What's Right With The Jets
Like the Jets' time of possession in their season finale, I'm going to keep this short. A lot of interesting things happened around the NFL today, including a Jets game where they took the Bills to their limit through most of a game before the talent disparity between the two teams finally became too much for them in the final ten minutes. This is a far cry from what happened two months ago when the Bills hung 45 points on the team to cap off a four game stretch where the defense surrendered 175 points and the Mike White-led offense turned the ball over like it was its job.
Sure, it was still a three-score loss at the end of the day, like how the other loss to the Bills was by four scores, but it's not really reflective of the quality of the competition; the score should have been much worse for the Jets, and maybe they were only spared the humiliation of such a stinging defeat because of the weather in Buffalo. The bottom line, however, is that this game was close because the Jets defense- which we all generally agree has been the main culprit of our suffering this season- tightened up and stood up to the Bills staunch attack in a way no one could have predicted they would.
I'm going to level with you; I didn't watch most of this game. I was far more interested in the conclusion of the Steelers-Ravens overtime matchup that the Jets broadcast interrupted maybe five minutes prior to the Steelers victory, and the Rams-49ers game on the other channel was far more enticing when the majority of the first half of our game looked like it was played underwater. I can't provide my own assessment of the game based on what I saw (I witnessed all first half scores while flipping between channels, but not much of the second half), but I can examine the box score and the stats to form my thesis. I'm generally aware of the problems the Jets had in this game, and the chief problem is spelled O-F-F-E-N-S-E in capital letters.
It's always difficult to get anything going when you're down three starting OLM, your four top WRs (one of them being your best return man) and three of your four primary TEs. It's even more difficult when you're playing against a strong defense in the Bills, a team that also features a formidable offense that will likely put you behind early and force you to play catch-up. I get all that, but the fact that the Jets only 53 yards of offense in a regular season game is ridiculously bad.
That is a franchise low, worse than anything Gase ran in his two seasons at the helm. The Jets also had only 4 first downs all game, meaning that they were averaging only one first down and 13.3 yards per quarter. What makes this even worse- and it's already comfortably bad enough- is that the Dolphins-turned-Bills punter Matt Haack a stupidly low 33.9 average yardage on his 7 punts, so the Jets often had great field position even without their Pro Bowl alternate return man fielding the punts and did nothing with them (worst among them, they began a drive at the Bills 22 and lost 10 yards on the drive) to kick a field goal.
Yes, the OL was bad, causing Zach Wilson to be sacked 8 times among his 19 QB hits. Still, though, he has to share some of the blame for the offensive woes the Jets suffered today; when you're getting beat up early on, I don't understand how you can possibly stand still in the pocket with no awareness of your blindside, especially when your 4th LT Conor McDermott is the one who has repeatedly gotten you hit over the final month of the season. He also took at least one completely needless sack by running out of bounds (which was that previously-mentioned 10-yard loss on that field goal drive) when he could have and should have thrown the ball away.
And, yes, Wilson played rather poorly in this game by the numbers (7 of 20, 87 passing yards gained versus 79 yards lost on sacks for 8 net passing yards, 1 TD and a 66.0 RTG), but I know that he was hampered by drops as well, with TE Tyler Kroft- the former Bill who must have thought he could help out his old team- having two on his lonesome. He didn't turn the ball over in this game and has now gone 5 games and 156 passes since his last interception against the Eagles, but if this level of play was what the Jets wanted, they could have just as well traded for Jimmy Garoppolo in the 2021 offseason.
I don't blame Zach Wilson for these struggles. I doubt Russell Wilson could have done much more with what the Jets offensive unit ran out there against the Bills. In knowing that there was very little more our rookie QB could have done in this game, I do have to lament the loss of the good feeling that was present with Wilson playing the best (consistent) football of his career in the previous three games against the Dolphins, Jaguars and Buccaneers. Hopes were high that even if the Jets couldn't win (or even be competitive due to the mess that is their defense), Wilson would at least make the sort of plays that reinforce why the Jets took him second overall last year. Even with that touchdown strike to Keelan Cole in the first half, though, it still feels like he didn't show much in this game that we couldn't have gotten from Garoppolo.
So why did I title this post the way I did, other than the juxtaposition of it with my first post on this forum? Well, that is the only reason, honestly, but there are some things that are right with the Jets. The defense definitely played above its weight in this one, hanging around with the AFC East winners for 3.5 quarters before they were finally beaten back. Sure, the Jets have now lost 12 consecutive division games and 16 of their last 18 games, but it's what this loss demonstrated that is what has me feeling content. The talent gap between the two teams may have been wide, but that wasn't enough to make it out of reach. For the second consecutive week, the Jets were competitive against two expected contenders in games they had no right to even play in. Ignore the fact that the Bills covered the spread (which I actually bet on them to do, so at least I got the good bet for my troubles); if the Jets weren't missing even half of their injured component, the might have been able to win this game.
And that's what gives me the most hope out of this game, because next season, I'm going to need to see my team beat teams like these Bills and like those Buccaneers. Amid a season of sucking and barely any fun, the Jets still found it within themselves to fight to the finish with a team that should have steamrolled them. Next season, there shouldn't be any teams that steamroll the Jets, so if the starting players are capable of playing in their places with this level of fight, they could very well win those games.
I'm not naïve enough to think that the Jets are winning the Super Bowl next year. Heck, I don't even think that the Jets will make the playoffs next year; even with the draft resources and cap space that this team has at its disposal come the spring, it's highly unlikely that a team that was this bad could put together a 2019 San Francisco 49ers-style season where they earn the conference's top seed after barely staving off being the worst team in the league the year before that one. If you want to hold on to that hope, knock yourself out, but making the playoffs isn't my bar for next year. It would be nice if they did, don't get me wrong, but outright clinching a postseason berth is not my goal.
They could still get to those playoffs, however, because they have a lot of things working in their favor. Along with the aforementioned resources that they'll have to spend in the spring, they also showed a lot of things during the season that should be cause for some warmth. The rookie QB- despite his struggles in his final game of the season- still showed the growth that we wanted to see in the two prior games. The Titans game back in October was super fun, but it was not at all sustainable; no QB could survive by just connecting on a Hail Mary for a touchdown.
By my estimation, Wilson- in playing 12 complete games- put together four bad games, four mediocre games, and four good games (varying levels of bad and good). The best part of that share is that three of his "good" games occurred in the final six games, with the other three including one bad and two mediocre. That is definitely a step in the right direction; if his share of games next season is half good games and half bad and mediocre (and there are more mediocre than bad), then that is another step in the right direction. At some point, he can't just be taking steps, but you need to learn to walk before you can run; if I see him walking in year two, I can feel confident about him running in year three. Right now, I can say that he at least learned how to stand.
Beyond the rookie quarterback, we also saw guys who played this season who should have good 2022 seasons with this team. On the offensive side of the ball, we saw rookies in WR Elijah Moore and RB Michael Carter become key contributors early on in their careers; the trick for both of them is that they each need to stay healthy in their sophomore campaigns. Additionally, as critical as I was of rookie LG Alijah Vera-Tucker a couple weeks ago, he put together a great game against the Buccaneers with their tough DL. While I didn't watch much of this game, most of the pressure I saw came from around the edge, not the interior, so I assume he was good playing between McDermott and Feeney (I could be wrong; again, I didn't watch much). His deal is that he needs to find more consistency next season, as his swings between below average and near Pro Bowl levels are not going to help drive the offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, we saw more young pieces provide their cases for snaps next year. CB Bryce Hall- perhaps my favorite player on the defense overall- had a really solid season, and I hope he plays his way into an early extension next year. The other rookies in the secondary- like CB Brandin Echols, CB Michael Carter II, DB Jason Pinnock and S Elijah Riley (who isn't really a rookie, but shush now)- played well, though except for maybe Carter II, I'm not sure I'd want to see any of them atop the depth chart in 2022. Elsewhere on defense, LB CJ Mosley played out of his mind in this game, tacking 12 solo tackles (seriously, where was everybody else on those tackles?). Both Williams brothers had 3 solo tackles of their own to go with a pass deflection each. All three of those players will be key contributors to this team next season, so to see them stack up against a division rival.
It is difficult for me to pass judgment on the coaching staff without having watched the whole game, as the sidelines' only stats are timeouts and challenges. Even so, I imagine that the coaching on defense was probably good considering how close it was for much of the game. The offensive coaching... well, 53 total yards kind of speaks for itself, but OC LaFleur had made serious strides from leading the worst offense in the NFL through the first six games to being at least an average play caller the rest of the way, and often above average at that.
I still believe that the Jets' best coached game of the season was the Jaguars game where Coach Saleh was locked in his hotel, but it still tells me that he has likely hired good assistants on his staff that can help him where necessary. There are certainly some questions with DC Ulbrich and how good a coordinator he is or can be- overseeing the worst defense in franchise history by a fairly decent margin- but I find it unlikely that the Jets look to replace him after the final three games played out the way they did. Hopefully, a full defensive component with upgrades at the necessary positions next season will allow his unit to flourish where they failed this season.
So, yes, there's a lot that you could say is in the Jets favor heading into the 2022 offseason, and they need to fix the things that were wrong with them in this offseason. Right now, though, what's right with the Jets is something that I wanted to delve into following the conclusion of what was (in my opinion) a successful season.
Let's go Jets (and I mean that as both a chant and a request).