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Was the NY Jets’ 6-3 start a mirage that foretold their demise?

Sauce Gardner, Cheesehead, NY Jets
Sauce Gardner, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Getty Images

Perhaps we all fell victim to the availability bias

Failure. Disappointment. Once-promising. Collapse.

All of those nouns and adjectives have been used to describe the New York Jets‘ 2022 season. For all the talk of preseason expectations, when a team that was once 6-3 is guaranteed a losing season and eliminated from playoff contention, those descriptions are accurate, at least on the surface.

However, there is one stark statistic that calls these designations into question.

  • Record against backup QBs: 5-0
  • Record against starting QBs: 2-9

Ouch. 2-9 against NFL-caliber competition at the helm? Does that look like a team that just missed, or an outfit that can thank its lucky stars for a confluence of circumstances that led them to face inferior competition?

The statistic softens ever so slightly if you consider Jacoby Brissett a starting quarterback since he has started the majority of the Browns’ games this season (and performed better than Deshaun Watson thus far; his play was above average overall), but 4-0 vs. 3-8 isn’t that much better.

The Jets defeated the likes of the Skylar Thompson Dolphins, Kenny Pickett Steelers, Brett Rypien Broncos, and Trevor Siemian Bears in addition to Brissett.

Lest you argue that the Jets would have beaten these teams even with their starters (which is probable in two of the games and possible in the others), this raises the same point: the Jets earned their hot start against inferior competition, no matter what the projections said in the preseason.

Realistically, the Jets beat only one impressive opponent in that 6-3 run, their Week 9 upset of the Buffalo Bills. In that game, the Jets’ pass rush showed up to mask holes in coverage, and Zach Wilson played efficiently enough along with a run game that woke up on the last drive to pull out the victory.

However, beating the Browns in miraculous fashion due to several gaffes by the opponent is not exactly spectacular, especially given how backward Cleveland has been most of this year. Wilson’s 10-point comeback against the Steelers was necessitated by ineffectual blocking and crushing unforced errors. The Packers and Broncos were both crushing disappointments for most of this season, yet the Jets won both of those games on the backs of their defense, special teams, and Breece Hall.

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You can argue that the losses of Hall and Alijah Vera-Tucker were what foretold the Jets’ demise rather than the turn of their schedule. Certainly, it is unlikely we are discussing a collapse if those two were healthy; they alone were enough to score the points necessary for the defense to take care of the rest.

Still, it is inarguable that as the quality of the Jets’ offensive competition increased, the play of their defense commensurately decreased. Over their five-game losing streak, Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen, Jared Goff, Trevor Lawrence, and Geno Smith took advantage of the soft underbelly of the defense and moved the ball with ease. Although the point totals were not astronomical (between 19 and 23 points, save Cousins’s 27), the yardage, third-down conversion rates, and time of possession numbers demonstrated that preseason fears about the defensive middle of the field were justified.

Now, this could also be a coaching issue. Kevin O’Connell comes from the same 49ers offensive system and beat the Jets’ defense mercilessly with power running. Ben Johnson schemed up a 4th-and-1 masterpiece that forced yet another blown coverage from a Jets linebacker or safety. Doug Pederson and Pete Carroll had a field day with their running backs and tight ends. These plays were there for the taking all season, but these teams finally took full advantage of it.

If the Jets’ 6-3 start was, indeed, influenced by poor quality of competition, perhaps this five-game losing streak also masks the true Jets team. After all, the offensive line featured two ailing tackles and a backup guard while lacking their All-Pro guard (who played tackle admirably) and their runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year.

It’s hard to say that, though, when the Jets have had a grand total of five or six competently-quarterbacked games out of 16. Despite a down year across the league, the QB remains by far and away the most important position in sports. If you have a combined 14 TD passes in 16 games, little will go right.

What does this mean for 2023?

First of all, many general managers over the years have made the mistake of believing in a hot start rather than a team’s final record, just as they put too much stock in a late resurgence over the entire body of work. Jets fans have done that too often with the likes of Geno Smith and Sam Darnold.

Joe Douglas must realize that his team is what their record says they are, not what the 6-3 record indicated. Obviously, the first order of business is to fix the QB position by hook or by crook, but he must not stop there. The offensive line needs a complete revamp; no more relying on injury-prone veterans at both or even one tackle position.

On the defensive side of the football, it’s about time the Jets stop neglecting linebacker and safety. The idea that linebackers are not important in Saleh’s scheme is preposterous when considering that his success came with Fred Warner. Watch Lamarcus Joyner‘s and Jordan Whitehead‘s film and you’ll have no doubts about whether safeties are important to this defense.

It is critical that Douglas also not assume that the pass rush is complete despite the team’s crossing the 40-sack plateau. The pass rush has been way too inconsistent and faltered down the stretch. Carl Lawson is a likely cap casualty, but his replacement must be more than Micheal Clemons. Moving Bryce Huff or Jermaine Johnson over to the right side is a possibility (especially since Huff played there at times in 2020-21), but re-signing Huff will need to precede that. On the inside, Solomon Thomas just won’t cut it.

From a coaching perspective, I believe that Mike LaFleur must be held accountable for the Jets’ offensive struggles. Despite the general lack of competent QB play, the games in which the QBs did play relatively well highlighted LaFleur’s puzzling predictability and inability to adapt. Regardless of the direction the team chooses at QB, they must be wary of nepotism in making hard decisions about the team’s offensive future. They will not have a Patrick Mahomes under center and will need a creative mind to get the most out of the offense. That mind does not belong to Mike LaFleur.

Overall, there is cause for optimism in 2023 due to the abundance of young, star-level talent. However, with a playoff imperative for Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh next season, they must take a good, hard look at the true drivers of the Jets’ collapse and move relentlessly to fix them.

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Jim G
1 year ago

This article makes some great points. I have been conflicted between thinking the real Jets were the 7-4 team which experienced bad breaks (injuries) or the 0-5 team which looks lifeless and unprepared? I honestly don’t know. However, I do trust my own eyes and have seen much poorer QB play from the Jets this season. I don’t know if there is a football metric for truly errant throws (passes which are uncatchable by the intended receiver), but I would bet the Jets led the NFL in them.

A few other observations are in order.

In preseason everyone talked about how difficult the Jets schedule would be in the first half of the season and that the second half would be easy. Who knew the Browns, Packers and Broncos were going to suck when we played them and that the Lions and Jags would be hot when we played them?

I read that this season set the record for the total number of QBs to start games. So I am wondering if the Jets playing against 5 backup QBs was really all that unusual? With more running QBs starting now, the number of injuries, and the number of backups playing, will likely be on the increase.

Last night I was watching a podcast about the state of the Jets. One talking head said the Jets overall priority is to get a veteran QB while drafting a developmental QB in the 3rd or 4th round. Sounded reasonable to me. The next talking head said the high priority should be to fix the offensive line. Great point, I thought. The third talking head said none of that will matter since teams will just throw over the middle until safety and linebacker are addressed. True, I thought. The last taking head said the Jets desperately need a No. 2 and No. 3 receiver. How can this be, I thought? We have drafted offensive linemen and wide receivers in each of the last 3 drafts. This team has a lot of holes, I concluded.

Given the above, I really don’t know what to think of this team or how far away from the playoffs they really are. Clearly, the Jets failed to develop the #2 overall pick. Whether that is on the QB, on the coaching, or both, remains to be seen. I’m going with on the QB since, until Sunday, Mike White performed so much better in the same offense than Zach Wilson did.

As you said, it is up to the GM and coaches to figure out where the weaknesses are and address them.

These problems are magnified by the Giants going from a veritable laughingstock to the playoffs. Talk about ramping up the pressure on the coaches and front office! I guess the Jets won the offseason and the Giants won the season.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jim G

I agree with all of this. We are not nearly as close as we think and our cap situation is not good. All that coupled with the major holes on this team and absolutely needing a new QB. Its going to take some serious roster gymnastics to make this team better in 2023. Cannot just assume everyone coming back from injury is just magically going to be back to normal either. We have enough talent now to keep us competitive, but until we have a steady OL and even mediocre QB we wont beat even the decent teams in this league let alone the good ones. Aside from the Bills at home we really collected wins against struggling teams or backups. Now all those teams are starting to surpass us. If we lose 6 straight I wouldn’t even care if we fired the entire staff. Its one of the worst coaching staffs in football.

1 year ago

Spot on analysis. Agree with everything…and especially on MLF. A veteran play caller would be helpful imo.

1 year ago

Great article. The Jets were certainly fortunate with their schedule. We have not been this lucky since 2006 when we seemed to play everytime at the exact best time (Tennesee after trading for K. Collins during the week, Miami with Cleo Lemon’s 1st start and another back-up the 1st Miami game, NE after Belichick made a rare gaffe insulting the Jets HC uniting the team behind a coach they allegedly hated and more). It is not who you play but when you play them and the Jets were mostly fortunate this year. Although they did play Jax and Detroit at the worst time.

The other factor is confidence, energy and momentum. This was a very young team playing on youthful energy and confidence. When the balloon got busted and they lost to Detroit I think they lost confidence and energy and the play then dropped off considerably the last two games.

The biggest turning point in the season were two points. The TD INT that was called back. Absent that call the Jets likely rout the Pats and their confidence and play both increase. The second big turning point was the 2nd Pats game. That was a crusher for the team, for Zach and the team;s long term outlook. Ultimately they had firther chances to rebound against Minnesota, Buffalo and Detroit. But one thing about football is losing even losing well makes teams worse just as winning ugly boosts confidence and play.

The question is what version will we see in 2023. I think it is fair to say they played above their talent level most of the season. Will the young players develop and get better next year or will they regress in year 2 like Zach, Mimms, Moore, Becton and others? Number one Douglas needs to fix the OL. a healthy Becton and AVT would go a long ways to greatly improving this offense.