A Happy New Year
Well, that was... unexpected.
I didn't see a game like this coming, one where the Jets were not only competitive, but winning for the majority of the first half. I predicted a double-digit blowout, and I pretty easily would have taken the Buccaneers -14.5 in this game had I been placing a bet on it. It seemed like a foregone conclusion, considering that after all three of the Jets' previous wins this season (Titans, Bengals and Texans), they immediately followed them up noncompetitive affairs (Falcons, Colts and Eagles) where it felt like a waste to get hopes up after any of them. I couldn't possibly get my hopes up for a win today after last week, but even still, I would have been fine with only losing by 12 points had it come to that.
The Jets then decided to have their most complete game of the season with their most incomplete roster of the season.
I'll just quickly breeze through the bad stuff from today right now because I absolutely want to focus on the good, and there was a lot of good. I'll lead off with the rather poor play by the receivers not named Braxton Berrios; Denzel Mims didn't even get a snap despite the Jets missing three receivers on the depth chart in front of him, and Keelan Cole practically killed whatever drive the Jets might have put together with a drop along the sideline with 90 seconds left in the first half (Cole made up for it with some decent blocking and a nice catch on the opening drive of the second half). There was also a rather questionable performance by P Braden Mann, who did manage to get both of his first half punts inside the 20, but his first punt was not a good one, and he had a bad one at the start of the 4th quarter so I'm still not sold on him being this team's punter next season.
There were also a fair few injuries, all of them unfortunate. RB Michael Carter exited early with a concussion, and with one game left on the schedule, I'd imagine his season is probably over. Same with LT George Fant and his leg injury, who needed to be helped off the field and into the locker room. It's more of a shame with him, as he was in the midst of his best NFL season and looked like he was definitely going to be back with the Jets next year. Now, if his injury is significant enough that he might miss even part of the preseason in 2022, the Jets might choose to release him to save the cash. Other injuries like those hampered TE Daniel Brown and CB Brandin Echols (who I'll talk more about in a moment).
And, finally, I need to touch on what happened on the Jets' drive before the final 2-minute warning. You know the play I mean: the 4th & 2 play where the game would have been won with a first down. The Jets put Wilson under center with the game on the line and watched him attempt a QB sneak, but he only gained a yard and turned it over on downs.
Now, let me first preface this by saying that I was conflicted before and after this call. When it was 4th down and the Jets had to burn a timeout because they couldn't even get set to try drawing the Buccaneers offsides (and the visitors were surprisingly undisciplined in this game, including one particular outburst of undisciplined behavior that will go down in infamy), I was thinking that the Jets should kick the field goal. On the previous play, it looked like WR Braxton Berrios had been injured on the tackle and he'd been limping for much of the pre-snap huddle and setup. Under no circumstance would I have wanted to go for it on offense without my best available weapon on the field.
After the timeout, however, the Jets apparently decided that Berrios was good enough to go on the play, so I immediately assumed that the play call was to get him the ball and supported it. In fact, in the postgame press conference, Saleh indicated that they had in fact intended for Berrios to get the ball on a reverse handoff while he was in motion, but Wilson had misheard what the coaches had wanted since the call allowed for him to make his own judgment at the line and decide if he could sneak it. Either Wilson thought it was a sneak the whole way through or made the poorest possible judgment when he took it himself behind his backup center against 346-pound DT Vita Vea.
I've seen some discussion postgame about whether or not Wilson was falling back on his hero ball mentality, as some believe that he called his own number in that spot wanting to clinch the win himself. I get the reasoning, but I think the truth is both more simple and more troubling; I think that Wilson legitimately believed he was supposed to take it himself based on the appearance of the defense because of the call and didn't let his concerns get in the way.
Why? Because this coaching staff seems to have some opposition to players showing initiative outside of the structure of a play call. It's different between the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball, but I remember that in the game against the Titans, the coaches freaked out on the sidelines when Mosley called an audible to check the Jets into a different coverage set. Even when the veteran defensive captain correctly read the offense and the resulting play was a big one for the Jets defense, Saleh explicitly said after the game that Mosley wasn't supposed to be able to call audibles on the field and balked at the idea of him doing it again in the future.
I think that it's the same with the offense; I think Wilson is empowered to call audibles, but the audibles that he can call are rigid and need to be applied to the situation. The Jets explanation of poor communication actually seems plausible like this, where Wilson would have seen the defense, believed that he was in a play that would allow him to either sneak or give the ball to Berrios, and called upon his practice to take the ball himself in that situation. It was a really, really bad decision, but I really don't think it was him being selfish in that moment. I think it was a product of a system that doesn't allow players to analyze beyond the scope of what the coaches are telling them to look for; Wilson was only empowered to read the defensive line and make a decision based on that alone. Never mind the down and distance, the decision needed to be made based on the positioning of the interior linemen alone.
It left a really sour taste in my mouth, because it feels like the Jets lost this game not because of a talent disparity but because of stupidity. Saleh going for it after confirming Berrios was good to go was the right decision. According to Saleh, however, LaFleur did not emphasize strongly enough to Wilson that they needed him to hand the ball off no matter what. In fairness to LaFleur, Wilson should have known that; again, it was 4th & 2 and it was improbable that Dan Feeney could have gotten enough of a push on Vita Vea to let Wilson get the first down. On the flipside, though, yes, that is bad communication.
The Buccaneers marching down the field in the final two minutes to score a touchdown honestly felt like a foregone conclusion at that point because that QB sneak took all of the air out of the balloon. I still let myself get swept up in the excitement and was beginning to think the Jets might actually win when CB Bryce Hall made that excellent tackle at the Jets' 33-yard line to get the clock below 30 seconds. Then, somehow, the Jets allowed a receiver to get behind them in soft zone coverage and Elijah Riley failed to make the tackle on Cyril Grayson before he crossed the goal line.
LaFleur and Ulbrich were calling smart, efficient games up until halfitme. When the defense allowed a 3rd and 20 conversion on route to a Cameron Brate score in the third quarter, the Jets' offense needed to respond on the following drive. Instead, the Jets went three and out immediately, and only the grace of the defense managing to hold them for a punt in plus territory kept it from becoming an entirely bad second half. The offense then went three and out a second time on their next drive and a really bad punt by Braden Mann could have speared the Jets entirely, but the defense held them to a field goal on this drive.
Then, after putting up a good, clock-burning drive to nearly seal the game, the Jets got to within one play of beating the 11-4 Buccaneers. It really sucks that a boneheaded play is going to be the defining memory of this game, but it is totally earned. The Jets- coming off a timeout, no less- put forth one of the worst play calls we've seen in recent memory due to poor coaching and communication and lost because of it.
With that being said, let's shift to the good from today's game. As previously noted, Braxton Berrios was good today. Great, even, as he was the Jets' best receiving target, picking up first downs on nearly every catch and tallying two touchdowns in the first half. I fully expect him to be named the team's MVP after the season is over, and I truly hope the Jets re-sign him. A month ago, I said I'd like to keep him for one more year at a low price. Now, I'm thinking a lifetime extension might not be out of order (or, maybe four years at about $17 million, which is the contract Julian Edelman signed with the Patriots in 2014).
Zach Wilson was really good today. Outside of one throw to Jeff Smith toward the end of the first half, he was smart with the football. His stat sheet might not pop (19 of 33, 234 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 89.7 RTG), but he played like a seasoned veteran (the QB sneak notwithstanding), being able to divert the Buccaneers in coverage with his eyes before throwing to guys who were coming out of their routes. His throws were mostly on point (I recall only one badly thrown pass from this game, which is totally fine considering that no QB is perfect). He was able to evade pressure and get away from it at times, and though he didn't have the "Wow!" completions that he had against the Titans, the throws were still in a good spot where either his receiver would get it or no one would get it. This is real, remarkable improvement; a month ago, he was in contention for worst of the rookie QBs this year; now, I'd say he probably looks the best among the ones not named Mac Jones.
Other players had good performances as well; on defense, CJ Mosley had a good game, though he was not a standout player on defense. Bryce Hall- though he might have been picked on early in the game courtesy of Mike Evans- still had a solid performance all things considered, especially late in the game. Brandin Echols had the interception late in the first half that set up the closing field goal, and he was good enough in coverage for his time on the field that he still might change my mind about needing to take a CB in the first round later this year. RB Ty Johnson was really good today as well, totaling 82 yards on 8 touches, though his performance was somewhat overshadowed by Austin Walter, who had 49 total yards on 14 touches. RB Michael Carter- on 4 touches- had 63 total yards. Additionally, several players who were on the practice squad had their moments today, most notably TE Kenny Yeboah, who caught his two targets for 36 yards and 1st downs on both catches.
All in all, it was a good effort by the team, which is not something that can be said for the majority of losses that the Jets have suffered this season. I know that the team is 4-12 and that a win here likely could not have done so much to change the overall feeling of the season heading into the final week, but we're seeing improvement down the stretch even if it's not translating to wins. The Jets evenly went 2-6 through their first 8 games and then 2-6 through their next 8 games. They did that because they are a rebuilding team and you expect rebuilding teams to have poor records. The reason why it's improvement, however, is the quality of those losses have generally improved.
Early losses this year were not competitive. Outside of the season opener, none of their losses were respectable between Wilson's struggles, the defensive breakdowns and the QB carousel that ended with Mike White's final start. The only loss that wasn't decided by halftime was that season opener, as they were down multiple scores in every game going into the locker room (including that one). They were on pace through nine games to shatter the all-time worst point differential record in the clearest sign of non-competitiveness there could be.
Since then, though, the only loss where there was really nothing to feel good about was the Saints loss. Everything else at least one redeeming quality, whether it was the play of the rookie QB or the play of rookie WR Elijah Moore or some other aspect that stood out. Heck, this game was not only competitive, but one where the Jets were in control for the entire game until the final thirty seconds. The Jets were the team with all the power in this game, capable of doing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to a team that is expected to be a real contender in the NFC after next weekend.
It got so bad that the Jets likely retired Buccaneers' WR Antonio Brown toward the end of the third quarter. I'm sure you've already seen it, but in case you haven't: Brown ripped off his jersey, took off his shirt, pads and gloves and threw them into the crowd as he ran across the field (right after an offensive snap where he was on the sidelines) and into the locker room. I know that Bruce Arians has given him plenty of chances in the past, but this kind of meltdown should be a career-ender for the infamously mercurial and volatile player. Arians has already said that he is no longer on the team, which is the right thing for certain, and I imagine that none of the other teams will claim him off waivers. I'd laugh if the Jets claimed him, if only to treat him to one last game in Buffalo after they drove him over the edge at MetLife.
Obviously, Daddy Brady came in and sorted through his petulant Jets children to improve to 31-8 all-time against the Jets (and he also became the franchise's leading passer as an opponent, breaking Marino's record in what will hopefully be the last time the Jets play him). It was expected that the Buccaneers would win, but the fact that it took a patented Brady comeback drive was unexpected. This was a game that was much more competitive than it had any right to be. The coaching staff should be commended for their efforts today (yes, even with that disaster of a 4th & 2 call), and I really want to remember performances like this one from this season more than the others because it is what gives me hope for the future rather than despair.
So, yes, even with the gut-wrenching loss, it still feels like a happy new year is dawning in Jets land. They may lose again next week and it could get even worse than this loss, but right now, it feels like things are actually moving in the right direction.
Happy New Year.