The New York Jets have a gift in their hands heading into the second half of 2023
“When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
No matter where they’ve heard it — some credit the final verse of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” while others cite Leonardo DiCaprio’s doomed passenger in “Titanic” — the time-honored axiom is a catchphrase of the damned, a final excuse when even the flimsiest logic and reason shatters the delusion behind a reckless act.
It might’ve come to have defined the past decade-plus of New York Jets football, but even those in charge of professional football’s most hexed championship organization have shown a sense of restraint, one perhaps brought about by the NFL’s salary cap. Look no further than the extra year of employment it bought Sam Darnold: rather than searching for a quarterback during the spring of 2020, the Jets had to spend their time building an offensive line, one that still struggles to generate any lasting power.
The next year opened the latest episode of the Jets’ eternal rebuild drama, one that welcomed both Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh to its main cast. Douglas had been a special guest star of sorts, granted portions of the 2019 season and the “unprecedented times” after it as a trial by green fire. Saleh, on the other hand, got the role of Adam Gase’s successor, an equally thankless and daunting task considering the mess that was left beyond.
Douglas and Saleh’s fates were intertwined by the brotherhood of convenience that NFL coaches and general managers often find themselves engaged in. From the get-go, however, it was clear the pair had a vision: get the Jets back on the right track with players who did right on and off the field, embarking on that latter mission by forming a chemistry and culture not seen in New York since Rex Ryan’s final days.
That, Saleh implied, took on a greater importance than building a more attractive “Madden”-worthy roster than Buffalo, Miami, and New England.
“It’s not necessarily comparing us to what they have,” Saleh said after the 2022 draft. “It’s just building a roster that we have a vision for, that can execute our schemes, that can execute the character we want, that can execute the things we need to get done. The idea of closing the gap isn’t necessarily trying to combat what they have, it’s trying to get better with what we have, adding pieces, adding players, developing those players.”
Saleh added, “I think there’s a clear vision for every single player we’ve brought in, from free agency to the draft. Now it’s just going on the field and implementing that vision and getting those guys to play to the best of their ability.”
Of course, everyone knows by now that the Jets amassed that culture, that vision. It started with the draft picks of the new decade, the obvious weaponry like Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson, which eventually gave way to luxury freshmen like Jermaine Johnson and Breece Hall.
Combine that with the essentials like a healthy Mekhi Becton, the development of Quinnen Williams, and the competition’s spare parts like John Franklin-Myers, Bryce Huff, Quincy Williams, and more, the Jets might not have had a Super Bowl contender, but rather the potential build, the seeds for something relatively lasting.
Then came the part where it all came together — on a delay.
2023: What could’ve been
Of course, the culmination of the grand plan was to have Aaron Rodgers — a very enthusiastic Aaron Rodgers — take care of the rest. Anyone even remotely associated with New York football doesn’t need to be reminded about how that panned out.
The Rodgers misfortune, an elicitor of sympathy anywhere else but only comedy in New York, could have been Douglas and Saleh’s nothing-to-lose moment. The patience might have cost them any form of mulligan this time around; still, they could have used this year as one of pure preparation, free research, and development, a predicament the Jets have been all too familiar with.
Instead, the team as assembled fulfilled the vision. With Rodgers’ injury, they’re ahead of schedule.
It’s hard to imagine any recent Jets team pulling off the previous weeks’ affairs, such as a win over the previously undefeated defending NFC champions or an improbable win over their MetLife Stadium roommates who seem eager to fulfill every comedic football trope the gridiron meme authors have besowed the Jets.
Yet, here they are: their rivals are reeling, and invitations to the playoff bracket are there for the taking. The national networks have taken a vested interest. It’s there for the taking. They’re doing it all with a sense of “Any Given Sunday,” armed with the healthiest aura of reckless abandon that has gone 100 yards in a long, long time.
That there is the culmination of Douglas and Saleh’s efforts, ones that required patience and effort. It’s not going to be pretty: last weekend’s New Jersey civil war might well have set the game back several years. Still, Saleh is making no apologies in going after any authors of the 2023-24 Jets’ “obituary.”
“We’re excited about our group we’ve worked hard over the last couple of years players, coaches, scouts, GM, building a pretty cool organization,” Saleh said shortly after the Rodgers incident. “There’s still a lot of faith in the locker room and the things we can still accomplish this year. So it’s while the outside world can go ahead and write whatever story they want to write, there’s still the true story being written in this building.”
Lampooned at the time, Saleh’s words and the vision he formed with Douglas now appear prophetic. If they’re able to capitalize on the potential and bring the formed culture to a new level, they might gain the most valuable reward of all: something to lose.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on X @GeoffJMags
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