National eyes have turned to the New York Jets’ opening matchup in Charlotte, but the home opener against New England will be a true test.
For all its flaws, the NFL status as a genius marketing behemoth cannot be denied.
Its draft is no longer two days in April expanding into a year-round process, a major tenet of which involves a lot of Indianapolis-based spandex and bench presses. Preseason games whose box scores are immediately scorched when the clock hits all zeroes get ratings are given national priority alongside late-season baseball games.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of the NFL’s stranglehold on the American imagination is the release of its annual schedule. The question of “who” yields no surprises…14 of a given team’s 17 opponents are predetermined years in advance and 17 are solidified by the end of final week action…but the question of “when”, the mere attachment of times and dates to these matchups, causes We the People to lose our collective minds. Playoff races in basketball and hockey are cast aside on national highlights show to debate whether the Chicago Bears deserved the Thanksgiving treatment.
Despite the relative lack of surprises, the New York Jets did learn some intriguing info. Though bereft of prime time games, save for a November Thursday night’s excursion to Indianapolis, the Jets will nonetheless study abroad in London, facing off with Atlanta in October. But the matchup everyone’s talking about comes in the Jets’ Week 1 visit to Charlotte to battle the Carolina Panthers.
By now, everyone knows what’s at stake at Bank of America Stadium come September 12: the hope of the Jets’ present and future meets the ghost of all-too-recent football past in the form of Sam Darnold (and Robby Anderson, among others). Despite the combatants carrying over a combined six wins from 2020, many have pegged the interconference showdown as one of the most anticipated get-togethers of opening weekend.
Opening with Carolina works from a Jets perspective in the sense that they can remove Darnold from their list of early “distractions” and carry on with the rest of what’s sure to be a developmental year. But, to that end, their home opener in Week 2 may loom even larger.
For their 2021 home opener, the Jets will welcome the New England Patriots into East Rutherford for the first of their yearly pair. What happens for those precious three hours at MetLife Stadium could well set a permanent tone for what the Jets’ leadership triumvirate of Joe Douglas, Woody Johnson, and Robert Saleh are trying to build.
Put aside the fact that three Presidents of the United States have held office and 11 Marvel Cinematic Universe films have been released since the Jets have emerged victorious from a showdown with the Patriots. Zach Wilson’s presumed home opener will mean everything to a Jets team that must do everything in its power to get started on the right note.
It might feel like an eternity since the Jets had a winning record, but one only has to flashback to September 2018. A 48-17 win over the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football had the fanbase buzzing. The fact that Sam Darnold’s first NFL pass was a pick-six was offset by a strong defensive effort (five turnovers) and the run game run up 179 on the ground. Darnold even made up for his early gaffe with two touchdown tosses in the dominant effort.
However, things came to a crashing halt in the MetLife Stadium opener against Miami. Facing off against future boss Adam Gase, the Jets surrendered the first 20 points before making things somewhat respectable late in a 20-12 loss. It was a sloppy game whose final score was nowhere near indicative of just how one-sided it was.
Now, the Darnold/Gase era didn’t falter solely because they lost to the Dolphins in Week 2 of the former’s rookie campaign. But, in hindsight, it served as perfect foreshadowing of the struggles to come: they turned the ball over three times, saw their rushing protection fall to 41 yards on 17 attempts, and allowed Darnold to get sacked three times. Penalties were prevalent, with the Jets losing 50 yards on seven infractions. Three resulted in Miami’s first downs and a particularly embarrassing sequence
The Jets are still trying to pick up the pieces to this day. That loss signaled the beginning of the end of the Todd Bowles era, mustering a mere three wins after that before he was let go at the end of his third season at the helm. It placed the Jets on a collision course with the disastrous Gase era, a period whose strongest yield was probably the fact it led the hiring of a sound football mind like Saleh, whose arrival has garnered praise both domestically and abroad.
Miami was merely a microcosm of what was to come under Darnold, as it highlighted the issues that would plague his star-crossed New York career. Of the ten starting men that suited up for the Jets that afternoon, only one other (Chris Herndon) was on the team in 2020. The Dolphins were credited with only three sacks of Darnold, but he was nonetheless forced to run for his life, to the tune of five other quarterback takedowns.
Negligence on both the offensive line (featuring only one player chosen within the first day of the draft, the former Seattle Seahawk James Carpenter) and run game (Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell) was a hint of things to come. Current management has seen to counter these issues, using first-round choices (Mehki Becton/Alijah Vera-Tucker) to protect Wilson and bolstering the run game with a stopgap rusher who has been a vital cog in Super Bowl runs (Tevin Coleman).
This season’s home opener is also going to take on a special meaning. Improvements have been discussed ad nauseam but MetLife Stadium will be packed to the brim with fans for a Jets game for the first time since December 2019. We, the football-loving people, have been through a lot over the past year-plus. Fans of the Jets and 13 other NFL teams were denied the simple pleasure of spending Sunday in a parking lot, surrounded by 80,000 of their new best friends. With restrictions loosening across the country, it feels (knock on wood) like it’s only a matter of time before all 30 NFL facilities get the go-ahead to pack the house. No matter the result that day, the first spelling of Jets will be downright emotional.
A brilliant tone can be set for the team moving forward, or another distressing sign of things to come could emerge. What the Jets do in these early hours will mean the world.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags