It is the first week of May. The NFL draft is but a few days into the rearview mirror. Yet, already it sounds like New York Jets owner Woody Johnson may have thrown in the towel on the 2017 season.
“Really, the way I want to be judged this year, hopefully from the fans’ standpoint, is watch how we improve during the year and look at how each individual on the team (plays) and see how they’re getting better,” Johnson said during an interview with ESPN New York on Tuesday. “If they’re getting better, that’s a mark of progress. That’s what we’re looking for.”
He didn’t come right out and say “We’re going to be bad this season” or anything like that — obviously, he’s hoping for a playoff run. It’s also not that difficult to read between the lines. Johnson called for a youth movement, a focus on a draft-and-develop model as opposed to the franchise’s aggressive dips into free agency. “I think this is a direction we have never tried in 17 years that I’ve been involved in with the Jets,” Johnson said. “We’ve never gone this way.”
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In truth, this is a pragmatic, perhaps long-overdue approach. Although they finished 10-6 in Todd Bowles’ first year as head coach (2015), the Jets have not made the playoffs since 2010. They finished 5-11 last year and — after cutting the likes of Nick Mangold, Brandon Marshall and a declining Darrelle Revis — entered the heart of the offseason with arguably one of the two or three worst rosters in the league, on paper.
Deciding to build from the bottom up, rather than try to fix their myriad problems with another ill-advised spending spree, is smart. It’s also going to be a difficult commitment to maintain, and it certainly raises the question of whether or not Bowles will be given the leeway necessary to see through a long-term project.
Bowles has produced a 15-17 record in two years. Even if Johnson takes the most patient of outlooks, will Bowles be able to retain his job if the Jets are a four- or five-win team again this year? How about in 2018?
Johnson stating in early May, right after a series of high-profile cuts and a draft that netted top-10 pick Jamal Adams, that he wants to win (eventually) with in-house talent is one thing. Sticking to that game plan if the Jets struggle to compete this season will be another.
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“Football, as a coach, you get energized every year because you’re always trying to get to the Super Bowl and win,” Bowles said at the combine in February. “There is no rebuilding, there’s always trying to win, whether you have younger player or older players, I see it as always trying to win or get better. … Whether it’s street ball or professional ball, I’m trying to win.”
Of course. No one is trying to lose in the NFL. There is no tanking going on here. Players have too much on the line to roll over during a game, and coaches know they are judged above all on the results they produce.
So will Johnson stay the course with Bowles, if those incremental individual improvements occur but the wins don’t follow?
“I think what we have done over the years is traded picks away and we’ve had too big of an emphasis on free agency and not enough emphasis on developing our own,” Johnson said during that same ESPN New York interview. “Your own guy you train from Day One and that’s going to be a guy that understands what you’re trying to accomplish. I think you’re better off with a homegrown guy.”
Again, great. Free agency can help a team round out a competitive roster, but NFL history has shown time and again that the foundation typically must come from within. Nowhere does that tend to hold true more often than at the quarterback position.
Which … well, the Jets have an issue there. They spent a 2015 fourth-round pick on Bryce Petty and a 2016 second-rounder on Christian Hackenberg before signing veteran Josh McCown this offseason, presumably to be the starter. McCown, though, is not the long-term answer at that position. Can either Petty or Hackenberg be? Early returns aren’t promising, tossing a significant wrench into the Jets’ timetable.
Regardless, there does not appear to be help on the way for the coming year. Heck, even signing McCown seems to take away from Johnson’s desire to mature his young players. If this is a throwaway season, handing heavy reps to Petty or Hackenberg makes a lot more sense than going through the motions with McCown.
This is part of the challenge Bowles faces. A coach has to deliver wins sooner rather than later, regardless of what a mess his roster may be. Jaguars ownership, for example, was as tolerant and invested in a long-term project as anyone of late; Gus Bradley was canned before his fourth year wrapped.
Bowles is headed into year three.
“We’re always trying to win,” Bowles said. “You rebuild as far as people and names, but you don’t rebuild in terms of trying to win. You’re trying to win all the time.”
Trying, yes. Capable of winning? It doesn’t look like it, at least not for the Jets in 2017. For now, that sounds like something with which Johnson is willing to live, provided he sees that so-called “improvement.”
How will he feel in November or December, if the Jets are bottom-feeders in the AFC East? And will he still include Bowles in the plans moving forward?