defensive DVOA – I believe that an overall 15th rating is a realistic expectation for the 2022 iteration, and 11th vs. 25th for offense and defense is not out of the realm of possibility.
Also, the Eagles were third in the NFL in rushing DVOA; though getting that high may be a challenge, top 10 or even top five in the league is a very realistic and feasible goal.
Overall, I think that the young QB who was not asked to do it all, the 9-8 record, and the relatively average team is realistic for the Jets. The only difference is that nine wins are highly unlikely to send the Jets to the playoffs in the loaded AFC. The Eagles also had an easy strength of schedule via Pro Football Reference, but that is in hindsight. The Jets schedule looks tough on paper, but we’ll see where it ends up at season’s end.