It happened with the 2008 Jets and shouldn’t be underestimated
After 11 games of the 2008 season, the New York Jets were flying high.
A talented roster led by the seemingly ageless Brett Favre was 8-3, coming off an overtime victory against the Tom Brady-less Patriots. The AFC East seemed ripe for the taking with New England’s leader out of the picture, although Bill Belichick had kept them right there in the thick of the division race.
Five weeks later, Eric Mangini, dubbed “Mangenius” by the New York media just two years earlier for a spirited wild-card appearance was unceremoniously fired.
The parallels to the 2022 team are obvious. A 6-3 start, all the goodwill in the world, and discussions of Robert Saleh for Coach of the Year. Then, following the bye week, such a stunning, putrid collapse that it makes you scratch your head.
Was the Jets’ 6-3 start a mirage? Was it just injuries that caused their demise? Is it the fact that they just don’t have the quarterback that has caused their downfall?
The answer is all and none of the above.
We can and will go through a postmortem on the Jets’ 2022 season. There are injuries, missed opportunities, quarterback failures, special teams blunders, and so much more. But it starts—it has to start—with the man leading the team.
There was much skepticism about Robert Saleh after his performance in Year 1, but he seemed to have turned a corner in Year 2. He preached patience and claimed that 2021 was a learning year, a season to install his system. That appeared to be paying dividends through nine weeks of 2022, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. We swallowed our skepticism in the face of the evidence.
However, with a nearly-full sample size of 16 games, all our questions are right back. The misgivings we at Jet X expressed about the system vs. the talent needed to run it, the scheme stubbornness, the lack of accountability, the complete predictability, and so much more have gradually risen and reached full throttle with a Week 17 embarrassment at Lumen Field.
Yes, the Jets are a young team—but, with the exception of the quarterback position, it has been their veterans at the forefront of the collapse.
Yes, the goal was set at competitive games in December—but that was before the Jets started 6-3. Expectations necessarily change. Preseason goals only mean so much at the end of the season, unless they are congruent in reality.
Yes, Robert Saleh has changed the culture in the Jets’ locker room—but it seems to have come with a cost. From the moment Quincy Williams hit Jalen Hurts out of bounds in the first preseason game, there has been much reason to question whether Coach Saleh can instill discipline in his players. We saw glimpses of it earlier in the season but ignored it due to the good vibes surrounding the team.
Now, it is evident that so many veteran players have not been held accountable, and have been left to make the same mental errors, to continue the same inexcusable play that is below their career norms.
The heart that Saleh brings to the team cannot be questioned, but Zach Wilson’s press conference against New England may have been emblematic of a bigger, more insidious problem throughout the team. It’s easy to say that it was a locker room revolt against Wilson, but perhaps it was a locker room revolt by players who don’t want the spotlight turned on themselves.
For many of the players, when you look beyond the traditional stats, the iniquities are glaring. In fact, the only four Jets players who likely do not have that level of soul-searching to do are Alijah Vera-Tucker, Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, and Quinnen Williams, none of whom are captains of the team.
Culture can only career a team so far without accountability. A leader in any area of life—a parent, a teacher, a manager, or a coach—knows that they are not there to be buddies with those in their care. There must be a balance of love and reverence, of motivation and accountability. Saleh has the positive side of the equation, but what of the negative? It is usually not enough to offer rewards; the consequences must be there, as well.
Furthermore, besides holding his players accountable, we have not seen enough of Saleh holding himself and his coaches accountable. Yes, he will give lip service to a particular area of coaching that needs to improve.
On losing the last 5, Saleh said “It starts with me.”
— Al Iannazzone (@Al_Iannazzone) January 2, 2023
However, since it has not improved, the question becomes if Saleh has enough self-awareness and metacognitive capabilities to tease out where he and his coaching staff went wrong.
I am not giving Joe Douglas a free pass in this equation, either. It is easy to look at some successful trades and give excess credit to a general manager. However, when you look at the total body of Douglas’s work, he has had far more whiffs than hits in free agency, has an entire draft’s worth of busts, and, despite considerable improvement in the last two years in that area, clearly missed on the biggest pick of them all, the quarterback at No. 2 in 2021.
However, what we saw from this team down the stretch was a level of quit that you would not expect with a coach whose mantra is “all gas, no brakes.” In Saleh’s introductory press conference, he stated that this was a rallying cry not [only] for the playing field, but for training, practice, and meetings. With the product that the Jets have put on the field in the last eight weeks, which has hit an unwatchable level over the last two, there is clearly a breakdown of that slogan days prior to Sunday.
Am I advocating that the Jets move on from Saleh? I am not. Ultimately, the Jets’ preseason over-under was 5.5 games, and with the level of quarterback play they have received, I’m not sure that Brian Daboll could have gotten this team to the playoffs.
But am I saying that there are absolutely no excuses in 2023? Yes. If 2023 turns into 2008 or worse, no matter what happens to this team, both Douglas and Saleh should lose their jobs. Douglas is entering his fourth offseason and fifth season as Jets’ GM, and the loss in Seattle assured that all the previous ones will have been losing seasons. Rarely does a general manager get that long to pull together a winning outfit in the NFL. Rarer still does a GM get the chance to redeem himself after the failure of a high QB selection.
Furthermore, the Jets must closely evaluate their coaches and coordinators. Mike LaFleur has done some good things this season, but in my opinion, the bad down the stretch has outweighed the previous good. LaFleur proved himself incapable of adapting when teams picked up on his tendencies. Yes, that is obviously dictated in part by horrendous QB play, but it was somewhat visible even in Mike White’s best games this season.
LaFleur’s utilization of the Jets’ best skill players was shaky at best. He alternated running backs far too often to allow any of them to develop a rhythm. He often had the wrong wide receivers on the field or failed to design reads for his playmakers, especially Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore. He rarely got Tyler Conklin in one-on-one matchups with linebackers, which is his ideal usage, and asked both of his tight ends to block in ways that left them out-leveraged.
Even if the Jets choose to stick with LaFleur, though, they need to consider their other coaches. The fall-off of the offensive line down the stretch despite four of the Day 1 starters playing calls into question some of Jeremy Benton’s work, particularly when you see the number of missed assignments. They were not getting outplayed physically as much as mentally, and that is often a coaching issue.
On the defensive side of the ball, we have all penned our apology notes to Jeff Ulbrich. However, the Jets defense that took the field for the last five weeks of the season looked more like that which we expected from Ulbrich prior to the year. A feather-soft middle of the field, wide-open backs and tight ends, missed tackles, shaky run defense, and poor backend defense against big plays were all predictable. They held out for much of the season but crumbled near the end, and that was a schematic issue as much as a personnel one.
The Jets’ pass rush, which had covered for lapses on the backend, floundered down the stretch, allowing teams to exploit the holes they had previously identified. Trevor Lawrence and Geno Smith put the final nails in the coffin in a way that showed the Jets were not just outplayed but outcoached.
Ulbrich has earned the right to return for another year, but he must be quicker to adjust. The book is out on the Jets’ coverage rules, and teams know exactly what’s coming and how to beat it. He must make some changes, or else he is, by Einstein’s definition, practicing insanity—doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.
You wonder about those coaching the linebackers and safeties, though. The lack of discipline has been so pervasive that it’s hard to believe it’s just a talent issue. Rather, it’s a mindset that leads to poor tackling, to poor angles, to getting too far upfield and being unable to recover. And this is the mindset that goes back to Saleh.
On special teams, has the end finally come for Brant Boyer? Braden Mann’s season has been an epic failure, but it goes beyond Mann. The Jets’ punt coverage allowed two of the three touchdowns given up across the league this season. Micheal Clemons, a 270-pound defensive end, is still playing on punt coverage. Justin Hardee, despite a Pro Bowl season, has been called for two crushing personal fouls.
On punt returns, Braxton Berrios has forgotten how to catch a punt, not by muffing them but simply by allowing them to bounce—and yet he’s still on the field. Meanwhile, there is no blocking to speak of on punts or kick returns, leading to routine fair catches or stuffs before the 25.
This must be a full coaching staff look in the mirror. If no one is fired, then they need to show the self-honesty that is crucial for all real leaders. Find the problem and fix it. If it’s a specific player, that player must go. If it’s a mindset, it must change. If it’s a lack of accountability, benching must be a possibility. No more can a Jets player commit an unforgivable unnecessary roughness penalty and then shrug it off as if it never occurred.
Crushing disappointment is the name of the game for all who have been involved in the New York Jets’ organization for over 50 years. The line becomes tiresome. Preaching patience is one thing, but when a season this promising bites the dust, a thorough postmortem must begin with the heart and brain—or in this case, the brain trust.