The New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals are each seeking returns to glory. Arizona showed why they have a major head start on Sunday.
New York Jets fans may think they have it back, but supporters of the Arizona Cardinals have about a half-century headstart if the two sides were to engage in comparing struggles of NFL fandom.
Technically speaking, the Cardinals first came to life as “Morgan Athletic Club” on the South Side of Chicago in 1898…14 years before Arizona was admitted to the Union. The organization that came to become Cardinals first partook in professional competition in 1920, though they’ve struggled to stock their trophy case since then. They mustered only two NFL championships prior to the 1970 merger and have appeared in a single Super Bowl through endeavors in Chicago, St. Louis, and The Grand Canyon State. Unlike the Jets, the Cardinals couldn’t come home with a victory in that visit to the Big Game (though it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying).
Thus, both the Cardinals and Jets are used to the concept of a rebuild. A good number of their quadrennial meetings have been played in the backdrop of such. Sunday’s Week 5 get-together was no exception.
Enough has been written in metropolitan circles about the Jets’ playoff drought, one that’s set to graduate from elementary school at this rate. This latest portion of perpetual reconstruction appeared to provide assurances of a reliable franchise quarterback in Sam Darnold and a well-founded offensive mind in Adam Gase. As the first four weeks had proven, both of those expectations have now only been added to the Jets’ endless list of questions. Darnold was held from the Arizona matchup, leading to Joe Flacco taking his place.
Sunday was perhaps meant to be the first professional meeting between Darnold and his fellow Southern California native, college football legend, and 2018 draftee Josh Rosen. Instead, Rosen and head coach Steve Wilks seem like a distant memory, respectively replaced by NFL sophomores Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury (he of two NFL passes, both with the Jets).
While the Cardinals were the strong favorites in Sunday’s meeting…and the 30-10 final decision in their favor did nothing to dispel that notion…it would be fair to say that, from a team standpoint, both sides had little to lose in whatever kind of season the NFL would be able to wrangle out of 2020. The Jets had to deal with an upstart Buffalo team and the eternal contenders from New England in their division. Arizona’s NFC West brethren have represented the conference in five of the past eight Super Bowls. Missing the playoffs at this point in their respective franchise timelines would be nothing to be upset about.
However, one player showcased just how wide the divide is between the modern incarnations of these star-crossed franchises: Arizona receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Hopkins is used to restoring football entities back to their former state of glory. A breakout sophomore season at Clemson commenced an unprecedented, ongoing streak of success for the Tigers. Once acquired by the Houston Texans, another breakout second-year saw the NFL’s youngest franchise leap from two wins to nine. He went on to oversee what’s been Houston’s most successful endeavors, earning winning season in five of his six campaigns.
A since-fired head coach/general manager (Bill O’Brien) offered Hopkins’ services to a devouring NFL public this offseason. Each of Houston’s 31 competitors had reason to engage in trade talks, but both New York and Arizona had special cases.
The Jets’ approach to the 2020 offseason was an understandable undertaking: find protection for Darnold. For all their shortcomings, the Jets did manage to somewhat succeed in that regard, mostly through the drafting of Mekhi Becton at No. 11 overall. But Darnold’s weaponry remained a question. The Jets let Robby Anderson abscond to Carolina with little resistance and the selection of Becton came with the sacrificial bypassing of several elite receiving prospects (Henry Ruggs, CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy). With Darnold’s sense of on-field continuity mostly gone…tight end Chris Herndon was the only receiver leftover from his rookie season…the Jets opted to sign December wonder Breshad Perriman, who was finally showcasing his first-round potential in Tampa Bay after an injury to Mike Evans.
They also drafted Baylor playmaker Denzel Mims with their first post-Becton selection, but bringing in a talent like Hopkins could’ve worked wonders, provided a heavenly spark of momentum for a team struggling to light a match. They had the cap space to work with as well, partially boosted by the releases of veterans like Trumaine Johnson and Brian Winters. The Jets also had some extra draft capital to work with as well, the most high-profile addition being a day two choice earned through the Leonard Williams trade.
It was a day two pick that eventually netted Hopkins, but it was Arizona who pounced. In exchange for rusty former fantasy football hero David Johnson, an immediate second-round choice, and a fourth-rounder reserved for next spring, Hopkins joined a mostly homegrown arsenal featuring Christian Kirk, sophomore projects Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson..and, of course, the eternal Larry Fitzgerald.
Therein lies the difference between the Jets and Cardinals: Arizona surrounded their franchise catalyst with weaponry that can assist in present and future exploits. The Jets opted to focus solely on the future…without trying to prove anything in the present. Arizona (3-2) is thus blessed with a rebuild that’s ahead of schedule. The might Seahawks and Rams (a combined 9-1) present a major problem, but they’re currently tied with Carolina for the last spot in the premature NFC wild-card picture, bolstered by an opening weekend win over defending Big Game finalists in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Jets wallow in the NFL’s cellar, morbidly counting down the days until a purge that presumably waiting until the offseason.
That was purely on display on Sunday. Hopkins earned a game-best 131 yards on six receptions, his last being a 37-yard scoring hookup between him and Murray that created the final margin and inexplicably led to an unsuccessful two-point conversion after the Jets invaded the neutral zone on the extra point. Hopkins’ performance shows that not even Gregg Williams’ defense can be exempt from the changes ahead, while also giving the Jets (0-5) an all-too-relevant case of what might’ve been. Neither Perriman nor Mims was available for Sunday’s proceedings, each sidelined due to injuries.
Injuries should never be held against NFL players. Football is a violent game, one that can swipe away fortunes and glory in the blink of an eye, as Dallas Cowboys Dak Prescott tragically found out the hard way in Sunday’s late window. There’s still time for Perriman to live up to the $8 million the Jets are paying him for what’s currently a single year of service and Mims has a lot of time to show that he can be a day two receiving gem. However, Hopkins’ showing in East Rutherford can serve as a bit of reckoning for general manager Joe Douglas as well.
As a relatively late arrival to the proceedings of the Darnold era, Douglas has a bit of a longer leash than some of his green comrades. Hopkins held not only Douglas’ regime accountable, but that of Mike Maccagnan’s as well. For all the negligence Maccagnan displayed on the offensive line, the receiving corps remained famished as well. The four receivers chosen in Maccagnan drafts (Devin Smith, Charone Peake, ArDarius Stewart, Chad Hansen in 2015-19) earned a combined 47 receptions. None of them are currently in the Jets’ organization and only Smith (a second-round choice in 2015) is still on the outskirts of an NFL roster (Houston’s practice squad).
Douglas has built goodwill in green circles by addressing the blocking woes Maccagnan more or less ignored and netting two first-round picks for a certain star safety that napalmed every bridge he had in New York. But the failure to surround Darnold with weapons could well for the downfall for both of them. Watching Hopkins on MetLife Stadium’s treacherous turf forced one to recall that Douglas addressed rumors of Hopkins and Stefon Diggs (who’s off to a tremendous in Buffalo) with claims of “due diligence” and not having “a ton of discussions with the Texans” (per ESPN’s Rich Cimini).
Maybe acquiring Hopkins would’ve cost the Jets a little too much of their offseason capital. 2020 was never meant to be a playoffs-or-bust season (even in these dark modern times, Christopher Johnson has refused to place a postseason mandate on the beleaguered Gase). But the opportunity for the Jets to take a major step forward has come and gone. No one’s entirely sure when, or even if, the next one’s going to come.
There are many unfortunate occasions that could well come to define the 2020 New York Jets. Watching Hopkins tear up a field he could’ve called his own could be one of the many turning points this team in flux and transition is going to work with.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags