Joe Douglas has turned a recurring Jets gag into an undeniable mark of moving forward
In some ways, NFL teams and those that control their fates are just like their youngest fans.
They engage in whimsical celebrations when overjoyed and yet are penalized when they go too far. When they’re bored during family gatherings on Thanksgiving, they go outside and throw a ball around. Once Turkey Day gives way to the Christmas season, they engage in writing lists and their most cherished, perhaps even delusional desires.
Unlike their juvenile counterparts, the late autumn lists formed by NFL teams don’t go to the North Pole. They instead try to keep things relatively close to the vest, though there are more resources than ever to allow gridiron civilians to draw their own conclusions and build both educated mock drafts and realistic free agency fantasies (on a completely unrelated note, don’t miss your chance to become a Jets X-Factor subscriber so as to use our offseason simulator).
A frequent entry on the annual list penned in Florham Park, that of the New York Jets, is quarterback. Little more needs to be said or written about the Jets’ issues at the spot, the one job related to Gotham City that has seen more turnover than the actor wearing the Batsuit. Mike White is the latest to don the green cowl, more or less the Robert Pattinson of this affair: the powers that be thought Ben Affleck/Zach Wilson were the primary options moving forward, but circumstances have changed, leading to a gritty but ultimately successful revival that is nonetheless cursed with an uncertain future.
White is inching toward at least a longer stay at the top of the Jets’ passing depth chart. Heck, if it were up to his teammates, it sounds like he’d be, barring obvious health caveats, the quarterback-elect for the 2023 opener come next September.
But, White’s almost-superhuman toughness notwithstanding, there’s nothing to suggest, at least quite yet, that he’s fully capable of the full-time franchise duties. While holding White’s 2-5 career record as a starter (including a 20-12 shortcoming in a vital divisional showdown with the Buffalo Bills) is foolhardy for many reasons, and he’s far from the primary cause behind the Jets’ tumble out of the active AFC playoff bracket, management will likely still monitor the offseason quarterback carousel closely.
Perhaps nothing defines the star-crossed nature of the Jets’ franchise better than the fact that nearly every major position on the depth chart features young talents that have quickly established themselves as franchise staples … and yet the quarterback spot is rife with potential chaos. The Wild Card round and beyond remain Christmas fantasies thanks to the air woes that gridiron comedians cling to so as not to lose the Jets, one of their most reliable, if not tired, punchlines.
He can never admit it out loud, but general manager Joe Douglas is poised to earn the last laugh.
The 2022 Jets season, one that has accomplished the unspoken, realistic goal of showing up in the “In the Hunt” column in a formidable AFC playoff picture come the holidays, can be unquestionably defined as a success thanks to the rises of names like Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson (not to mentioned injured youngsters like Breece Hall and Alijah Vera-Tucker). Gang Green’s modern success has been built through the early culmination of Douglas’ efforts. They’ve come from a variety of sources …
- Shrewd draft maneuvering (Vera-Tucker, Garrett Wilson, and Jermaine Johnson arriving through bartering abroad),
- Regularly scheduled picks (Gardner, Hall)
- Veterans arriving from elsewhere (Duane Brown, Carl Lawson, D.J. Reed, Greg Zuerlein)
- Holdovers from prior regimes (namely the woebegone Gase era) taking the next step in their development (Braxton Berrios, John Franklin-Myers, Bryce Huff, Quinnen Williams) under a staff that has mostly solidified their cases for retainment.
But the final piece missing from this puzzle is, you guessed it, a reliable quarterback. Each team on the current AFC bracket has a thrower they’d be more than happy to see starting three-to-five years from now on its roster. The Ryan Tannehill-led AFC South leaders from Tennessee are perhaps an exception, but it’s clear that Malik Willis is being groomed to take over. With their draft position more or less “ruined” in terms of finding a franchise quarterback in the selections (New York would choose 18th if the year ended today), the NFL’s transfer portal will likely yield any aerial answer.
Do they attempt to enter the Lamar Jackson sweepstakes? Would they entertain a reunion with the resurgent Geno Smith? Is the success of unexpected 2022 passing sensations Jimmy Garoppolo, Taylor Heinicke, and/or Cooper Rush sustainable? Should they just re-up with White, who will probably be looking for a long-term deal? (No, they’re not signing Tom Brady.)
With so many questions at the most vital position, one can query as to why this offseason is any different from all the others in Jets’ past. Simple: most of the questions stem from a single spot.
As even the most fleeting viewer of Jets football is well aware, quarterbacks at a crossroads are one of the most recurring tropes on the franchise timeline. It is, in fact, so common that this isn’t the first time Douglas, set to embark upon only his fourth full season at the helm, has dealt with it. His first shot in the dark came after the two-win disaster that was the 2020 campaign. It was Douglas that greenlit the decision to move on from Sam Darnold in the following spring, trading him to Carolina for picks, one of which indirectly led to Hall’s selection.
At the time, trading Darnold was seen as a difficult decision, if only for the truly dire state of the Jets. There were questions all over the roster: who, for example, was the quarterback, be it Darnold or otherwise, going to throw to? Who would protect him? How long was it going to take to recover from the Adams trade? Some even questioned if Darnold was truly at fault for his shortcomings, pinning the blame on the ill-fated decision to hire Adam Gase instead.
In an alternate timeline, the Jets keep Darnold and use the No. 2 pick that eventually became Zach Wilson answering those questions: even one choice among Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, and DeVonta Smith (all chosen in the top 10) would have improved the receiving picture. Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater could have offered protection. Micah Parsons, sent to Dallas at No. 12, working in a Robert Saleh system sounds like a defensive purist’s dream.
Regret could’ve defined the 2021 draft. Instead, choosing Zach Wilson lingers as a relatively minor inconvenience. Rather than debating the merits of keeping a potential bust and trying to salvage a former franchise savior, Douglas and Jets management can fully home in on the most consequential position in professional American sports, a bittersweet luxury that hasn’t been afforded to them in a long, long time.
It should go without saying that the quarterback spot is far from the only question on the Jets’ 2023 offseason ledger; White’s beleaguered time in the pocket on Sunday in Buffalo should’ve made that clear. But this holiday season, the Jets are able to make a list with confidence… enough so that checking it twice may be redundant.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags