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New York Jets: Having a Plan Does Not Equal Having a Good Plan

Jeff Zelevansky

There is an article on Grantland today by Bill Barnwell generating a lot of buzz today. Barnwell defends John Idzik's vision for the Jets. While I think Barnwell is a great writer (and I mean that; he's one of my favorites), I think in this piece he leans on the same stale talking points we've heard since March. He does make some valid points. It is too early to totally write off Idzik's Draft classes, but there are many things he says that frankly rely on wishful thinking.

Let's dive in.

Take, for example, the idea that Idzik is somehow frugally holding on to his cap space while Jets fans shell out for some of the most expensive tickets in the league. This isn’t late-’90s baseball. There’s absolutely no relationship between in-stadium ticket prices and team spending; every team in the NFL has more than enough money to spend beyond the salary cap, by virtue of the league’s massive national television contract. The economics of one simply have nothing to do with the other. The Jets charge a ton for tickets because they think the market will give them a ton for tickets.

The fact the NFL has a bigger national television contract than Major League Baseball doesn't make the ticket prices fans pay any less expensive. Fans expect results. It's easy to misrepresent what people say. That doesn't mean you cut corners or go for quick fixes. I think those representing what ticket holders say in that way are selling the fan base short. The pulse of the fan base last year that I saw understood it would likely be a rough 2013. 8-8 seemed pretty good. People were fine with it. We weren't expecting a championship this year. I'm not sure how many expected a championship this year. What people did want to see was progress that has been lacking.

Gang Green has just less than $24 million in cap space, the second-largest figure in football behind the Jaguars ($29 million). It’s natural to think in the short term that the Jets would be better if they had committed that $24 million to players in free agency this offseason, but that ignores two simple concepts.

I think the fact we are mentioning Jacksonville is probably a bad sign, but this isn't about spending it all against not spending it all. People view these things in a way that is far too black and white. People say Mike Tannenbaum's problem was spending too much. There's a difference between spending and spending foolishly. Being a general manager is much more art than science. It's about making individual decisions. You can't have some blanket idea that you're going to spend X no matter what the market looks like.

One is the idea of cap rollover — namely, if the Jets don’t spend that $24 million this year, they can roll it over to create more space on next year’s cap. They weren’t able to do that this offseason, having carried over just $1.5 million in cap space from 2013, which was below the league median of $2.3 million. While the NFL salary cap next year is estimated to be about $140 million, the Jets will get to spend up to $164 million.

Second is the concept of opportunity cost. Spending that money on players now means you’re unable to carry that money over to the future, when you may very well have better (or more expensive) talent available to pursue. It also takes away roster spots from young players who come through the draft, which is where you’re always going to find the most surplus value to build the most sustainable, effective football team.

Look at Idzik’s past and you can see whom he’s emulating. Idzik came from Seattle, where the general manager is John Schneider, who comes from the Ted Thompson tree of managers. Thompson-style general managers hoard draft picks, maintain cap flexibility, and generally avoid the middle class of free agency, only occasionally jumping into the water for a big splash. In fact, the only real missteps Schneider has made during his time at the helm in Seattle have come in free agency, as big deals for players like Matt Flynn, Sidney Rice, and Zach Miller have produced disappointing results, while short-term deals for Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were wildly successful.

Deciding to sit on money also comes with an opportunity cost. If the Jets had passed on Eric Decker, one of Idzik's few shining moves during the offseason, they would have even more money to roll over. Accumulating cap space isn't the name of the game. Don't get me wrong. You want cap space. The reason you want it isn't to stockpile it. It's to maximize the effectiveness of your resources. If you pass up opportunities that make sense now for something better that might come later, that doesn't seem wise.

I would also dispute the notion the Jets have created flexibility. I'll refer you to this article Smackdad wrote in March on the salary floor. The numbers are a bit different now, but the underlying point remains the same. Over the next two years the Jets might have a very difficult time spending to hit the salary floor. That would be one thing if there were no opportunities that made sense this year. I question the idea there were none, though. At any rate needing to spend a large sum in a short timeframe when the quality of players who will be available and the market are unknown is the opposite of flexibility.

With that surely in mind, Idzik’s philosophy in free agency has been mostly to stick with short-term, low-risk contracts. He went deep for wideout Eric Decker, filling what even Idzik critics would agree was a massive hole by getting the best free agent available at the position with a five-year, $36.25 million deal. Also, offensive lineman Breno Giacomini signed a four-year, $18 million contract. Otherwise, contracts for veterans like Chris Johnson, Jason Babin, and Michael Vick have all been relatively short, cheap, or both. That’s not Idzik trying to pinch pennies. It’s Idzik emulating the success of the Seahawks, the Packers, and (although Jets fans might not want to hear it) the Patriots. Bad teams spend to the cap for the sake of spending money.

Decker was a good move. I agree. It's odd to praise it given the way the last paragraph warned against free agent spending and praised hoarding cap space.

Idzik had to operate in the low-cost free-agent market because there was very little left in the cupboard when he took over. This was the depth chart in January 2013, shortly before Idzik joined the Jets. It features, by my count, just 17 players who are still on the Jets roster, and most of the departed are veterans who are either done playing football or disappointing on somebody else’s roster. Should Idzik have used the cap space he had to re-sign the likes of Shonn Greene, Austin Howard, or LaRon Landry, who each got ponderously large deals elsewhere?

It’s fair to say many of the short-term stopgaps haven’t paid out, and some have embarrassed the team. Mehta cites the off-field issues of players like Kellen Winslow Jr. and Mike Goodson as evidence it was a mistake to sign them, while cornerback Dimitri Patterson bizarrely signed before the 2014 season and had to be released, leaving the Jets perilously thin. Mehta treats David Garrard as a "notable acquisition," which is odd for a quarterback who was signed to a one-year deal for the league minimum. In virtually all these cases, Idzik was throwing a short-term solution at the wall and hoping it stuck. Better Vick at $2 million for one year than, say, Josh McCown at two years and $10 million.

Given where the Jets are, that’s not a stupid idea. As I wrote about in the team’s preseason preview, previous general manager Mike Tannenbaum frequently traded up in drafts and used draft picks to acquire veterans, leaving the Jets with virtually nothing on their current roster from their 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 drafts. Idzik surely wants to replace those absent holes with draftees, but it takes time to acquire those picks and develop those players.

And it’s hard to say that Idzik has been a subpar drafter. His first selection in 2013, cornerback Dee Milliner, struggled in much the same way most rookie cornerbacks do before suffering a high ankle sprain that has kept him out for virtually all of the 2014 campaign.1 Idzik’s other first-rounder, Sheldon Richardson, won defensive rookie of the year. Brian Winters, the team’s third-round pick, has been disappointing at guard. It seems insane to suggest it’s time to evaluate Idzik’s 12 picks from the 2014 draft beyond noting that it’s frustrating to see fourth-rounder Jalen Saunders already released. Idzik’s draft record may turn out to be unsatisfactory, but it’s far too soon to tell.2

This is somewhat fair here. No question he was limited in what he could do in 2013. Outside of Howard I wouldn't have wanted to keep those guys at the deals they got. Mehta made some odd choices when he discussed Idzik's poor decisions.

That said, these were not the only options. How about Golden Tate at a cap hit of $3.1 million this year? He's on pace for 1,400 yards. He said just last week he would have listened to the Jets. How about Emmanuel Sanders at a cap hit of $5 million. He's on pace for over 1,700 yards. Even once you adjust for the stat inflation of the Denver offense, he would have been a bargain and a big upgrade over what the Jets had.

It is too early to write the book about Idzik as a drafter. Richardson was a great pick. Many questioned it. I questioned it. We were all wrong on that one.

I will say this. Picking Saunders early in the fourth round and cutting him a quarter of the way through year one is a miss in an inexcusably huge way. This is an early fourth rounder who is on a practice squad. It shows that Idzik was the only one in the league who put such a premium on him, and he was wrong. As far as his first Draft goes, Richardson has All Pro potential. It gets shaky after that. Milliner has proven little. Geno Smith looks like a complete whiff so far. So does Brian Winters. He also took Winters over Keenan Allen. A bit of a second guess? Perhaps, but Allen was the consensus best player at what was the biggest position of need at the time. Idzik would be getting plenty of praise had he picked Allen, right?

So there are most definitely some troubling signs on this front. Too early to say he's a dud drafter. I agree with that. But it isn't all roses right now.

Look at the depth chart of the Seahawks from October 1 of Schneider’s second year with the team as a sign of how much work still had to be done. Schneider had already acquired Marshawn Lynch, but Lynch was a mess who didn’t break out until later in the 2011 season. Richard Sherman was just a fifth-round pick who hadn’t started an NFL game. The likes of Aaron Curry and Marcus Trufant were still hanging out in serious roles on the roster, while veteran fill-ins like Robert Gallery and Alan Branch would play meaningful roles that year.

This is where I think Barnwell really goes off the tracks. The Schneider parallel comes out of nowhere and is quite arbitrary. Yes, Idzik did come from Seattle, but there is only one John Schneider in the league right now. Success stories like Schneider aren't typical.

Pulling that comparison out feels a lot like the folks who used Peyton Manning's rookie struggles as proof that Geno Smith would have success or Demaryius Thomas for Stephen Hill. Just because A stunk early in his career and turned out great doesn't mean B is automatically going to turn out great.

I could just as easily direct you to the year two rosters of Gene Smith, or Jeff Ireland, or Mark Dominik, and they would be just as relevant. In fact, they would probably be more relevant because these are much more representative of the typical general manager career arc than the arc Schneider has had.

Sherman is also an odd guy to bring up. The implication is Idzik has drafted All Pro gems in the late rounds waiting to mature. Sherman was a fifth round rookie in the year Barnwell mentions. Want to know where Idzik's fifth round pick this year is? Cut and on another team. Five of his nine day three picks are not on the active roster, and a sixth would have likely been cut had he not been placed on injured reserve after an injury.

There are a couple of footnotes that follow:

xThere’s been a fair amount of criticism of Izdik for not adding more to the secondary in a free-agent market that was full of defensive backs, but you can understand what he was thinking. Idzik let go of Antonio Cromartie, who Mehta says was playing at a Pro Bowl level before Saturday, but Cro was burned to a crisp by the Broncos last week. Idzik had just used a first-round pick on Milliner, who was expected to take the typical big leap forward in his second year. Idzik eventually used his 2014 first-round pick on Louisville safety Calvin Pryor, and he did sign Patterson. Who could have known that Patterson, with no record of bizarre decisions, would disappear two weeks before the season? Now, should Izdik have signed Brandon Flowers? … Yeah, probably.

Even in his prime, Demaryius Thomas was the type of receiver who gave Cromartie big problems. I'm not sure how meaningful one game was, but would anybody not take him over what we have had here?

As far as Patterson goes, it's true there was no way to know he would go AWOL. It's also true that he was a journeyman who had been in the league since 2005, bounced around six other teams, and only played a full sixteen game season once. It was a very bad move thinking he could be an answer. If we didn't have the AWOL discussion, the most likely scenarios by far would have been having the Patterson is a bad cover guy and/or the Patterson is injured discussion.

The fact Barnwell in his own article defending Idzik concludes he missed out badly on a better option speaks volumes.

xHis reticence in giving out big-money free-agent contracts helped this offseason, when the Jets picked up four compensatory picks (a fourth-rounder and three sixth-rounders) from the league’s free-agent system. Baltimore perennially dominates that market, but it’s a place you constantly see smart teams adding value.

Value also involves hitting on some of these picks. Again half of these compensatory picks are already gone. It's not like the Jets have great depth that these late round picks should be gone at this rate. That's how little potential his handpicked sleepers have shown.

Most notably, pay attention to the most important spot of all: quarterback. Schneider surely knew he wasn’t going to win a ton of football games with Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback, even after making the mistake of trading a third-round pick and swapping second-round picks to acquire Whitehurst from the Chargers.

Instead of spending to the limit to try to squeeze a 9-7 season out of a football team with no prayer of going far in the playoffs, Schneider maintained flexibility, trusted his ability to draft and develop talent, and waited for the right quarterback opportunity to come. Eventually he found Russell Wilson, and the rest is history.

The truth for Idzik and the Jets right now is that it doesn’t matter what they do elsewhere in terms of winning now without a quarterback. They’re bad enough at that position that the other moves they make are just window dressing — a series of short-term decisions and drafted lottery tickets to set them up for that moment when they actually have the quarterback they need to succeed. That’s not what Rex Ryan or Jets fans want to hear, but it’s the reality of where they’re at in the NFL. Idzik still has to execute that plan, and it won’t matter until he finds that quarterback, but he’s on the right track.

As for Ryan and the Jets? Expectations were likely too high coming into the season. The Jets were 8-8 last year, but they were outscored by 97 points, which is the point differential of a 5.4-win team. That win-loss record included an unsustainable 5-1 performance in games decided by a touchdown or less, including two miraculous wins driven by unlikely late-game penalties on the Buccaneers and Patriots. The Jets already had two seven-point losses and an eight-point loss on their résumé this year before Sunday’s blowout. If they had enjoyed just an average amount of luck in close games last year and gone 5-11, Ryan probably would have been fired. Now, regardless of what Idzik does, Ryan will probably suffer that fate.

It's totally true that none of this matters until you find a quarterback, There are some important things left out here, though.

Quarterbacks don't fall out of the sky. Teams need to both find them and develop them. Idzik has a handpicked quarterback, and he has fallen apart just over a quarter of the way through his second season.

And speaking of setting things up when that quarterback comes, one of the reasons Idzik's handpicked quarterback has hit such hard times is how little talent the team has in its receiving corps. The quarterback has problems of his own making, but perhaps he would not have fallen apart so completely if he had weapons who could make plays for him. Maybe his confidence wouldn't have gotten so low. Maybe he would have made enough plays to at least buy himself a little more time to learn. There were many options who would have fit this alleged plan. I mentioned only a few above.

This is the judgement shown by the man who is executing this vision. I don't doubt he has a plan. Just having a plan isn't enough. You might have a plan, but it also might be bad.

There were some problems easy to diagnose, and solutions available that would have split the balance between helping the team in the short run and not destroying the team's long-term flexibility. I find it ironic how frequently Idzik and many of those backing his plan seem to suggest the Jets cannot build a winner overnight.

Wouldn't that imply upgrading the roster in roughly equal parts over a fixed period of time? I ask this because the plan seems to be to wait to spend the money all at once, which sounds an awful lot like building a new roster overnight to me.

Idzik's performance over the last offseason was so bad that people are actually openly wondering whether he's trying to sabotage his head coach. I doubt that's it, but take a second to let that sink it. He did such a poor job identifying the holes that people actually think he is tanking the season on purpose.

The Jets have bottom tier positional groupings at spots where affordable upgrades were obvious. Idzik's misses were so incredible that I personally do not trust he has the judgment to build this team the correct way. This Grantland article did not change my mind, and it shouldn't change yours.