Fans across the tri-state area admonished the New York Jets for the sin of playing better football on Monday night.
Let’s be clear from the get-go that while metropolitan fans have been forced to deal with a lot in the year 2020, it pales in comparison to the issues on a broader scale. If the biggest problem in your life is seeing Henrik Lundqvist in a Washington Capitals sweater or that the New York Knicks fell in the NBA draft lottery, you’re a lot better off than at least 99.999999999 percent of the rest of the world, especially in these trying times.
That being said, it was hard not to send at least a few sympathies to New York Jets fans on Monday night.
If only because New York City skyline shots are ratings gold, the Jets partook in their second nationally televised NFL game this season on Monday night, their AFC East showdown with the New England Patriots streamed to the masses of a football-loving public. Placing such a matchup in a national TV slot more or less explains why Hollywood keeps churning out gory, repetitive interations of franchises like Saw: they’re violent, often one-sided, and unpleasant from anything but a macabre sense, but people keep watching them, so the powers that be continue to make sure they remain in production. Since 2010, seven New York-New England get-togethers have been placed in either the primetime windows of Sunday, Monday, or Thursday night. The Jets have lost each of those meetings, including a 30-27 last-second defeat on the most recent edition of ESPN’s Monday Night Football. It’s the Jets’ ninth consecutive loss to New England and their ledger reads 0-9 for the first time in franchise history…a mark so dubious even Rich Kotite and Co. managed to avoid it.
Yet, when Nick Folk’s 51-yard triple sailed through the uprights as time expired, Jets fans throughout the tri-state area were…relieved?
Yes, the 2020 season has become so wretched for Jets fans that they are actually resorting to begging the Patriots to humiliate them. Such declarations are made in the name of tanking, the supposed art of intentionally losing games so as to secure a better draft pick. As the only winless team left in the NFL and only one single-win left on the docket (the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars), the Jets are well in position to secure the top overall choice, presumably to be used on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Tanking has become a far-too-common entry in the New York sports ledgers recently. The Jets’ case to do only increases due to the NFL Draft’s straightforward method of sorting. Unlike their counterparts on the ice and hardwood, the NFL eschews a lottery system, merely ranking non-playoff teams from worst to best record in determining the first 18 picks. A lower strength of schedule serves as the primary tiebreaker. It’s understandable that fans comfort themselves through thinking of the future, whether it’s via endless visits to Tankathaon or rhyming/alliterating social media tags (#TheEndeavorForTrevor).
The Jets have had to deal with accusations of tanking after eight straight defeats (with an average margin of defeat at three possessions). A mini fire-sale that bid farewell to touted names like Le’Veon Bell (released), Steve McLendon, and Avery Williamson (the latter two traded for day three draft picks) did nothing to ax those notions. Head coach Adam Gase, perhaps the most common name on the top of many Jets’ fan purge lists, insisted that it wasn’t a sign of a complete 2020 shutdown.
“I never look at waving the white flag. That’s not in my DNA,” Gase said earlier this fall, per Rich Cimini of ESPN. Regarding the departures, Gase noted that “I know it’s not always ideal, but that’s the NFL. That’s what it is. That’s part of what happens when you don’t win. We’re at a part of the season where we haven’t won a game yet, and things like this happen”.
But obsessively, almost masochistically, hoping your team loses is not the way to go.
For one thing, the unpredictable nature of the NFL Draft is too much to hinge every one of your future hopes on. One look at the countless montages all of the football rights-holders play on draft weekend showcasing the Jets’ high-profile misses should tell you that. Even if the Jets do earn the No. 1 pick and the presumed rights to Lawrence, he’s not going to wave a magic wand and make them into a contender again. It should be clear at this point that the Jets don’t seem to be making any major decisions when it comes to the beleaguered coaching staff, at least before the year lets out.
The macabre silver lining of such a woebegone record is the gift of consequence-free opportunities (at least from a franchise standpoint) for your team on game day, chances to work with research and development, see what works and what doesn’t. For their part, the Jets did seem to take advantage of this dark gift and played their best game of the season on Monday night. Sure, the Tom Brady-free Patriots aren’t what they used to be, but the fact that the Jets put up a good effort against a desperate divisional foe should be inspiring to whatever fans have opted to stick around for this.
Yet, what could’ve been a night of hope and inspiration was instead one of fear for the fanbase for the majority of the evening. The mortal sin of a New York sports rooting for a Boston team is often only applied in “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” situations. There were probably New York Yankees fans that secretly clamored for the Red Sox to top the Mets in the 1986 World Series. The New York Giants’ faithful donned a new shade of blue for Super Bowl LII, unsuccessfully getting behind the Patriots’ championship cause against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Fans must realize, though: even if games have no consequence in the long run…box scores from the final seven games might week be erased from the New York archives at the end of the season. But to these players, Monday’s game in New England…and the final seven games overall…mean everything.
A combination of health and social factors have served as reminders that these athletes are human. These are not interchangeable parts. Living, breathing men and women partake in these games for our entertainment, a form of amusement we, the sports-loving people, have turned to in these times of turmoil. The dark side of it is that careers and livelihoods are on the line. For some on this Jets roster, it could be the last time they see their names on an NFL depth chart. To tell these players to toss a game aside so your team will be on the clock sooner…potentially taking that player’s replacement…is naive. Tanking is a ludicrous notion in any sport. Asking players to do so in the 16-game nature of the NFL makes it even more callous in the wider picture.
Take, for example, Folorunso Fatukasi. A native of Far Rockaway and now-defunct Beach Channel High School, Fatukasi has been on and off the Jets’ active roster since joining the team as a sixth-round pick in 2018. There was promise on display from Fatukasi last season after missing all but one game in his rookie year, but perhaps nothing to truly solidify his status for the Jets’ future. His case, and perhaps many others, was perhaps hurt by a lack of preseason games, exhibitions canceled in the wake of the ongoing health crisis. The casual observer might not be able to tell whether Fatukasi was more likely destined for the Jets or, say, an XFL roster in the future.
But with injuries and the ongoing purge taking over, Fatukasi has pounced on his newfound opportunity, particularly when McLendon was dealt to Tampa Bay. His Monday output (7 tackles, including a big fourth-down stop that eventually led to a Jets field goal) added to his impressive 2020 resume, one that has him ranked in the top ten of Pro Football Focus’ interior defensive lineman ratings.
Do you really want to tell this guy to quit now for the mere possibility of hope later? Fakutasi admitted that the situation is far from ideal, but he and his fellow Jets are committed to figuring things out immediately.
“It is frustrating,” Fatukasi said, per Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post. “But we’ve still got a lot more work to do and guys are going to make sure that we’re encouraged to get this thing turned around somehow.”
Even before his big Monday night moment, Fakutasi was adamant that tanking wasn’t in the Jets’ vocabulary, without ever having to say those cursed words.
“It is Monday night football, but at the end of the day it is another game, another opportunity,” Fatukasi said in a pregame report from Jack Bell of NYJets.com “My biggest objective is to go in and play as hard as I can with my teammates, rally with my teammates, and play a good game.”
“This is what we play for…to get a W.”
— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) November 10, 2020
Do you really want to tell a guy like that to lose on purpose? Do you really want to tell the Jets’ upcoming free agent group, consisting of 28 players, some of whom will be biting and crawling for a chance to stay in the league, that their futures mean nothing? If and when Sam Darnold returns, shouldn’t he get seven final opportunities to prove he’s the Jets’ franchise man?
The sheer quality of upcoming opponents may wind getting the Jets the top overall pick their fans so desire. Five of the Jets’ final seven adversaries are either in a current playoff spot or at the very least tied for one. The exceptions are a Week 17 rematch with the Patriots in New England and their next immediate game against the Los Angeles Chargers following their bye. Los Angeles is only two wins up on the Jets, but, unlike New York, the Bolts at least seem to have some semblance of hope. Justin Herbert appears to be their franchise man and the six losses on their slate have come by a combined 24 points.
Realistically, the pro-tank party’s philosophy could be the talk of the team as they freefall toward an imperfect season. That outlook involves embracing the positives gleaned…and one could look at young developments like Denzel Mims and smile…while thanking the football gods that the Jets did just enough to add another tally to the right-hand side of the win-loss column.
But you can be assured that the Jets won’t buy into the tanking philosophy. If postgame comments from Monday’s aftermath ring true, they’re focused on November/December 2020…not April 2021.
At least in the grand scheme of things, Jets losses are heartbreaking again. Guard Greg Van Roten made of this change in a report from Brian Costello of the New York Post. Van Roten made it clear that the best way out of the Jets’ current woes it to go out and win a game.
“A loss like that is heartbreaking because it’s ‘Monday Night Football’ and it comes down to the very last play of the game,” Van Roten said. “I felt like we played well enough to win and just didn’t finish. You lose and you come in on a day like today and everyone’s spirits are down. You have to watch the film, see what you did well and build on that, see what you did not so well and correct it and you have to move on. We have a bye week to kind of recover a little bit, get healthy physically and mentally and hit the ground running when we get out of the break and just go win a game.”
“In this league, you have to play with confidence,” quarterback Joe Flacco added in the same report. “The more you lose, the harder it is to do that. The more you win, you expect to go out there and run for 200 yards and throw for 350 and score five touchdowns. You expect to do that. Right now, the way we’re playing, we’re trying to convince ourselves that that’s going to be the case. We don’t really know. We’ve just got to go out there and continue to believe, continue to take it day by day.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags