A Healthy Response
COVID-19 may have tried its best, but the Jets would not be denied; they were going to beat the Jaguars come Hell or Highwater. Never mind that an unbelievable number of Jets were ineligible to play after contracting the virus or an entire position group (the safeties) were made up of people that had never played the position above a practice squad level before today. Never mind that the Jets head coach himself was forced to isolate for this game and that Ron Middleton- whose highest designation on a coaching staff was assistant head coach at the college level in 2012- was thrust into the limelight with the headset. The Jets were going to win this game and nothing would stop them.
Look, you may have been rooting for a loss here to help the Jets' draft position. I completely understand if you were doing exactly that, as this team has bred that sort of mentality into us by having us root for losses in December (if not earlier) for the past six years. It's practically instinct to us, rooting for losing now in the name of winning tomorrow. I was like this myself last season at the midway point of the season, and I will probably be like this for the last two games of the season where the Jets will likely be double-digit underdogs in both games.
But I couldn't root for a loss today. I said this in my post following the Texans game; I needed the Jets to win one more game this year to meet my expectations. This was likely the last possible game that they could win, so it's dispiriting to see this team only just barely meet expectations, but I set them low for a reason. This was never a good team, but the knowledge that they are not the worst in the league is comforting in a way, a sign that they've at least improved from a contender for "worst team ever" from last season. I needed a reason to believe in Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh's vision for this team's future, because for long stretches of this season, it was extremely hard to find any faith. Had they lost this game, it would have been a vote for no confidence for reasons of no competence.
So, yes, let me reiterate what I said a month ago after they beat the Texans. Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh should be here next season. They have shown enough- barely- to warrant a second season at the helm of this franchise. They met expectations- barely- this year, and we are starting to see signs of growth from rookie QB Zach Wilson, who they insisted all along was capable of big things and he is finally starting to show them.
This is not a free pass to either one of them, or for Wilson for that matter. Expectations will be raised for next season, and I'm going to be demanding enough progress next year to justify all the pain of this season. If they fail to meet expectations, then there will be a cleansing like the one that the Giants totally should be extending this offseason (but according to recent reports, they won't be cleansing their head coach).
For now, though, I want to revel in the victory. Draft position is not on my mind right now; if you want to root for better draft position, root for the Jaguars, Lions and Texans to win each of their last two games, since I doubt the Jets will at all be competing in their last two games anyway. Also root for the Panthers and Seahawks to keep losing down the stretch (maybe the Vikings too, if you like that).
This was a good showing from nearly all affairs. Zach Wilson had a good day, putting up 193 total yards and 2 total TDs. All three of his carries resulted in first downs before his fourth carry was the game-ending QB sneak. He had the longest QB run in franchise history with his 52-yard scramble for the touchdown, breaking the record set by Sam Darnold in 2020. He completed a season-high 63.6% of his passes, and he had the second-highest passer rating of the season (behind the Titans victory), and had Denzel Mims not been so completely out of his depth on an NFL field when Wilson targeted him on the 4th & goal attempt at the end of the first half, he would have posted his highest passer rating of the season. Are these numbers indicative of a franchise quarterback? No, but this is the sort of performance you can reasonably expect to set as a high water mark for a rookie QB, and I'm pleased to see Wilson perform so well.
Other Jets had good days as well. Rookie RB Michael Carter had a standout performance, garnering 124 total yards on 18 touches (6.89 yards per touch), though no scores today for him. CB Javelin Guidry had five solo tackles in this game, good for second on the team behind six solo-tackle performances from LB CJ Mosley (who was bad today, I'll admit), LB Jarrad Davis (I can't believe it either) and CB Bryce Hall (who had a second-consecutive standout tackling performance after getting humiliated by the Saints in that regard). Rookie DB Jason Pinnock looked like he earned more playing time on defense today, filling in at safety for injured and virus-ridden players on the depth chart in front of him. And, of course, WR Braxton Berrios is upping his price tag this offseason by the week, leading the team in targets, receptions and receiving yards around getting that kickoff return TD in the second quarter.
Acting head coach Ron Middleton also had an admirable performance with his coaching today, perhaps better than any game that Saleh has had this year. Middleton's clock management at the end of the first half was good if not great, the Jets putting together a drive where he felt comfortable enough with his offense where he decided to go for it on not one, not two, but three 4th down attempts. They converted the first two rather easily, while the third one was failed because Mims did just about everything a receiver should not do on a route in the endzone, not because the play or the throw was bad. I liked his aggressiveness on 4th down all game (though his decision to allow a Braden Mann 4th down carry rather than just go for it on offense was unwelcome).
What does it say that arguably the Jets' best-coached game was the one where their head coach was sitting at home? Not great things, obviously, but it does make me feel more comfortable that Saleh has brought in good assistant coaches around him who will help him once he comes back from his bout with the virus. He'll now have a coaching staff that is more seasoned with a guy in Middleton who has been in his situation and succeeded in it with his one game as acting head coach, as well as coordinators who were given the freedom to be more aggressive on just about every front (4th down attempts on offense and special teams, plenty of blitzing on defense).
I'm also glad the Jets were able to win a fun game this year, as their last win was not an easy watch. Unless you were so committed to the tank that you were enjoying the losses, this was the most fun we've had since the Bengals game when Mike White burst onto the scene. So, for Zach, it's the most fun he's been to watch since the Titans game, which I'm sure was a real treat to the fans in attendance he treated to an exciting performance.
I'd really like to enjoy this, since I'm at the point where I'm expecting not to be enjoying much the last two games of the season. The Buccaneers defense (particularly those most involved in coverage) have been banged up this year so maybe he could have a good showing against them, but their pass rush is as ferocious as any he has encountered this year, so we might see him revert to his prior struggles next week. If you wanted to see good things from Wilson down the stretch like I did, this is probably as good as it's going to get, so I'd advise you to enjoy it like me.
Nothing about my experience today was about worrying over draft selection. I'm glad the Texans pulled out the upset over the Chargers to help them keep pace in the draft order, but I could not care so much about the Jets' 2022 first round pick at the moment. It is the same as it was last weekend and any boost to its stock would be nice, but it is not imperative enough that I would have wanted them to lose this game. The Jets need to be able to properly build this team no matter where they are picking in next year's draft; they should not need to earn the second overall pick two years in a row to field a competitive team.
I'm instead choosing to focus on the resilience that this team showed; down tons of starters (including their best DL in Quinnen Williams, ruled out with COVID-19 hours before kickoff) and reserves, playing without their head coach and in front of a crowd that was starving for any semblance of competition in spite of their physical losses, this team rallied when it would have been much easier to lay down. Even with the oddsmakers and bettors favoring the Jets for the first time in more than a year, their victory was still a hard-fought affair against a team that- despite firing their head coach last week- was still looking for their own late-season magic with their own rookie QB.
Last week, I complained that there was not much reason for hope. The Jets answered back with the reasons to be hopeful. You often feel better after wins than losses regardless, so maybe it's just the 26-21 final score that has me uppity in this moment, but I will take it; uppity is not a common emotion with the Jets under most circumstances.
So, yes, the Jets showed a healthy response today. You might not see that again this season; when the Jets next suit up on January 2nd (or maybe the NFL will delay this game if the virus issues continue when it features a playoff team; Heaven forbid if Brady contracts the virus because of the Jets, as the league might shut down the Jets for good if they infected him), they'll probably be on the wrong end of a blowout loss. The Jets may still end up with the worst point differential in franchise history (because two losses with a combined 45 point margin to the Buccaneers and Bills doesn't feel out of the question with this team), but they no longer feel like the unmitigated abomination that they've been for the past month and a half.
They now feel like a team that isn't the worst in the league. That's good enough for me.