Watching college football on Saturday it struck me how big a difference having the top overall pick in the 2021 will make against having the second selection.
Justin Fields is a legitimate prospect who deserves to go at the top of the Draft. He has the potential to be a difference-maker at quarterback, but he also has quite a bit of development to do. That was clear in Ohio State’s win over Northwestern to win the Big Ten Championship.
Meanwhile Trevor Lawrence isn’t just any quarterback prospect. Almost every quarterback prospect truly emerges in his Draft year. When he enters there are reasons to be optimistic with clear risks. Think about what I just wrote about Justin Fields. Lawrence is different. For three years he has been projected as the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and has seemed as sure of a bet as anybody to become a great NFL quarterback. The show he put on against Notre Dame in Clemson’s blowout win to claim the ACC Championship displayed his upside.
You can’t get upset with the Jets players for going out and beating the Rams today 23-20. They are paid to go out there and do their best to win. Losing 13 straight games to start a season can’t be fun. They certainly didn’t want to go down in infamy as part of the third team in NFL history to finish a season 0-16.
From the first series, it was clear they came to play hard. Guys were flying to the ball on defense from the start of the game.
After a quick three and out on Los Angeles’ first series, the Jets put together a 13 play touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead, one they would never relinquish.
The defense kept getting stops in the first half. This was mainly because the Rams kept going backwards on early downs whether due to sacks, run stops, or penalties. An offense built on the run game and play action could get to neither effectively playing behind the sticks, and the Jets controlled the trenches.
Meanwhile the offense did its best to keep the Rams in the gain. After a first series sustained by short Frank Gore runs and Sam Darnold third down passes to Ty Johnson converted into first downs, the offense showed little effort to challenge the Rams defense. Even after being set up in great field position by a blocked punt and a Bryce Hall interception, the Jets settled for field goals.
Right before the half, the Jets had an inexplicable offensive series. At that point of the game, the goal should be to either score points or run out the clock. While FOX’s Brock Huard called for a conservative approach, I thought the Jets should have attacked. Up 13-0, a score before the half could have put the game out of reach. Instead the Jets neither ran out the clock nor attacked the Rams. Instead they punted back with enough time for Sean McVay’s offense to get on the board with a field goal.
The Jets led 13-3 at the half. They had left the Rams in the game, however, with a typically inept offensive performance. The Jets averaged less than 4 yards per play in the first half. Frank Gore had 10 carries with an average barely over 2 yards, and their outside wide receivers combined had been targeted once. It was you typical Adam Gase plan designed to never stress the defense. Only this time, things were working out because the Jets defense was dominating.
The Jets actually opened up the offense a bit in the second half. Sam Darnold made some plays and actually protected the football. The half started with an 11 play touchdown drive to give the Jets a 20-3 lead. The Rams offense started to find a rhythm in the second half, however. They discovered the Jets had a shaky group of cornerbacks, and the Jets’ edge in the trenches disappeared after Quinnen Williams left with an injury. A pair of Rams touchdown drives were sandwiched by a Jets field goal making the score 23-17.
We had seen this script before, and it felt like the wheels were falling off for the Jets. The Rams just could never quick get the big play they needed to push things over the top. A Cam Akers 18 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that would have put Los Angeles an extra point from taking the lead was called back for holding. The Rams settled for a field goal to cut the lead to 23-20.
After a three and out on offense, punter Braden Mann made a touchdown saving tackle on a 34 yard return by Nsimba Webster. While it’s amazing the next two decades of franchise history might have been swung by a tackle made by a punter, the Rams still had a chance. However, another Akers run for 17 yards that would have put the Rams in the red zone was wiped out by a block in the back. The Rams turned it over on downs after missing on two deep shots.
The Jets took it back and ran out the clock on a successful drive capped by a third down completion from Darnold to Frank Gore. Gore has been a symbol of the offense’s failures this season on the whole. His ineffective 23 carry, 59 yard performance was one of the reasons the Rams even had a chance to keep this game close. It felt fitting in this context that one of the few nominally positive plays the future Hall of Famer made this season could have such profoundly negative consequences for the franchise.
Where does this leave us?
Nobody could fairly say the future of the Jets is doomed. For starters, the Jets still have a chance of obtaining the top pick in the Draft if they lose out and Jacksonville wins another game. The chances of that happening aren’t zero.
If it doesn’t, there are no guarantees Lawrence will be the only successful quarterback in this year’s class. As I mentioned, Fields could easily develop into a top notch quarterback in the pros. So could Zach Wilson, Kyle Trask, Trey Lance, or any number of quarterbacks the Jets might eventually end up with. Heck, maybe Darnold has a Ryan Tannehill-type resurgence next year freed from Adam Gase.
As anybody who follows the game knows, there are no guarantees in this league. Can’t miss prospects miss sometimes. Sometimes missing out on the thing you think you want is truly a blessing in disguise. Joe Douglas has seen this first hand during his career, including when he worked for the Ravens and saw his team fail to obtain quarterback prospect Brady Quinn in the 2007 NFL Draft. Quinn ended up being a bust. Had Baltimore landed him, the Ravens never would have drafted Joe Flacco a year later. Flacco was only the quarterback who led the franchise to its second championship. Sometimes luck works that way. It’s entirely possible we could look back on Lawrence as a fortunate moment if his career doesn’t pan out the way it is expected to go.
With all of that said, I don’t think there is a way you can look at this win as a positive knowing what we know at this moment.
Pretty much everybody views Lawrence as a good bet to be a franchise-altering talent. Quarterback prospects like him lift up the rest of the team and improve the win-loss record quickly. There are also more immediate off field impacts.
The Jets will be searching for a new coach. They will have an opportunity to hire somebody good. An NFL head coaching job is still the pinnacle of the profession.
The team will also look to restock its roster in free agency. They will be able to sign players. Their money will still be green.
Still, the team would undoubtedly look like a more attractive destination to prospective coaches and players if they knew they were signing up to work with Lawrence lifting up a franchise.
Congratulations to the players who worked hard for this victory, but years from now we won’t get much joy knowing the Jets finished 1-15 and not 0-16 in 2020. The consequences of that difference could be something we deal with for a long time.