During last year’s 5-11 season, I heard over and over from fans and the media alike about how the Jets had “changed the culture” around the team. The team itself seemed to be pushing this narrative.
I understand why people look for positives such as these. There is a misconception that Jets fans and other sports fans will not tolerate losing seasons. This isn’t really the case, though. Fans are fully willing to endure some losing, but there is a condition. If the team loses, there has to be a greater purpose. The team has to benefit in the future because of the short-term pain.
Even if the 2018 season turns ugly for the Jets, it will be easy enough to find the silver lining for the future. Sam Darnold will get experience and learn from the team’s rough stretch.
Last season there was no such obvious silver lining to provide meaning in a losing year. The idea of changing the culture to set a foundation for future success seemed good. The Jets were coming off an ugly 2016 where a number of issues in the locker room with several high profile players reportedly created a culture of divisiveness.
The Jets jettisoned a number of the culprits, and an early three game winning streak kept the team on the fringes of the Playoff race for most of the year, which created buzz around the team and allowed the narrative about culture to flourish.
Culture is difficult to quantify, which makes it an easy talking point to lean on. You cannot prove or disprove how good or bad a culture is through data. Through enough anecdotal evidence we can usually get a grasp on an organization’s culture, but professional sports teams do their best to stay tight-lipped about what happens behind the scenes. Most of the time, we don’t get enough information to say one way or another about a specific team’s culture. In the absence of evidence, we tend to take a glass half full view.
Some people argue that culture is an illusion or irrelevant. You might feel this way. I don’t.
I think everybody knows that the culture of your office or school has a major impact on everybody’s happiness and productivity. If your workplace has a bad culture, people won’t be as effective at their jobs, and the company will struggle to retain quality people. The inverse is also true.
We hear plenty about how the most successful franchises in sports have good cultures. What makes a good culture for a sports franchise?
I can’t give a full definition for something so abstract, but here do tend to be similarities in the way many of the best franchises are run.
Accountability starts at the top. The best players are the hardest workers and set an example how to conduct themselves on the field and in practice. When the team acquires a player, his past doesn’t matter either good or bad. Regardless of pedigree, everybody is treated fairly. Players put the team above all else and embrace their role. People are held accountable.
Nobody is perfect. Even the best teams have their issues, and the best players have their moments. Professional sports is a business, and money frequently makes things messy. For the most successful teams, though, these things ring true far more often than they do not.
For these reasons, I thought the Patriots were one of the few logical fits for Josh Gordon in a trade. Gordon has faced many demons in his troubled career, but New England has a distinct culture. His past was irrelevant once he entered the Patriots’ facility.
One of two things will happen. Gordon will buy into what the Patriots do, work hard, and turn his career around. Or he won’t and the Patriots will dump him unceremoniously. The Patriots expect people to do their job. If you do your job, you will succeed. If you don’t do your job, you will be looking for a new one. We might not like the Patriots in New York, but their success is something every team in sports hopes to emulate.
After watching things unravel on Thursday night in Cleveland and taking the last few days to reflect, I was struck by how bad the optics were for the alleged culture change Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan have brought.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty might be the worst flag a player can get in the NFL because it is completely avoidable. If you get called for holding or a false start, it’s an execution error. Everybody makes mistakes like that when the ball is in play. If you get flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, however, you simply have done something stupid after the play.
For all of the talk of building a new culture the Jets took two such penalties in Cleveland, and they were from two players Mike Maccagnan specifically targeted and brought onto the roster this year, Trumaine Johnson and Isaiah Crowell.
Of the two, Johnson in particular is a cornerstone of Mike Maccagnan’s rebuild. He is the highest paid player on the team and one of the highest paid defensive players in the league. His salary and the structure of his contract virtually guarantee he will be on the roster for the next three years, which is an enormous commitment in the National Football League.
When he signed with the Jets back in March he said, “I bring leadership to the team.” Well, what he brought on Thursday was a stupid 15 yard penalty that wiped out three successful plays by his teammates.
Some people have speculated that the Jets defense struggled in the second half of the loss to Cleveland because players were exhausted at the end of their third game in eleven days. I can’t say whether that is true or not. What I do know is the defense was forced to spend an extra nine plays on the field in the second quarter of that game because to Johnson sticking the football in an opponent’s chest to taunt him was more important than making the Browns punt. That’s bringing something, but that something isn’t leadership.
This came shortly after Crowell cost the Jets 15 yards on a kickoff with a profane celebration on a touchdown.
You can complain all you want about whether those SHOULD be called penalties. If you have watched the NFL for any amount of time, you know they WILL be called so the player knowingly is costing his team 15 yards when he does something like it.
Now I’d like to draw your attention to a few plays.
Watch Jermaine Kearse block for Quincy Enunwa right here. Look at how hard Kearse is working. He is practically blocking two guys. This play isn’t designed for him. He is just giving maximum effort for a teammate to produce.
Lest you think this was an isolated event, I can give you another example.
Now watch this route Terrelle Pryor runs on an important third down play right before the half. The Jets were trying to drive for a field goal.
If you read my work you know I am hesitant to question a player’s effort, but that is a pathetic route. Pryor just quits running halfway through. Sam Darnold is expecting him to get to the spot. If Pryor finishes his route, that pass is on the money. There is a good chance it is a reception to extend the drive. Perhaps the drive results in points. Instead, it was an incompletion.
At that point of the game, Sam Darnold was struggling. Everybody on the team should be doing what they can to help out the rookie quarterback and let him get to the locker room with a positive drive to build on. Instead, we got this route.
Here’s a riddle.
Question: What do you call a Patriots receiver who hangs Tom Brady out to dry like this?
Answer: A former Patriots receiver.
This came just days after another lazy Pryor route might have been the difference between a critical touchdown and a critical interception against the Dolphins.
You wouldn’t know any of this by the playing time figures. Pryor got 10 more snaps on the field than Kearse did. The Jets thought the guy who doesn’t want to run his routes deserves to see the field more than the guy who is killing himself to make plays work.
If just one of these things happened, I would let it go. If it was only Crowell taking a penalty, it wouldn’t be a big deal.
But when Crowell is taking that penalty AND Johnson is taking his AND Pryor is running routes like that AND he’s not losing playing time AND ALL OF THIS IS HAPPENING AS THE JETS ARE BLOWING A 14 POINT LEAD TO A TEAM WITH ONE WIN IN IT’S LAST 34 GAMES, the optics certainly don’t suggest a culture that has changed for the better.
Or maybe it’s all a coincidence.
Either way, I don’t want to hear another word about how “the culture has changed.”