The New York Jets committed a mortal football sin on Sunday: a win in Los Angeles. But Gang Green has nothing to apologize for.
Christmas morning came about five days early for New York Jets fans.
Week 15 action saw two of their wildest fantasies become a reality, a pair of gifts that would generate a reaction forever immortalized in home movies. The early window of Sunday action saw the New England Patriots’ postseason streak finally end in a loss in Miami. On the other side of the country, the Jets perhaps prompted toasts of Zima amongst members of the 2008 Detroit Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns. Their 23-20 win over the Los Angeles Rams…a team in legitimate contention for an NFL postseason spot…ended a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak and helped the Jets avoid 16-game imperfection.
For Jets fans, topping a team that could well be playing into February after watching the Patriots get erased from the playoff picture could’ve created rare tidings of comfort and joy. It was a feeling of watching your worst enemy have his gift of a PlayStation 5 taken away, but not before you get to use it for a couple of hours.
But, this being the year 2020 A.D., the sweetest of Sunday feelings, denied to the green New York fandom until the penultimate week of this cursed 366-day process, was viewed as the worst thing that could happen to an already star-crossed franchise.
The Jets’ victory in Los Angeles proved to be, in the eyes of some fans, an early Festivus miracle, as their feat of strength set off an airing of grievances unlike any other. Their triumph came at a price, the charge being lost real estate on the draft board in Cleveland. New York’s name now appears in the second slot, behind only the Jacksonville Jaguars, their compatriot in the brotherhood of 1-13 ledgers. Creating the imperfect, unholy trinity with the Lions and Browns has been no concern to the Jaguars, who have lost 13 in a row after winning on opening day. Their latest defeat was a listless 40-14 showing in Baltimore and they certainly won’t be favored in their final contests against Chicago and Indianapolis, each of whom harbors playoff dreams (the latter game could help the Colts win the AFC South). Jacksonville holds the tiebreaker with a worse strength of schedule.
The fear amongst Jets fans is that Jacksonville now has the inside track for Trevor Lawrence, who perhaps broke the hearts of two green teams in the span of a weekend. Saturday saw the Clemson quarterback solidify his status as the consensus top pick, torching Notre Dame for 412 total yards and three scores in a 34-10 victory in the ACC title game. Jets fans were willing to accept inclusion on the list of winless teams in NFL history in exchange for the glory of Lawrence. Now, Lawrence appears bound for Jacksonville, a five hour drive from Miami, where many believe he and the Tigers will be on January 11 for college football’s national title game.
But…it’s shocking it needs to be said, but hey, it’s 2020…what’s done is done. There’s no use crying over spilled Gatorade. The Jets won a game…and that’s perfectly all right.
Tank the Tank
The notion of tanking is ludicrous in all walks of life, particularly in a profession where you can be one of the 32 best people at your job in the entire world, and observers and supervisors alike will call for your axing.
To their macabre credit, the Jets rarely seemed to buy into the concept. Sure, there have been incidents where they might’ve been better off staying home…the brutal visits to Indianapolis, Miami, and Seattle come to mind…but one can look at the Jets’ 2020 schedule and find instances where, on paper, they should’ve come out with a win. Nothing more needs to be said about the ill-advised final blitz against Las Vegas, but they had control for a majority of prime time contests against Denver and New England. Even their first visit to SoFi Stadium could’ve gone worse, as they played the Chargers to a 34-28 decision.
Members of the modern Jets have been clear where their priorities lie. Spoiler alert, they’re not on the draft board.
“I don’t put my body through this, I don’t think anybody on the Jets puts their body through it, to lose,” offensive lineman McGovern said prior to the departure to Los Angeles, per Greg Joyce of the New York Post. “It might be easy for somebody sitting on the couch, eating pizza, chips, and dip, to say they should keep losing, but if they’ve ever strapped the pads on, that sounds like an impossible thing for me to do. I’m going to do whatever I can to win.”
Mekhi Becton, a rare Jet who has a spot on this roster beyond 2020, advocated that those rooting for losses should turn in their New York fan credentials.
“You ain’t really a fan if you didn’t want us to win, honestly,” Becton told Jeane Coakley of SNY. “I mean that in the nicest way possible. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. But I mean, if you wanted us to lose, you’re not a real fan, honestly.”
Even before the losses began to pile up, the Jets were made up of players who needed to prove their worth to build a long-term NFL future. That was apparent in general manager Joe Douglas’ free agent haul this offseason, where all but one signee (McGovern) was granted a contract worth one year or contained an affordable exit after 2020. To ask these players to toss away their final chances to impress, not only for the Jets but for the 31 other NFL squads as well, for the sake of a “reward” they maybe not even be around to witness is out of touch. For these players, these final hours could be the difference between another NFL paycheck or waiting for the XFL to come back in 2022.
Some of those holdovers are carving spots for themselves on a future roster. Midseason acquisition Ty Johnson earned the first 100-yard rushing game from a Jets rusher against Las Vegas and scored a touchdown on the opening drive against the Rams. Neville Hewitt is working his way toward another New York contract with 122 tackles. One can even point at Sam Darnold’s case as to why the Jets shouldn’t be tanking. He has, from at least a team standpoint, consequence-free opportunities to convince the Jets that he deserves to maintain his hold on the position.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that people will go to great lengths to keep their livelihoods when they’re on the line. The Jets shouldn’t be faulted for doing so in a relatively harmless fashion.
Hold that Tiger
Lawrence mastery on Saturday might’ve been just enough for even the staunchest Jets supporter to consider wearing blue, cream, and yellow in support of the Rams the next day. There’s no doubt that whoever is getting Lawrence is getting an incredible talent on and off the field. His prowess on the gridiron speaks for itself and he became a strong voice of unity and leadership elsewhere. Along with Sugar Bowl opponent and likely fellow first-rounder Justin Fields of Ohio State, Lawrence was an advocate for both societal equality and safely finding a way to play the 2020 college football amidst the ongoing health crisis.
But for all his magic, for all his powers…even Lawrence is not a be-all, end-all, fix-all solution to the New York Jets franchise.
Sure, there’s plenty of time for the Jets to tidy up and make their organization attractive to a sought-after newcomer, be a rookie like Lawrence or a veteran free agent like Allen Robinson or JuJu Smith-Schuster. But it’s going to take a lot of work. The Le’Veon Bell case perhaps set the Jets’ transactional affairs back further than they could’ve imagined. What high-ticket free agent is going to look at the way the Bell situation played out, becoming a saga plagued by infighting amongst the team’s decisionmakers and leading to the post-draft firing of a general manager, and look to replicate that? The Jets certainly have a strong budget to work with (just below $73 million and potentially counting if they cut pricey veterans like Henry Anderson and George Fant), but they’ll need to do a better job building relationships.
At the very least, Douglas has made it clear that he has a plan, leaving traces of his blueprints across his transactions, even if they haven’t fully played out. When the quarterback needed blocking, Douglas traded for Alex Lewis and convinced Ryan Kalil to come out of retirement. With Darnold low on weapons, Douglas signed Breshad Perriman and found a day two gem in Denzel Mims in the draft. Noe everything has panned out on the field…Kalil failed to play up to his Pro Bowl form and Perriman has been inconsistent…but it at least showed that Douglas knew how to chase down a need position.
There’s definitely hope on the horizon. Mims has shown flashes of brilliance despite bouts with injury and Becton has been everything the Jets could’ve asked for. But this group, particularly the offensive line, is very much a work in progress. Putting Lawrence behind the current blocking unit would be only asking for trouble. There’s time to improve between now and the spring, but, if things stay the way they are, the Lawrence era probably wouldn’t be that much different from Darnold’s.
But, contrary to popular belief amongst the pro-tank crowd, the draft does not begin and end once Lawrence’s name is called. At least 224 men will be added to NFL rosters in Cleveland, and the Jets will be choosing quite often. Cincinnati’s shocking win on Monday night over Pittsburgh, perhaps another victory seen as ill-advised by those who wish to tank, ensured that the Jets would choose no later than second overall come April. There’s plenty of other needs that can be immediately satisfied with the No. 2 pick, even if Lawrence is donning a Jaguars cap and jersey. The non-Lawrence quarterback would be well protected with the combined efforts of Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater. He can throw to Ja’Marr Chase or Devonta Smith. The yearly couple against Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa would be easier to bear pass rushers Kwity Paye or Jayson Oweh if they trade down. Others from those positions (i.e. Azeez Ojulari, Wyatt Davis, or Terrace Marshall) could be available when the Jets choose later on day one with Seattle’s pick, obtained from the Jamal Adams trade.
It’s fair to mourn the loss of Lawrence in the early going…and even more so when rewatching the film from Charlotte on Saturday…but it’s a potential loss they can overcome with the right brand of drafting and scouting ingenuity.
Change is Still Coming
The Jets might’ve been on the right side of the scoreboard after Sunday’s affair, but there were still plenty of reminders as to why they’re long eliminated from the NFL playoff picture. Inspiring and fun as the win may be…former Super Bowl offensive coordinator and Jets head coach Adam Gase remarked per The Post that “I don’t think I’ve seen a group more excited after a game than what I saw (Sunday) when talking about the postgame reaction…it’d be silly to believe that it’ll serve as the deciding factor as to whether some veterans stay or go.
From a playcalling standpoint, for example, there’s no reason to waste consequence-free games on giving the ball to Frank Gore 23 times a game while Johnson carried it only thrice (returning rookie La’Mical Perine didn’t get any). There was a chance for the Jets to build on a 13-0 lead going into the halftime break, but opted for short runs that allowed Los Angeles to get the ball back and add a triple. The defense took a notable step backward when an injured Quinnen Williams was forced to leave the game, giving up three consecutive scoring drives in the second half.
Another asterisk came in the form of the opponent. Rams rusher Cam Akers, fresh off a career-best 171-yard performance against New England, was affected by an ankle injury they stripped him of his true impact (though two long Akers runs, including a touchdown, were called back due to penalties in the second half). Even if the Jets did buy into tanking, Los Angeles almost wouldn’t allow it. Five of the first six Rams possessions ended in a punt, one of which was blocked by J.T. Hassell. The outlier in that group resulted in a Bryce Hall interception.
So, unless Johnson or Gore helped you win your fantasy football semifinal, only true football die-hards are going to remember this win. Change is still coming with to the Jets. Previews of the purge have been plentiful…just ask Bell, Steve McLendon, Avery Williamson, Pierre Desir, or Gregg Williams…but it should begin in earnest this offseason. If the Jets are truly on the fence about Gase, a December win against an opponent that was clearly not operating at top speed shouldn’t be enough to sway the pendulum back in his favor.
Douglas has a plan, picks, and prosperity through cap space. One win, even at the cost of one potential quarterback, shouldn’t be the force of destruction that upends it all.
It’s rare enough that the Jets earn a thrilling December victory in this day and age. If you’re a fan, you should feel no reservation toward celebrating it.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags