I think it is important to contextualize the 2021 season for the Jets. Things are different this season, and expectations are different.
The Jets may have been a losing team over the last few years, but I think it’s difficult to say they have truly been a rebuilding team. In the three seasons that preceded this one, their roster at the start of the year has been on the older half of the league. A combination of coaches needing immediate results, flashy offseason spending, and late season wins the previous seasons brought hopes of immediate success. These hopes were not attainable given the team’s roster deficiencies, but they were present.
This year the Jets have finally committed to a full rebuild. The roster is the NFL’s youngest, and there are first and second year players holding down key roles on both sides of the ball. There are no guarantees this attempted build will be any more successful than the team’s tries over the last decade. Even if this does work, it’s going to take time.
Over the course of the offseason, many Jets fans expressed hope that Robert Saleh could execute the type of turnaround he worked with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. It’s easy to forget how slowly things began out there. That first offseason they inherited a 49ers team that had earned the second overall pick in the NFL Draft and had become infamous for its organizational dysfunction. Their first game in 2017 was against the Carolina Panthers. The 49ers lost by 20 that day and generated only 217 yards of total offense.
When the schedule came out a few months back part of me was filled with dread to see Sam Darnold and the Panthers in the first game. The first game of the season tends to not provoke rational analysis. Half of NFL fans think their team is hopeless after the first week of the regular season, doomed to have a dismal season. Of course many teams that play terribly in the first week go on to have successful years. After the opener it is difficult to separate genuine concerns from the one bad game or one bad matchup everybody runs into at some point during the season.
Make no mistake. If this is the best the Jets have to offer, 2021 is going to be a long and ugly season that we will remember as a failure. If Sam Darnold hits some open receivers in the red zone in the first half, this could have been a rout.
Still I see some positives to take from the game. I don’t want to go too far declaring moral victories. After all, the score and wins do matter. Still this game had the look of a 2020 style embarrassment at halftime. The Jets rallied and made it a game. A defense with question marks in key areas held Carolina to 19 points. A group of cornerbacks with no sure things held up pretty well against a group of Panthers receivers that looked like a really rough matchup on paper. The only truly crushing play Carolina made through the air, Robby Anderson’s 57 yard touchdown, was the result of a safety breakdown, not failure by the corners.
There were also some very encouraging takeaways from Zach Wilson. Let’s get this out of the way. There were stretches in the game where Wilson looked overwhelmed in his first start. He had a really ugly interception that led to the first points of the game. Immediately after he threw a high danger pass that easily could have resulted in another. There was a fumble, and while the offensive line deserves the lion’s portion of the blame for the protection issues the Jets had, Wilson also showed shaky decision making within the pocket and took a couple of sacks he shouldn’t have.
That’s to be expected. This was a rookie in his first NFL game, a game where pretty much nobody around him was doing their part to help. These struggles did happen, but we also saw a number of special plays, the type which explain why Wilson went second overall. Some of them resulted in incompletions, including a pair of nifty throws in the first half where he evaded pressure and threw a nice ball on the run that Corey Davis and Elijah Moore just could not come up with. Wilson also executed a pair of impressive touchdown drives in the second half to breathe life into the Jets with a highlight reel touchdown pass to Davis, his first in the NFL.
Just as impressive as the plays to me were the circumstances. There are a handful of things I value highly in quarterbacks in the NFL. One of them is the ability to shake it off when you make mistakes and are getting hit all day by the defense. There are clearly improvements to be made, but I liked how Wilson responded to adversity in this game. Over the last decade plus, we have seen plenty of games where young quarterbacks fell apart when things weren’t going their way.
Of course, we must tell the story of why things weren’t going Wilson’s way. That begins with the offensive line. The Jets lost the battle in the trenches badly. They struggled to establish the run all game, and looked lost against the Panthers pass rush. Carolina has some talent up front, but this game was a major disappointment. In fact it now might be time for alarm as Mekhi Becton was carted off the field after suffering what looked like a serious injury on the play where Wilson threw his first career touchdown. If Becton misses serious time, the offensive line depth will be stretched to its limit early in the season. This offense simply won’t work if the blocking up front is not more effective.
There also have to be some questions about the passing game. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is likely to receive heavy criticism for such a run heavy gameplan. I’m not sure how fair that is. The Jets have been clear that their identity is going to be based on the run to help Wilson out. With the Carolina pass rush having so much success, the Jets had to try to run the ball to at least prevent the rushers from pinning back their ears and firing upfield at the snap to Wilson. Beyond that, on a hot day in Charlotte, the game plan seemed to be attempting to wear down the Panthers defensive front. The few times the Jets broke big runs came in the fourth quarter when it is possible fatigue set in. The team was just too far behind at that point to exploit it the way it was intended.
I have greater questions about the allocation of targets in the passing game. I’m not sure why Braxton Berrios tied with Davis for the most targets. I’m not sure why Ryan Griffin and Tyler Kroft were three and four respectively, ahead of Elijah Moore. Were these the reads Wilson was making? Were the other more talented options not getting open? Or was this by design? Are the Jets too set on using tight ends even though the roster isn’t constructed for it? These are questions we can answer better once the all 22 film comes out, but they should be on our mind.
The Denzel Mims situation also remains a mystery. He was buried on the bench until the fourth quarter where he was put into the game and promptly delivered a 40 yard reception. The Jets don’t seem to want to play Mims. The coaching staff seems motivated to not use Mims, but like in the first preseason game he produced when he got an opportunity. In a game where the Jets were without two wide receivers and struggling to generate offense, one might wonder why Mims wasn’t given more of a chance to contribute.
Another disappointment was the no show from Quinnen Williams. The standout defensive tackle only recorded three tackles. While the defense performed admirably overall, perhaps a splash play from the team’s best player could have forced a game changing Darnold mistake. Williams certainly had what should have been favorable matchups all day.
While I’m sure there will be plenty of declarations based on what happens in this game, what matters from this point is that the Jets continue to improve and hopefully win some games along the way. There are some positive takeaways from this game, but this wasn’t the result we wanted. It’s not all the Jets’ fault. We sometimes forget there is another team on the field trying to make plays to win. It’s easy to complain about the Jets allowing Christian McCaffrey to have a big day, but McCaffrey had something to say about that. This isn’t the first team he has torched.
Sixteen games remain. It might not feel that way right now, but the story of the Jets season is not written. Whether 2021 is a success or failure, I don’t think the Carolina game will be viewed as the definitive turning point.