Coming into this season, there was cause for both optimism and pessimism. Last year, behind a new regime of head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan, the Jets exceeded the majority of expectations on the way to a 10-6 record. Returning much of the same cast, there was hope the team would take the next step and make the playoffs this year, perhaps even make a January run. However, the spectre of a potentially tougher schedule - particularly to start the season - as well as the threat of regression or injury from a veteran cast of key contributors hung over the team.
So far, we have perhaps not learned too much about how this season will progress. Starting 1-2 has not been great but the season is a long way from over. The offense has turned in one mixed performance against the Bengals, one superlative game against the Bills, and one absolute stinker against the Chiefs. The defence has shown variance in a different way; the largely terrific defensive line has been let down on key occasions by the once vaunted Jets secondary.
It is an interesting point this team finds itself in; still early in the timelines of the regime, but with many expensive veteran talents on the roster. Is this a loaded squad built to win now, or the beginnings of a long term vision to return the Jets to Super Bowl contender status? Must it really be one or the other? If so, on which choice should this team focus? Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the uncertain start to the season, this is a broad discussion being held - in various forms - in comment threads on this site by some of the most knowledgeable contributors to the Gang Green Nation community.
It is worth noting that the concept of 'winning later' may not carry the same weight in the NFL compared to other sports leagues. Multi-year rebuilds leading to potential long-term powerhouses like the Chicago Cubs in the MLB and Golden State Warriors in the NBA are less in vogue in football in multiple ways. Non-guaranteed contracts, the rapid contributions of successful draft picks, the importance of scheme and coaching with the same groups of players are some of the reasons why a team can jump quickly from also-ran to contender. Consider the Seahawks, who ran losing records four straight seasons before their 11 win season in 2012, winning the Super Bowl the next season. The Carolina Panthers came off a losing season in 2014 before their 15 win, NFC Championship season in 2015. The Arizona Cardinals turned three straight losing seasons around under Bruce Arians and have posted winning records the last three years. There are of course many other examples of this. However, once fielding a steady contender, the combination of the hard salary cap and relatively shorter careers of NFL contributors means teams can fall off suddenly as well. There is less incentive investing heavily in future performance over multiple years when the resultant contending window may not last as long as in other sports.
This isn't to say teams should not build with an eye to the future, but perhaps in the NFL, there isn't as much of a 3-5 year window. Instead, we should hope to see the Jets running 'rolling rebuilds'; drafting talent towards developing them in the system to step up within a couple of years, so the team can move on from expensive veterans ahead of their declines. Of course, this is incredibly difficult to do; arguably aside from the Patriots no team has been able to execute this anywhere near continuously over the last 15 years. It involves every layer of the football operation; scouting, long-term development, coaching, the training and health staff.......
The better the Jets can be at rolling rebuilds, naturally, the more likely this team can compete for Super Bowls over multiple seasons going forward. This regime, like all in football, won't be perfect so they will have to make compromises at various points. When Maccagnan first came on board, he inherited a roster with little talent but also significant cap space. Hence the logical first offseason; spending heavily but on effective short-term contracts the team could exit as quickly as two seasons later. This talent infusion helped the team jump from 4-12 to 10-6. In the last offseason, though, the Jets were still locked into these deals and didn't have much cap space. Hence raises for Ryan Fitzpatrick and Muhammad Wilkerson involved pushing cap hits forward. Buster Skrine and James Carpenter saw re-negotiated deals that created further short-term space for increased future cap charges. This made sense for a team expecting to contend this year, and did not involve too many difficult-to-exit commitments other than for Wilkerson, a franchise cornerstone. However, these were the beginnings of compromises the current regime had to make.
Heading into 2017, the Jets are projected by Over the Cap to be about $500,000 over the cap. The team has multiple ways to clear space, especially if younger players step into roles currently held by veterans. Moving on from David Harris, Marcus Gilchrist and Breno Giacomini would clear over $16 million against the cap. This of course requires cheap talent, hopefully already on the roster at these positions, to take a step up. Replacing Nick Folk could add a couple more million. If the team were to re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick or replace him with a veteran though, all of this space might be needed for one transaction. At this point, expensive veterans like Darrelle Revis may see reduced contracts or even have the team move on if necessary. Unless, once again, cap hits are sent forward. And if the talent in-place isn't ready to step up, draft picks may be needed in trades, depleting the pipeline of young talent for future years.
Ultimately this regime may be judged by the eventual decision to plug in a potential long-term quarterback, which may happen as early as next season if the keys are handed to Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg. Until that decision though, Maccagnan will need to keep clearing room for journeymen veterans like Fitzpatrick, and building solid supporting casts to carry the team. Hopefully, the Jets indeed can build both a 'win-now' team and a long-term contender. However, this is almost completely dependent on a pipeline of young, cheap talent coming through. Anything else is a short-term tradeoff in future picks and further dead money to keep the squad in-place. These tradeoffs in isolation, if relatively low cost, will not doom the franchise so it is not as though this front office will have to hit on every single pick. However, they quickly add up, thus while the Jets successfully plugged their severe talent gap from 2 seasons ago with a veteran free agent signing spree, it was hopefully a one-time move.
If the Jets keep finding and developing contributors, this team can compete both this season and in coming years. Otherwise, either the team will run out of quality players like the end of John Idzik's tenure, or run out of cap space and need a one-year reset like the end of Mike Tannenbaum's tenure. Any variation of these two outcomes likely leads to another regime change. Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan do not need to be perfect, but they do need steady success. A useful target might be 2 or 3 key contributors within 3 seasons from each draft class. This means a high pick like Leonard Williams or Darron Lee, and also a couple of success stories like Quincy Enunwa - an Idzik pick but developed under Bowles and Gailey - is showing potential of becoming.
What do you think? Can this team, and this regime, find the vital balance between present and future? If so, are they going about it the right way?