It's been a tough start to the football season for Todd Bowles' Jets. There might be an argument to suggest Sheldon Richardson is the best player on the team, certainly a strong case to put him in the top two, and he'll be lucky to only be suspended four games. Chris Owusu was pushing his way into first team three receiver sets in camp, now he's facing an uncertain recovery from yet another concussion. Talented deep threat Devin Smith is missing out on valuable training camp reps with a punctured lung. The team has lost some defensive backfield depth with Dee Milliner missing up to eight weeks and Antonio Allen on injured reserve. Muhammad Wilkerson, importance magnified with Richardson out, is still working his way back from a hamstring strain. Now the team has lost its starting quarterback for 6-10 weeks, definitely costing him at least some of the regular season. All this before even the first preseason game.
When a team has this many negative storylines playing up in the early going, we can see how it might stretch beyond the players missing time and impact morale in the clubhouse as a whole. The question of how Geno Smith's broken jaw and IK Enemkpali being cut impacts the season as a whole is, after all, already being put to the players, and the likelihood is they and the coaching staff will keep getting questions along these lines going forward.
Q: How do you prevent this incident from ruining the season before it even starts? Revis: "Great question."— Kimberley A. Martin (@KMart_LI) August 11, 2015
Even with everything that has happened so far though, this doesn't need to yet significantly change expectations for the year. The offense still has more talent at the skill positions than in recent seasons, and the defense may have lost depth but can still prove one of the more dominant units in the league. Ryan Fitzpatrick is not an incredibly exciting player, but can be a functional quarterback for this team. Sportsfan86's excellent recent chalkboard piece showed a blend of solid execution and hair-scratching decisions, we're likely going to get a first hand view of both from Fitzpatrick in the coming weeks. He isn't likely to be the type of talent who can carry the team for stretches, the hope is he won't have to with Marshall and Decker on the outside as big targets, and with a dominant defensive unit in support.
This is a team that may just be talented enough to compete without superstar play from the QB position, and despite poor luck early with injuries and suspensions. If the team can compete with Fitzpatrick, they can ride him the rest of the way. If things aren't working out they can make a final evaluation of Geno once he returns where there is no longer pressure to win games now with this talented veteran roster. Hopefully though, this team can still win games in 2015.
The most talented teams in the NFL have a higher gear to go to when needed. The Packers team that looked lifeless in the first half against a terrible Jets team last year, when needed stepped it up for that win, and ultimately found the higher gear later in the season. They arguably should have gone to the Superbowl. The Seahawks looked in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs in October, they stepped it up and arguably should have won the Superbowl. The Patriots offensive struggles to start 2014 were significant enough to where questions were being asked if Tom Brady had begun his decline. They did win the Superbowl. These teams all had several things in common, notably strong quarterback play, and among other elements this helped them push things up a notch to get over early stumbles. The Jets aren't so talented, and can't afford any early failings if they are to make the playoffs this year. This is a team that needs to play up to its potential right from the start of the year to have a chance at contention, and can't afford to let the tough training camp luck affect preparation for the season ahead.
In a way, there are some parallels to the Arizona Cardinals of 2014, with Bowles as the defensive coordinator. Battered by suspensions and injuries almost from the off, the team kept on winning, getting to 11-3 and looking like the potential #1 seed in a loaded NFC. This was a team winning with former Jets QB, technically, Drew Stanton, another functional but unexciting journeyman QB. In the end, being forced to go to their third string QB Ryan Lindley was too much for the team to withstand, but their season proved a template for withstanding one key loss after another and pressing ahead for playoff contention. Hopefully a spirit Bowles can bring over and instill with the Jets now as the head coach.
A lot of what we've seen from Bowles so far this year lends to optimism here, the focus on accountability, the demand of high standards even in a practice later in camp on a natural let-down day - after the Green & White practice where some veterans were given a day off. He quite clearly expects the players on the field to perform to the best of their abilities, even in a practice, so we can expect the high standards to carry through into regular season practices and certainly the games themselves. Intuitively, this would seem to be the right way to approach it, though really only results will tell. If he can deliver a team that plays with a high degree of effort all the way through, it would be a promising start to his head coaching career. This year may come with relatively low pressure for Bowles, by NFL standards anyway, a rare year where he might get a pass for a low wins total if the team shows up and plays hard through the year. If the team does that though, perhaps the team can surprise in the wins tally as well.