Before the season began I had a number of requests to write about the Jets, what they were building, and what I thought about their latest front office. With the season pretty much on the brink with a 1-4 record I figured now is as good a time as any to post some thoughts on the team and their future.
I didn’t expect much from the Jets this season so while the results have been disappointing I can’t say they have been unexpected. I’ve been on the record since last season ended saying that I expected that this season would be a lot like 2007 and so far I think it has been just that. For those of you who don’t remember the “Mangini (or Tangini as some called it) era” it effectively followed the same pattern we have had here except with one big difference.
Back in 2005 the Jets, who had been relatively competitive since 1998, crashed and burned. The fanbase turned on an ultra conservative coach who seemingly never improved his game management skills as well as a general manager who had salary cap issues and spent his top draft pick on Mike Nugent in the ultimate over-reaction to a playoff loss in 2004. Enter Eric Mangini and Mike Tannenbaum. Mangini was to be the bright young coach who brought discipline and a new approach to the game while Tannenbaum would be the salary cap mastermind to make it all possible as the Jets took a business first approach to the NFL.
The results in 2006 were very good. The Jets used whatever resources they had to improve the player pool and happened to get a terrific season out of always injured quarterback Chad Pennington. The Jets made the playoffs and Mangini looked like a star, getting a guest spot on the Sopranos and having a number of big media people anoint him the next great head coach.
Unfortunately for the Jets it’s not that uncommon for a rookie head coach to come out of nowhere and exceed expectations. Teams are heavily reliant on advanced scouting and there was little to draw from when it came to Mangini. Things changed in the offseason as teams had months to pick apart the head coach, the offense, the defense, and the personnel. Mangini struggled in his second year, in particular in game adjustments which led to the Jets losing a number of games in the second half.
The front office did Mangini no favors that offseason, but that was part of the plan. The team looked at the big picture and realized that 10-6 was pretty much a smokescreen and buying into that would be chasing fool’s gold. The Jets were still working on a very tight salary cap and their eyes were on the future. If they held firm their cap would open up tremendously in 2008, but if they went all in on 2007 they would likely be stuck with this group for through 2009.
With the exception of making the playoffs in his first full year as a head coach I’d say the scenarios are very similar. Bowles was brought in to bring discipline to an undisciplined group of players and manage a better game while Mike Maccagnan, opposite in the role of Tannenbaum, was to be a football guy that was supposed to bring more football and less business to the front office. Ryan Fitzpatrick clearly played the role of Pennington.
The Jets were cautious about their approach to free agency in 2016. While the team added a few veteran parts, in particular Matt Forte at running back and Steve McLendon at nose tackle, the Jets were walking cautiously with their salary cap. High priced players like Damon Harrison were not brought back while others, like Antonio Cromartie and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, were given their walking papers. Much like in 2007, it was never about this year. If things worked out that would be great but if they didn’t the Jets wanted that flexibility in the future to spend. So I’d give the Jets a pass for the season even though I’m sure I’ll be complaining during the next 13 weeks every Sunday, especially if they lose to Miami this year.
Still there are valid reasons for concerns.
The biggest difference between now and 2007 lies in the drafting. The one key to the Jets rebuild in 2006/07 was the fact that they landed two great players and two very good players in the two drafts while also adding some contributors in 2006. These were all at positions of weakness for the team. This allowed the team to build a core of talent which they were able to add veterans that filled in the gaps that the team could not address in the draft.
The results have been underwhelming with the drafts so far. Leonard Williams looks like he could be a star, but unfortunately that was already a position of strength for the team so the impact isn’t as great as it would have been at other positions. Darron Lee has had a nice enough rookie season and Lorenzo Mauldin seems to be ok, but the team hasn’t hit a Darrelle Revis or a Nick Mangold yet. The other names like Bryce Petty, Devin Smith, and Jordan Jenkins haven’t done much. The Jets used a draft pick on a punter which seems absurd given the holes on the team.
The X-factor is QB Christian Hackenberg who was considered by many to be the biggest reach in the draft. With the team struggling there could be calls for Hackenberg to get his feet wet and try to bring some brightness to a bad season. The same thing happened back in 2007 when the Jets opted to play Kellen Clemens, a 2nd round draft pick in 2006, seemingly for PR reasons as much as football reasons. It was a disaster and if Hackenberg’s career arc follows that of Clemens, odds are Maccagnan will be looking for a job sooner rather than later.
The Jets need to find some stability in their handling of contracts. When you look at the way things have gone over the past few seasons the contract strategy seems somewhat haphazard. The handing of Muhammad Wilkerson’s contract showed a lack of a cohesive strategy and, though the Jets clearly got some concessions in that contract, got them the reputation of a team that slow played their hand and lost at the end of the day.
It was somewhat similar with Ryan Fitzpatrick with whom the Jets refused to do a deal with all offseason because of his asking price but at the end of it all came across looking like a team that was somewhat desperate and gave the player what he wanted. There is nothing wrong with doing that, but if you are willing to do it just go and do it at the start of free agency. All the Jets did was create distractions about the season and they ended up in the same place anyway and again look like a team that will eventually give in if you wait long enough.
There are some trends the Jets do seem to follow with their contracts in terms of using signing bonuses versus cash guarantees but I’d like to see them prioritize more and be ahead of the game than seemingly just waiting for things to happen.
The third area of concern is the coaching. Bowles has struggled with use of timeouts and general clock management. The defense is clearly a mess with players seemingly out of position leading to numerous big plays. The pass rush has vanished despite the team having so much invested in their defensive line. It again seems like the Jets have no ability to adjust as the game goes on while other teams make efforts to exploit weaknesses they are seeing in the game. The explanations for the some of the mistakes have been poor and at times contradictory and it is an area that must improve.
Beyond that the Jets need to get some stability in their program. Keeping a bad coach or GM just for the sake of stability is not good, but neither is overreaction. Bowles mistakes are going to become a story if they continue, especially in a season where it seems there increasingly going to be less and less positives to write about. In his brief tenure with the Jets I don’t think Bowles has done anything to warrant any type of extension nor anything to warrant any firing. John Idzik simply wasn’t cut out for New York and I think it was clear he needed to be removed, but the Jets sometimes make some rash moves and they should not do that here.
The good thing about this past season is that the Jets saw the writing on the wall with Darrelle Revis and didn’t touch his contract for salary cap relief. It would have been the easiest thing to do and it would have set the Jets back two years. Revis is not the same player he was a few years ago and it was clear last season that he would be tested more. Revis carries a $15.3 million cap charge in 2017 of which $6 million is guaranteed so there is room to bring his cap figure down or to just release him outright.
In general the Jets maintained some necessary cap flexibility for the future. Of their top 12 players only Muhammad Wilkerson’s roster status is relatively firm. Everyone else can be released or have their contracts renegotiated. While I would not expect the Jets to be flush with money (I currently estimate the Jets to have the 2nd lowest projected cap space in 2017) it won’t be a crutch the way it was a few years back when Idzik took over and the Jets had one of those awful dead money seasons.
What to do for the future?
The first thing the Jets should do, if they have not done so already, is to do an honest audit of the 2017 roster. Is Ryan Clady going to be brought back? Will Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker be asked back? Will Revis accept a pay cut? Will Nick Mangold be treated just like Ferguson? Is David Harris done? Can Calvin Pryor be a safety or is he better off as a 43 linebacker? If the answer to any of those questions indicates the player won’t be on the roster the team has three weeks to try to trade them away and get some value in return.
While this sounds like a fire sale, trades in the NFL are rare and they would be lucky to trade one of these players by the trade deadline, so don’t worry it’s not like the Jets will actually rip their roster apart. It’s about being proactive for the future and trying to create a market for these players. Sometimes its even about laying the seeds for next year as they evaluate if maybe next year they can trade rather than cut any of these players.
Secondly, unless they find a trade partner which is very unlikely, they should ride out the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick. I’m not a big fan of brining a rookie in with a veteran filled roster after you have waved the white flag on the season. Rookies have a hard enough time in the NFL and the last thing you want is the possibility of vets going into business for themselves to get some positive numbers for their inevitable free agency. Hackenberg already had a ton of negativity around him because of the feeling that he was such a reach and if he does poorly the offseason will be filled with a heavy dose of questions about his future. That can be very difficult for a young QB. Very few can brush that off the way Eli Manning did after a pretty brutal rookie season.
While some might say to bring in Geno Smith what would that accomplish? Since Bowles has already said there is no QB change this week it would mean five losses by the time any switch would be made to Smith. The season is pretty much over now and would definitely be over at 1-5 or 2-5.
There is nothing to gain from voluntarily inserting Smith into the lineup. Smith is a free agent after this season and it’s quite possible he could be offered a chance to compete for a starting job next year since the Jets QB situation is so poor. However unlikely it would be that Smith would be a competent pro, it makes far more sense for the Jets to sign him for $2 million this offseason than run the risk that he leads the team to a 6-10 or 7-9 record and looks good enough to ask for more money. You’ll land in something similar to a Fitzpatrick situation all over again. If injury forces the teams hand they don’t have a choice but to roll the dice with Smith, but if they have a choice it would be, in my opinion, counterproductive to bring him in.
Beyond that I’m not really sure what vision I or anyone else would have for the team. The problems that have plagued the Jets since 2008 still seem to plague the team- non-impact drafts. It’s very hard to rebuild a franchise when year after year your drafts are producing Dee Milliner, Mark Sanchez, Quinton Coples, Kyle Wilson, Jace Amaro, Geno Smith, Devin Smith and countless others with high expectations and no results.
The Jets are a still a massive rebuilding project. They have limited talent in the secondary and in their linebacking corps. The offensive line is old as are their wide receivers. They have no youth at running back. They don’t have a QB. In two years of drafts Maccagnan has failed to replace pretty much any aging veteran with a younger player outside of Lee being and upgrade from DeMario Davis. That has to change. Those 2008 Jets were able to make the turn because of the youth of 2006 and 2007. Sadly these Jets are not ready to make that turn.
Probably the best course of action for the Jets are to try to trade whomever they can but if they can’t do it to just keep the status quo. Cutting guys just for the sake of it brings the Jets into the state of irrelevancy that they were under Idzik. Bringing Revis’ salary down or cutting him outright and also cutting Breno Giacomini, who the Jets should consider dumping this year, and Nick Folk should be enough for the Jets to function next year. Much like this year they can’t act irresponsibly in free agency as the base talent isn’t there to take that kind of risk. Add a few small pieces here and there and see if you can get any return on the aging vets on the team while younger players develop.But they have to have a home run in the draft next year. No salary cap magic, free agent signing or trade is going to have the impact of a good draft.
For Jets fans it’s a tough stretch. This is going to be the sixth straight season the Jets miss the playoffs. I feel like I’ve been through this before with the team in the pre-Parcells run, but the reality is this will now match the 1990s playoff futility run from 1992 through 1997. One more year of this nonsense and we’ll miss out on seven straight, which puts us back into the 70s era, which was before my time. The franchise isn’t at that level of rock bottom play as the Jets have had a few 0.500 seasons plus the one 10 win year, but this is an era where its hard to be as bad as the Jets were in the past. They are one of 10 teams to miss out on the playoffs for at least 6 straight years. If they continue on this same path of failing at the draft expect the playoff drought to extend well beyond the current six year streak and calls made to find a new coach and general manager in 2018.