It is very easy to get caught in the weeds because of how much outside noise there has been, but over the last four years the Jets have been attempting what amounts to a conventional rebuilding project.
The first year was 2013. That was a year where the Jets decided to reset an ugly salary cap situation. They went into that season with a depleted roster.
A year later, they spent in free agency to try and improve the roster but kept a lot of money in reserve. Then they bulked up on Draft picks.
A year later, they maxed out in free agency. They brought in veterans right as those earlier Draft classes theoretically were supposed to be hitting maturity to perhaps send things into overdrive.
This year there were some other tweaks.
This is a fairly normal four year pattern. It just doesn't seem that way from up close. That first year was also a head coach's fifth year, and he was fighting for his job. That's usually the pattern at the end of one of these cycles, not the beginning.
The Jets weren't supposed to be a very good team that first year. They really weren't. The team was constantly blown out and had one of the worst point differentials in the league. They just happened to win 8 games because they were opportunistic late in games and a little lucky. It didn't feel like that awful first year of a rebuild, but it was.
Then by year three, there was a first year general manager and a first year head coach. It really was the middle of the cycle.
The cycle did hit a snag by 2014. The bargain free agency expenditures proved widely ineffective outside of Eric Decker and did not do much to improve the roster, although it was obscured by over $20 million in salary cap space left in the bank.
The early Draft returns were also not promising, leaving a longer timetable for the team to peak. The new general manager and head coach came in 2015 and inherited a cabinet almost as bare in young talent as it was in 2013. The timetable had to be pushed back a bit. The money was still there to spend immediately and upgrade the team immediately. By 2017, this regime's first Draft class would be hitting its third season, and second class would be hitting its second. Hopefully there would be ample star power to carry the load by then, and the free agent signings who would be aging could slide into supporting roles.
We are now near 2017, and I am sure many of you will be unhappy with what I am about to say.
The four year rebuild has not been a success. As with many teams, the new day that dawned in 2013 is seeing the sun set. It will require a new new day to get things right.
I don't see a path forward for the Jets next year. Originally, the hope was that Mike Maccagnan's early Draft classes would be able to carry the load by 2017, and maybe John Idzik's classes would have some late bloomers. This is no longer anything the Jets can count on happening.
If you look at the last four years of drafting, the Jets had a barren base of young talent. Right now, really the only pieces you can say they have added are Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams, Quincy Enunwa, a lot of maybe's, and a lot of guys who have failed their way off the team.
The Jets do have some roster flexibility heading into the offseason. It's enough to replace some supporting pieces. That would be fine if there was star power on rookie contracts. There isn't. There isn't enough cap space to build a contender adding what current pieces will stay with what the Jets can buy. Even the cap room in 2015 wasn't enough to do this.
The Jets can go all in, spend to the cap limit, and try to win next season. Likely their ceiling would be a Wild Card.
Because of what I laid out, I don't think it was necessarily a big mistake to spend in 2015. I do think it would be a mistake for the Jets to go all in for 2017. Sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward.
I regret to say this because it isn't a good place to be after four years, but I think the Jets are in need of another reset.
All cap space not spent one year can be carried over to the next year. If the team is not on a championship trajectory, does it not make more sense to carry money over rather than futilely go all-in? Maybe you felt that way about 2015 and 2016. I'm not sure I did. I think you could make a case either way. If you did feel that way, I'm ready for a truce. 2017 will not be the time for this team to go all in.
It will be a time for this team to step back and replenish its cap space. That is going to mean finding cheap replacements who likely won't be good, and the team's short-term record will suffer. I think it might even be time to cut ties with some long-time veterans if they will not be part of the roster by the time 2019 rolls around. Saving the cap space would make sense in such a situation.
By letting players go, the Jets would put themselves into a position to collect extra compensatory Draft picks. They are needed.
As always, the plan needs to be to find a core of young star talent. The only way to do that is through the Draft. The best way to Draft well is to have as many picks as possible. It gives you a bigger margin for error. Is it easier to find four players if you have six picks or twelve picks? The Jets should also have an instinct to trade down first.
Mike Maccagnan has made major investments in the team's college scouting, but having six player Draft classes hasn't given his people enough of an opportunity to find talent. Philosophically, this is something that needs to change.
I like the fact that Maccagnan is into studies of how teams succeed such as the examination the Jets did on how the Steelers frequently draft outside linebacker. I would like to see the Jets invest more in a research and development department to use analytics and studies to spot trends and best practices.
But this approach would not be for the feint of heart. Fans want results. Essentially starting over with a clean slate for a regime in its third year would not go over well, particularly for a fanbase that will be six years removed from an accomplishment as modest as making the Playoffs. Should there be a regime change?
I think that is easier said in theory than done in practice. There are many reasons against doing so. This team just fired a general manager after two years. Getting rid of the general manager would mean a second straight time you have fired one after two years. Getting rid of the head coach would be the second time in three head coaches a change was made in three years or less.
There are many problems with this, not the least of which is it would likely cost the team any chance of landing the top tier of replacements. If you had options, would you go to a team so inclined to make changes so early?
Two years ago, the owner of this team sat down with experienced and successful executives in this league and bought into a vision with a general manager and a head coach who were deemed to have the attributes necessary to build something. He went in knowing there would be difficult times on this journey.
There will need to be a discussion. The general manager needs to adapt better practices to get a larger Draft haul. The head coach needs to do a lot better in many areas.
This won't go over well with a large portion of the fanbase, but many people do learn and get better on the job. Sometimes you need to make mistakes to learn. Sometimes firing somebody for making mistakes means bringing in somebody new who will make the same mistakes. There are instances were the old guy would have learned from them.
Any owner following this plan is going to take heat, though. It will mean the Playoff drought will likely be extended all the way to eight or nine years, and that's if the team actually gets it right. He will have to take it on the chin from angry fans and media about why expectations are reset three years in for his braintrust. And if these guys don't get better, he will be responsible.
The problem is that any path forward involving going all in for 2017 is likely to face narrow odds. The Jets would either need to get very lucky at the quarterback position, young players would have to improve at a shocking rate, free agents would need to be grand slams, or likely all of the above.
A day of reckoning is likely to come, at which point the Jets will have to reset again. The only question is whether they get the ball rolling down or put it off.
I don't expect any of this to actually happen. I don't think the man in charge of this team will have the stomach to go out on a limb. People may or may not be fired, but they will be on notice that things need to turn around immediately. This will likely lead to more spending for immediate gain. Perhaps to save jobs, part of future cap space and picks will be sacrificed to help the team in the present, digging the hole even deeper at the future day of reckoning. Maybe a big name quarterback like Drew Brees, Jay Cutler or Tony Romo will come in to try and spark life in the short run. There might even be some modest success and the end of the Playoff drought. I don't think it will produce a champion or a perennial contender, though, and that is the real goal. Eventually the bill will come due, and the team that passes up rebuilding on its own terms will be forced into it.
I am sorry to lay out such a depressing vision, but I think we have reached a crossroads. There is no way to stay on the current path and reach the intended destination. This team has an opportunity to gracefully reset and start the clock on a play that at least has a chance.