Trading off the faces of the franchise is working to the New York Jets’ benefit, but the on-field yields have made them impossible to enjoy.
The New York Jets’ most fruitful endeavors of the 2021 season came in Week 6. By perhaps no coincidence, that week of action marked the Jets’ annual bye week.
The 2021-22 NFL playoff bracket was never going to be the primary criteria for judging the Jets’ season. This year’s AFC environment was already packed to the brim with established division favorites: the Jets’ own East division is set to be dominated by a Western New York overlord for the foreseeable future. Tennessee has taken over the South as expected while pleasant surprises have emerged in Cincinnati and Las Vegas.
The wild card picture features expected contenders like the Ravens, Chargers, Browns, and Steelers. In Kansas City, the two-time defending conference champion Chiefs are shockingly fighting for their lives. Asking a two-win team to launch themselves into that conversation, no matter how much they changed during the offseason, was always a very tall ask, one not even worth asking. Appearing in the “in the hunt” column on the postseason charts NFL broadcasters break out around the holidays was probably going to be the best-case scenario for the team.
Nonetheless, there was much to gain in year one of the shared Robert Saleh/Zach Wilson era, the official start of Joe Douglas’ general manager tenture after he installed his own head coach and quarterback. Progress was the name of the game and it would’ve been hard to take steps backward from the final years of the Adam Gase era. The Jets were left in such dire straits from Gase’s two-year watch that there was no way for them to fully fill all the boxes on their offseason checklist, but Douglas did a solid job nonetheless.
But the biggest moves of Douglas’ offseason were done not in the name of the present, but the future. Douglas officially left his mark on the organization through the trade of previous franchise quarterback Sam Darnold, paving the way for Wilson’s arrival. In return for a quarterback with a career 78.6 passer rating and an unforunate injury history, Douglas was able to secure a second and fourth-round pick from the Carolina Panthers. Darnold’s departure came nearly nine months after fellow franchise face Jamal Adams was shipped off to Seattle for each of the Seahawks’ first-round picks over the next two drafts.
For the time being, Douglas’ deals look like the finest New York-based robbery since Clive Owen and Co.’s heist in Spike Lee’s Inside Man. Adams may have earned his desired big contract but has failed to stop Seattle’s Russell Wilson-free descent. His first playoff experience was a Wild Card disappointment that failed to stop an injured Los Angeles Rams passing tandem of Jared Goff and John Wolford. Seattle’s ugly Monday night loss to New Orleans currently positions the Jets in the eighth slot of the current 2022 draft board, one of the two appearances within the first octology.
Meanwhile, Darnold became instant comedic fuel for those seeking a cheap laugh at the Jets’ expense: as his Panthers started 3-0 (wins coming against the Jets, Saints, and Texans), many were ready to put him in Canton for his services of making Gang Green look even more inept. Carolina has since dropped four in a row, the latest loss being a listless 25-3 defeat at the hands of the lowly Giants. Darnold was benched for de facto XFL MVP P.J. Walker in defeat and the Panthers reportedly remain interested in the services of the burdened Deshaun Watson, a sweepstakes Douglas smartly reclused himself from.
Per Tankathon, the Jets are slated to visit the podium four times over the first 45 selections if the current pace continues. That alone should make the team smile and emerge from the 2021 campaign with good feelings.
Alas, what’s happening on the field makes it absolutely impossible to appreciate the yields off of it.
The Jets (1-5) are somehow finding rockier bottoms than those reached under Gase, much like how Gase “accomplished” dubious distinctions Rick Kotite’s doomed groups managed to avoid. New York’s new futility was best personified through their most recent defeat, a 54-13 shellacking at the hands of the New England Patriots.
Few remnants of the New England dynasty linger since Tom Brady flew south, but their monopoly over the Jets is a troubling leftover: of the Patriots’ ten wins earned in the post-Brady era, four have come against the hapless Jets. East Rutherford’ portion of the 2021 meetings was equally ugly, as the Jets failed to visit the end zone in a 25-6 defeat. A week later, they were on the wrong end of a shutout in Denver, the tenth scoreboard blank in the NFL since 2019. Of those no-shows, the Jets have been responsible for three of them.
In further Sunday struggles, the 54 points were the most scored by a Jets opponent since the team let up 56 to those same Patriots in 1979. It was also the eighth time in franchise history that the Jets let up at least 550 yards in a game since opening weekend of the 1998 season. Unlike that overtime thriller in San Francisco, no divisional title/AFC title game appearance awaits at the end.
What New England did on Sunday is what, frankly, the Jets should be doing. Nobody is expecting them to light up the scoreboard on a weekly basis (nor should they) but the Jets’ lack of on-field progress is disturbing. Solace can be gained from the fact that the team is well-set for the future…the elevator ride up the draft board is the sweetest form of gridiron schadenfreude…but it’s hard to get excited when the on-field product suggests that there’s still so much to work on.
Douglas’ drafts have also done little to inspire faith in the draft day rewards. Sure, his primary picks (Mekhi Becton, Alijah Vera-Tucker) have provided a solid foundation for the wall in front of Wilson. But addressing the entire body of work is a new exercise in football frustration and futility.
Take his original class in 2020, for example. Becton has been strong but has spent most of this season on injured reserve (along with sixth-round punter Braden Mann). Nothing more needs to be written about second-round weapon Denzel Mims’ lack of snaps (his 20 on Sunday were a season-best). Jabari Zuniga (3rd) and James Morgan are already gone while Morgan’s fellow fourth-rounders La’Mical Perine and Cameron Clark have united for a single snap this season. While there’s hope for secondary defenders Ashtyn Davis and Bryce Hall, they haven’t made any of the missed opportunities worth forgetting: for example, Jeremy Chinn, Logan Wilson, and Antonio Gibson went within the immediate ten post-Mims picks. The already pointless selection of Morgan is even more bizarre considering Gabriel Davis went to Buffalo three choices later.
It’s great that the Jets have accumulated such valuable draft capital…but does that mean much when the on-field product still wallows in gridiron shame?
Granted, there’s still time for the Jets to come out clean on the other side of this season: arguing about the fates of Saleh and Wilson (who is missing at least the next two weeks with an injury) is pointless: even the Jets won’t be so impatient to give up on them after one year. Another macabre gift has been bestowed in the sense that the Jets’ season is so far gone and already removed from the postseason that they have 11 consequence-free opportunities to stage free research and development for the future, starting with Sunday’s visit from the AFC North leaders from Cincinnati (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Douglas arrived in one of the most thankless jobs in professional sports. To his credit, he’s making the best of it through not only his draft board maneuvering but late summer cuts that have created a professional future for themselves (i.e. Quincy Williams, Ty Johnson). Trading off the franchise faces and his action on the offensive line was refreshing after years of Mike Maccagnan-supervised negligence. To say Douglas has the best intentions would perhaps be the understatement of this young season.
But if good intentions served as championship criteria, everyone would be undefeated.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags