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The State of the Onion

New York Jets Training Camp Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

When I watch the Jets these days I see a number of young players showing promise. I don’t see much else.

That comes as little surprise. My former SB Nation colleague Jimmy Kempski compiles the average age of each NFL team on cutdown day each year. The Jets’ initial 53 man roster in 2021 was the youngest in football.

Youth can be exciting, but there are pitfalls. There are some issues a lack of experience creates.

Take this play by Bryce Hall from the Jets’ loss in London to Atlanta. It came at a critical juncture of the game. The Falcons faced a 3rd and 13 with just under 5:00 to go in the fourth quarter. The Jets trailed 20-17. At worst, a stop would have forced a field goal attempt and guaranteed the Jets an opportunity to get the ball back and take the lead with a touchdown.

For the most part this season Hall’s play has been sterling, but it wasn’t here.

The Jets are in a zone coverage.

Here the closest receiver technically appears to be leaving Hall’s zone. It looks like he is trying to communicate that, but the nearest defender is occupied and in no position to take over coverage on this receiver.

The pass is ultimately completed into a wide window.

A more experienced defender might be able to read the play better. He’d see his help was occupied. He’s also see that there were no other receivers threatening his zone. Hall would have been best served continuing up the field with this receiver.

With more experience he also might have understood the game situation better. The Jets needed a stop. Giving up a cushion this big probably wasn’t the best idea.

These things come in time, and on some level you need to live with them as you lean on young players.

Hall is a second year player, and by the standards of this Jets team you might consider him a grizzled veteran. The Jets have given rookies the most snaps in the league to this point according to the team website.

The issues with this manifest themselves in numerous ways. You see the on field inexperience.

It could have an impact on the locker room. Perhaps a more experienced, more mature team would be able to settle down early in games or come up with solutions to the chronic slow starts.

Mainly, though, there is a practical element to it. The Jets lack the type of impact talent that would normally be the core of the team playing on second contracts. Rookies shouldn’t be carrying the load. Developed stars should be doing the heavy lifting.

Because of poor drafting through the years, the Jets lack these stars. Their midround misses also deprive them of stabilizing middle tier starters and part-time role players. The team did its best to add a few veteran pieces like Corey Davis and Carl Lawson in the offseason (although Lawson obviously isn’t able to help due to his injury). CJ Mosley is also doing his best, but the aggregate remains the youngest roster in football.

This is very much a team in the beginning stages of a rebuild. To appreciate this, we need to consider how we got to this point. We also need to understand the mistaken notion that the Jets have been rebuilding for a decade. There’s a difference between rebuilding and just plain being bad.

Connor Hughes, the Jets beat writer on The Athletic tweeted the following during the Jets’ brutal loss to Denver.

Now I’m not trying to defend the performance in that game. It was horrendous.

I’m also not trying to pick on Connor Hughes. This is just one tweet. I see some version of this argument a lot, though, and I think it largely misses the point.

That 7-9 was not some sign of progress. It was a very deceptive record. The Jets began the 2019 season with a 1-7 record. Their seventh loss was to a then-winless Miami team that was at the time drawing comparisons to some of the most inept squads in NFL history.

A 7-9 record used in this context seems to imply the Jets were a middle of the pack type team. They weren’t. They were out of the Playoff race by October (if not September).

The second half of the year they went 6-2. Those games included:

  • Wins against Miami, Washington, and the NY Giants, all of whom picked in the top five.
  • A narrow win the final week of the regular season against a Buffalo team that had clinched a Playoff spot and played its backups most of the game.
  • A win over a Steelers team that spent the game oscillating between its second and third string quarters.
  • A loss to a Bengals team that entered the game 0-11.

That was no triumph. The Jets went on a run at the end of that season bolstered by an exceptionally schedule and some good fortune. (We went over the fortune of playing the Buffalo backups. The Miami win was swung by a fortunate pass interference call in the final minute. We could find other examples of fortune as well if we dug deeper.)

Sure, the Jets had some things go against them that season such as terrible injury luck. Still, it’s difficult for me to look at that resume and conclude anything other than the 2019 Jets were a horrible team masquerading as a mediocre team. The decisive game in that second half run might have been a victory over the reeling Giants, a game Jamal Adams took over. If Adams doesn’t dominate that one, maybe the Jets never build any momentum and go 2-14 that year.

In any event, there’s also no way you could argue that Jets team was rebuilding.

That year the team entered the season on the Kempski list with the league’s third oldest roster. The team gave out a then-record $122 million in guaranteed money in free agency.

You could even look to the coach the Jets hired for a clue about how much they viewed 2019 as a rebuilding year. Adam Gase was only available because he had been fired by the Dolphins. When the Dolphins owner was asked why he fired Gase, he indicated a major reason was because Gase didn’t want to be part of the deep rebuilding process the team was about to undertake.

Suggesting the Jets were in any sort of a rebuild mode in 2019 is simply not accurate.

With that in mind, comparing the 7-9 record to Douglas’ first two years is not apples to apples. The Jets had to tear things down precisely because that team was so deeply flawed.

The one thing I did appreciate from the Hughes tweet was the point that the 2019 team was Maccagnan’s.

He was fired after free agency and the Draft. The roster was set. Only then did Joe Douglas take over. I say this because I see time after time people make the argument that Douglas had had three seasons to turn things around. It isn’t so. He could make a few tweaks that first year, but he inherited the roster.

In a greater sense, he was limited the first two years of his tenure. If you don’t believe me or think this is just revisionist history, Jason Fitzgerald, the salary cap expert at Over the Cap, make that exact point the day Maccagnan was fired.

Douglas indeed faced great limitations in his first real offseason in 2020.

The Jets had $44.4 million in dead cap money in 2020, primarily from Maccagnan failures. (Dead cap money is money that counts against your salary cap for players no longer on your team because they have been cut or traded. Teams get rid of failed players because the dead cap hit is less than the cost would have been for keeping them on the team.) The NFL salary cap in 2020 was $182.5 million.

So think about that. Somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of the Jets’ cap space was dedicated last year to players who weren’t on the team. It’s an enormous disadvantage. Functionally it means you’re competing at a 20-25% disadvantage at the starting point.

The issues Douglas faced went deeper, however.

Our fearless leader reported in the spring of 2020 that the Jets were claiming poverty to free agents.

By Manish Mehta

The Jets are valued at an estimated $3.2 billion, so why did Gang Green cry cash poor during free agency?

General manager Joe Douglas and/or the team’s contract negotiators told agents of free-agent players that the team was strapped for cash, according to sources.

Now this all sounds very nefarious, but once you go under the hood, it isn’t a difficult to understand.

There is a little-known rule in the NFL that any money guaranteed to a player in an NFL contract must be put into an escrow account by the team. As far as I can tell from my research, this rule goes back to days where NFL teams and the league as a whole were less stable financially. It ensured that players would get their money if there was insolvency. In this day and age, the rule isn’t that practical. The NFL is a financial juggernaut, and there has been some loosening of the restrictions. Teams now have a deductible which is approaching $20 million. However, a team that just gave out $122 million in guarantees the year before is still going to have a big chunk of cash in escrow one year later. The Jets had already paid out the guarantees due in 2019, but many of the contracts they gave out had guaranteed money beyond the first year.

Now let’s try to answer the question of how a team valued at $3.2 billion could claim to be cash poor. Value on paper is different from liquidity. You might own a house worth half a million dollars. That means your net worth would be half a million dollars. If you needed say $200,000 immediately, however, you might struggle to get it. That value is tied up in your house. You won’t have access to it unless you sell your house. That could take months if not more.

A similar principle applies here. The Johnsons don’t publicly reveal their sources of income, but we know their money was primarily inherited. We aren’t aware of many outside business ventures. It isn't that much of a stretch to imagine that most of their money is tied up in running the Jets and the income the team produces. With so much money still tied up in escrow from the previous year, one can see why they might not have the cash to fund further big spending. They aren’t going to sell the team to fund big contracts.

Beyond that, it was clear at the time of free agency in 2020 that the NFL might be without a big source of revenue for that season as the COVID-19 pandemic might limit or even entirely eliminate the ability for teams to sell tickets and fans to attend games. That likely played a role in the financial projections and impacted the operation.

You might see this and still be angry with the Johnsons for not figuring out a way to spend. I'd say you should look across the rest of the NFL, though. It’s very rare you see a team spend big money in back to back offseasons, and these factors likely contribute to this reality.

(Of course you may feel free to be angry with the Johnsons for allowing Maccagnan to squander that amount of money the year before when they admittedly thought he was doing such a shaky job that they were considering firing him.)

How focused was Douglas on building the team for short-term success in 2020? He traded his best player, Jamal Adams, on the eve of training camp for future Draft picks. If ever there was a move that displayed a team was thinking about the long run, that was it.

These are the realities of the situation. The 2021 season is the first real opportunity Joe Douglas had to build the team in his image. This is still very much the beginning of the rebuild.

Let’s go back deeper to consider the Jets and rebuilding. The last two to three years of his tenure, Maccagnan insinuated the Jets were rebuilding. He kept hoarding cap space with the promise it would fix all of the team’s problems. However, he had already shown himself to be a fairly inept cap manager and team builder. He also showed little willingness to invest in young players by adding extra Draft picks. He regularly left Drafts with fewer picks than he began with.

Maccagnan’s first two years in some ways could be categorized a rebuild. To be exact the phrase “competitive rebuild” was thrown around a lot then. The Jets were aggressive in free agency at that time, particularly his first offseason.

The attempt ultimately failed, and the phrase “competitive rebuild” was largely mocked.

In some ways I felt this was unfair. There wasn’t anything inherent in Maccagnan’s approach those first two years that compromised the team’s ability to compete in the long term.

In some ways I think there’s a philosophical argument to be had. Is it better to put veterans on your team at first so your young players don’t need to immediately be pressed into starting roles? They can learn at their own pace and take over as the free agents you sign age.

I’m not sure this necessarily is better or worse than the current Jets approach of getting young players as much experience as possible and living with mistakes. They are just different ways of dealing with the same question.

Unfortunately for the Jets, Maccagnan’s free agent signings buttressing the competitive rebuild almost uniformly had a shelf life of one year. A bigger problem was that issue of Maccagnan not investing in young talent. A guy who came up in the NFL working on the college scouting side just never seemed all that interested in stockpiling picks to build through the Draft. Worse, the few players he did select proved themselves incapable once those older veterans stopped producing, most notably Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg as Ryan Fitzpatrick production declined.

Prior to Maccagnan, John Idzik had a two year stint as general manager. Aside from Douglas, Idzik seems like the only Jets leader in this timeframe who actually did seem committed to rebuilding. He used his first season to clear the decks of bad contracts and ensured the Jets got the maximum four compensatory Draft picks the following year.

Unfortunately for Idzik, the entire organization was not committed to this vision. In Idzik’s second offseason he took a very cautious, measured approach to free agency. This indicated he was thinking long-term. However, his owner during this time told the media, “I don’t want to be patient. I want to do it [win] now.”

Perhaps more problematic for Idzik was that his head coach was also not patient. He couldn’t afford to be. Rex Ryan was on the hot seat and needed a successful season in 2014 to save his job. This clashed directly with vision of the longer-term focused Idzik. It was a pitfall of the arranged marriage Woody Johnson engineered pairing Ryan and Idzik together. It wasn’t just a clash of philosophies. It was a clash of needs. How could Rex Ryan be expected to buy into losing in the short term to have greater success in the long run? His job depended on not losing in the short term.

Ryan later spoke of what those days were like.

In April 2012 the Jets hired a new team president, Neil Glat. That season the team went 6–10, and general manager Mike Tannenbaum subsequently was replaced by John Idzik. Despite having put on a good face, Ryan says he felt like a “leftover” under the new GM, half of an arranged marriage “who could be replaced at any time.”

“I wasn’t the boss anymore,” Ryan says. “I was just a guy. Whether they want to say it or not, all of a sudden I became less important to the team.”

“They were trying to pull away from me, like it was my fault that people identified the Jets with me, and that was a bad thing. From that point on I knew I wasn’t long for the job.”


Even before the season began, Ryan was worried about the Jets’ ability to compete. Last summer he bought a house in the Nashville suburbs. “When the draft and free agency didn’t go the way I would have liked it to, I was concerned,” Ryan says. “That’s why I bought a house in Tennessee. I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen, but I knew I would need someplace to live. That I was probably going to get fired.”

There was no organization-wide commitment to the rebuild. How specifically did this manifest itself?

It’s difficult say with certainty, but one can’t help but wonder whether the Jets got Ryan’s full attention that year. It’s easy to say that an employee should always give everything, but if you don’t feel your employer has your back and realize your days are numbered it’s natural to have less passion and commitment for the job. You might remember this was the year the Jets a game in Detroit to the Bills by a 38-3 score. The Jets were coming off their bye and had two weeks to prepare. The Bills had barely been able to practice because of incredible snowfall in Buffalo which forced the game to be moved to a neutral site.

I think it’s also natural to wonder the extent to which battles played out behind the scenes in the media. For his part, Idzik did a miserable job communicating his vision to the media and the fanbase, which ramped up the pressure. People saw a coach in Ryan who was relatively popular and had past success as paying the price for the front office’s ineptitude. And if you don’t think a general manager can shape the narrative to at least temporarily deflect pressure, consider how many people covering the team were convinced to the very last day that Maccagnan had the Jets moving in the right direction.

In any event the pressure became too much, and Woody Johnson fired Idzik along with Ryan at the conclusion of the 2014 season. The owner didn’t have the stomach to stick with Idzik’s plan. Based on his comments that March, it wasn’t entirely clear he believed in it to begin with. (To be fair, I think Johnson made the right move dismissing Idzik.)

Prior to Idzik, Mike Tannenbaum ran the team. There was no rebuilding with Tannenbaum. There was no need at one point. The Jets put together a couple of deep postseason runs.

It was in the aftermath of this stretch that the decade of futility began. The success of the 2009 and 2010 Jets was in part sparked by talented players the Jets took gambles on such as Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, and Antonio Cromartie.

This success perhaps made Tannenbaum and Ryan believe they could make it work with anybody. Thus we saw ill-advised gambles on players like Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason who were both largely unproductive and negative locker room influences. Holmes playing for a new contract in 2010 was a different player and person from Holmes after a payday. And of course most notably, the Jets traded for Tim Tebow.

Tannenbaum paired these moves with an approach to the salary cap that constantly cleared short term cap space at the expense of making contracts more expensive and less flexible down the line. When players like Bart Scott and Calvin Pace aged, it left the Jets with big bills for ineffective players. The contract extension which committed the Jets to Mark Sanchez while clearing immediate cap space was the pinnacle of Tannenbaum’s short-term oriented thinking.

So really I don’t think you can say the Jets have been rebuilding for a decade. They’ve just been bad. This is the first time the organization has fully committed to an approach of trying to draft and develop young players in bulk. A few years from now, the young players of today will hopefully form that foundation of mature players on their second contracts who can help guide the next generation of young, talented draftees.

This is merely the context of the situation. Joe Douglas is not above criticism. His first two years he made short-term deals attempting to provide stopgap solutions to problems. They largely failed. There are reasons to be bearish about his first Draft class in 2020.

However, I think it’s important to understand where the Jets are as a team. Douglas doesn’t have forever. As his tenure progresses, mere progress will cease to be enough. Wins will need to follow. In a few years, it will be all about wins and losses. For now there’s only so much that could be expected, even though he has officially been on the job for over two years.

We aren’t at that stage yet even if it feels like we should be. You don’t get extra credit because past front offices have failed. There is no head start because the people here before didn’t commit to a rebuild.

We remain at the beginning of the process. Growing pains will continue. Hopefully this time the required patience will be rewarded.