Setting The Bar
I'm taking a break from my offseason outlook series after finishing my outlook on the offensive side of the ball with the interior offensive line. Right now, I want to take a few minutes codifying my expectations for the 2022 season before the Jets are able to do anything of significance in the offseason. These aren't final predictions for what the Jets will look like or anything like that, as we need to wait to see how the Jets and the NFL as a whole handle the offseason to see where the balance of power resides.
Instead, this is about trying to establish what the Jets' goals should be in 2022. The goals for the franchise as a whole have been set pretty low for a few years now (and spoilers: I don't intend to shoot for the moon in my expectations this year) because they have been a really bad team for a while. In 2021, my initial expectations were five or six wins, an offense and defense that would at least look like they belonged in the NFL and a quarterback (not one that was traded) that could at least put together a better rookie season in 2021 than third-year-pro Sam Darnold had in 2020.
I lowered those win expectations when Carl Lawson went down with his Achilles injury, as even when I wasn't a big fan of the signing, every beat reporter raved about him as the undisputed MVP of training camp for this team. Losing the clear-cut best pass rusher (with no close second) on the team after the Jets didn't do nearly enough to boost their LB corps or secondary really made me sick the day he was carted off the practice field, as I knew that the Jets defense was basically compromised by the loss of their best player. I think the Jets shouldn't have been in the position where something like that could happen, but that was the reality.
I decided that four wins was my new bar for success in win totals, but I retained my expectations for the other conditions. The offense certainly lived up to them, as though they were not anywhere close to great on offense in 2021, they at least finished 26th in yardage and 28th in scoring. The defense, on the other hand, did not, possibly serving as the absolute worst defense in franchise history. They ended up finishing dead-last in scoring and yardage and second-to-last in takeaways (only in front of the Jaguars).
And, finally, I'd argue that we did at least get the conditions relating to the rookie quarterback being better than 2020 Darnold. Wilson had 13 total TDs to 12 turnovers in 12 complete games, which was at least a ratio over 1.0 (what you want from a rookie) but far from good. Darnold, on the other hand, had 11 total TDs and 13 turnovers in his final season with the Jets (also 12 complete games), unacceptable for a veteran of any length (and he was arguably still worse than Wilson in 2021 with the Panthers with 13 total TDs and 17 turnovers in 9 complete games and most of three others). Wilson also outpaced Darnold by yardage with 94 more total yards, having 2,518 to Darnold's 2,425. Darnold had a slightly higher QBR than Wilson (33.1 to 28.1) in slightly more playing time (Darnold has 771 offensive snaps to Wilson's 741), but I'd still weight Wilson's season more strongly with him being the third-most sacked QB (44 sacks: 7 behind Joe Burrow and 4 behind Ryan Tannehill) and tied for the most sack yardage lost (with Burrow) while Tannehill and Burrow played at least 236 more snaps than Wilson. Darnold was tied for 11th in sacks suffered for the 20th-most yardage lost, for further context.
So, the Jets at least met three of my four conditions. It's incredibly concerning that the one they failed to meet was having a competent defense when they hired a defensive specialist to be their head coach, but considering that they still had a reasonably good showing in their other categories, I'm willing to let it slide in this regime's first year. Expectations need to rise in year two, though, because none of what happened in 2021 is acceptable in 2022. For the rest of Joe Douglas's tenure as GM and Robert Saleh's tenure as HC, every season must be better than this one, and markedly so. With that, before any true offseason moves can be made or the complete schedule of the 2022 season can be unveiled, let me provide my expectations for the 2022 season.
This is nonnegotiable. I don't care if the entirety of the Jets' starting WRs miss the entire season due to a collective stroke or the starting DL is hit by a bus crossing the street and doesn't play a snap in 2022. I don't care if Wilson gets mononucleosis and misses a month like Darnold did in 2019 or if Saleh is forced to take a leave of absence due to extreme explosive diarrhea. I don't even care if the Patriots sabotage the Jets' helmets prior to the start of every game so that the team plays its games in virtual reality thinking they're winning when they're actually losing in the real world (in which case, please jack me in to the Matrix so I can escape this hell).
The Jets have sucked and sucked and sucked for far too long. They have sucked so hard and they need to stop sucking in 2022 (and I refuse to clean up either of those two sentences). Most regimes don't even get one year of tanking. Absolutely nobody should get two, and the Jets came within one loss of finishing in at least the top 2 of the draft for the second consecutive year. I know that Douglas has only been partly responsible for the decade of sucking, but he's entering his third full offseason; if the Jets are picking in the top six of next year's draft for the fifth time in seven years, he doesn't get to come back to make that pick.
This is an expectation that shouldn't need to be repeated, but repeat it I will. The Jets cannot be a bad team next year. They don't need to be a top team, but even picking in the 'teens of next year's draft is not a high bar to clear. The Jets haven't earned a pick at 13th or later since the 2015 season when they earned the 20th pick in the 2016 draft (the absolute latest you could get at the time without making the playoffs). Even picking 11th like they did in 2020 feels like it would be underachieving without giving any more context; unless Zach Wilson looks like a franchise QB, I still would strongly consider cleaning house if that's the pick they earn. Anything lower than 10th and I'm definitely calling for heads to roll.
Picking 4th was about where I thought they would be prior to the start of the 2021 season (I expected 6th), so that's not too far below (though they still came close to putting me off). Before seeing the full NFL schedule, I'm expecting to be picking around 14th next year, and then hopefully around 24th the year after that. For context, the Ravens are picking 14th in this year's draft after finishing 8-9, and they weren't formally eliminated from the playoffs until the season finale loss to the Steelers. The Dolphins and Colts earned the 15th and 16th picks respectively at 9-8, and they had the same elimination story (Dolphins were eliminated a week earlier). The Jets need to have a similar 2022 season to one of those 2021 teams.
By compete, I don't mean that they need to be competing for the AFC Championship (although it would be nice). I don't even mean competing in the AFC East, since I think they need at least another offseason in 2023 before they can begin to get to where the Bills are now. For sure, they need to win some division games (and more on that later), but the only thing I need them to compete for is a playoff berth as a Wild Card spot. They don't need to make it in 2022, but they need to put forth a competitive effort.
In the same vein as the "Don't Suck" requirement, I'd like the Jets to be consistently fun to watch. How many times in 2021 was a three-hour Jets game a good experience for you? The two wins against the Titans and Bengals were enjoyable, as was the win against the Jaguars to a lesser extent. They also had an enjoyable if crushing loss to the Buccaneers toward the end of the season, and I at least had some fun watching the Dolphins game in Miami. That's about five games this season where watching this team play football was a somewhat rewarding experience.
The other twelve games varied from bad to unwatchable. The average Jets game ended with a loss by 11.4 points. Their average loss was by a margin of 16.3 points while their average win was by 4.5 points. I turned off a Jets game (at the Patriots) for the first time in my life this season, and I only went to one game this season (the Eagles game), something I totally regret doing. The Jets need to be a fun team to watch consistently, not just a third of the time.
Let me compare what I expect to what the Cardinals were in 2020. With second-year QB Kyler Murray and second-year HC Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs thanks to their Week 17 elimination at the hands of the Rams (and the 49ers the week prior when they injured Murray and rendered him effete for their last game). They earned the 16th pick in the 2021 draft and- despite missing the playoffs thanks to a late-season collapse where they lost 5 of their final 7 games- were still a lot of fun to watch. Their average game ended with a victory by 2.7 points. Their average loss was by 6.9 points while their average win was by 12.3 points.
They missed the playoffs and there were legitimate concerns about what the team would look like in 2021, but they built upon their 2020 success. They might not be able to build upon their 2021 success after a humbling Wild Card round exit, but that's a different story. I want to see something similar from the Jets in 2022; putting together a strong enough foundation to use as a launch point into the playoffs in 2023. Again, they don't need to make the playoffs next year, but I'd be willing to waive the requirement for fun if they did.
In that context, let me compare to what the Bills were in 2019. From the viewpoint of a Jets fan who does not regularly watch Bills games when they're not on television in my media market, I don't think the Bills were much fun in 2019. They had the 24th scoring offense and 23rd total offense behind second-year QB Josh Allen. Their defense is the primary reason they made the playoffs (2nd in scoring, 3rd in yardage and 10th in takeaways with 23) with a 10-6 record. They only beat one team that ended the season with a winning record (the Titans in Mariota's penultimate start) and averaged 19.6 points per game (34 offensive TDs in 16 games, same number as the Jets in 2021 in 17 games).
Still, they made the playoffs in spite of not being much fun to watch. If the Jets aren't fun to watch but are able to end their 11-year playoff drought before it can become the longest in franchise history, I'll rescind this requirement, but I'm not expecting them to make the playoffs next year.
Get Out of the AFC East Basement
The Jets have lost 12 straight division matchups, 16 of their last 18, and 21 of their last 24. The last time they went .500 in the AFC East was 2015 when they swept the Dolphins and took a game from the Patriots; they are 7-29 in the division since. They have finished in last place in the division in five of the last six years, and the only reason they finished 3rd in 2019 was because of a bogus pass interference penalty that benefited the Jets at the end of the game that extended the drive that ultimately saw Sam Ficken hit the walk-off field goal to win against the Dolphins at home.
The Jets need to not finish last next year. I don't care if the entire division wins at least 8 games each; the Jets need to win 8 games of their own if that happens. I might accept them finishing in last place if it's by a tiebreaker, but finishing at least a full game below everyone else is not acceptable for me.
The Bills might not be as good next year as they are now, but I think the safe bet is that they will be able to take the division with relative ease. They are well-stocked in the draft and have one last season on Josh Allen's rookie contract before the cap crunch begins to take its greatest effect. I think the Bills will still be able to win at least 12 games in 2022. The Dolphins and Patriots, however, look vulnerable to me.
The Patriots are in really bad shape in the draft (only five picks in the latter half of each round, and they are not expected to get any compensatory picks) and only have $4 million in cap space at present per PatsCap (probably gets up to $15 million with some cuts and retirements). They have the choice of going all in for 2022 by restructuring a whole host of deals and cutting some veterans to get themselves to around $40 million in space, but that's not a lot to get the premier guys that can help their team transcend to the next level. Their best path to getting better is hitting on their draft picks, something they haven't been doing well as of late.
The Dolphins do have cap space and draft picks to spend (their first round pick can be no earlier than 29 since they only own the 49ers' pick), but they just fired their coach Brian Flores after a 9-8 season and retained GM Chris Grier after he hired and fired Flores and Adam Gase. It's unclear how the organization views two-year veteran QB Tua Tagovailoa, who will be working with his third offensive coordinator in three years if he's still with the team next season. I could see them trading for Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers with their draft resources over the next few years (and letting Watson/Rodgers have some of the organization input he's been seeking with the Texans/Packers), so I really hope that doesn't happen. Without knowing either their QB or HC plans for the 2022 season, though, I can't make any determinations about what kind of team they'll be next year.
The cellar has been the Jets' home for far too long. They need to keep pace with all of these teams, each of whom began their rebuilds in a similar time to the Jets (who began two different rebuilds during this same time). Going 0-6 in the division for the third season in a row would be grounds for everyone to be fired (unless they somehow miraculously win 8 or more of their other games). Going 1-5 with their only win being against a division rivals' backups in the last week of the season is no better. I want to see at least two wins in the division next year and hopefully neither is a meaningless game at the end of the season against backups.
I'm not going to be making expectations for the other position groups, but this one is kind of important, wouldn't you agree? Without seeing who the Jets add in free agency, trades and the draft to the receiving corps, I need to set some baseline expectations for him. If they go all in on offense and try to make things easier for him, maybe my expectations rise, but he needs to clear at least a few hurdles.
At a minimum, he needs to be better than he was in 2021. Having a TD-turnover ratio just above 1.0 is fine for a rookie. If he repeats or has a ratio below that (assuming he plays most of the season), he's probably getting replaced in the 2023 offseason. If he has a ratio somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 (Jared Goff's 19 TDs and 14 turnovers in 2021 gives a ratio of 1.36, for instance), he probably gets a third season, but if the team fires Douglas with that kind of ratio on a bad team, the next GM makes the call (Darnold never accomplished a ratio higher than the 1.31 he received in 2019 through 21 TDs and 16 turnovers). Higher than 1.5 is the target, but I'd take a 2021 Derek Carr ratio (23/19 for 1.21) if he had Carr's yardage total and wins in his second year.
Right now, my expectation is that Wilson has 23 TDs and 15 turnovers in at least 15 games played next season. As much as I definitely want him to play a full season, he missed four games in 2021, part of a pattern that also saw him miss 4 college games each in 2018 and 2019. Improving the pattern by two games is good enough from year one to year two. As for that ratio, that is the one that Jimmy Garoppolo had in 15 games with the 49ers in 2021. Garoppolo is a nice, middle-of-the-pack starter in the NFL, unlikely to ever make the Pro Bowl but still capable of leading a team to victory. That's not what the Jets want long term from Wilson, but if he's a middle-of-the-pack guy next season while playing in at least 15 games, that's a good enough step up from his rookie season where he was a bottom-four QB.
You might have higher expectations than this, which I completely understand; a 2nd overall pick hyped to be a special talent by the team itself is going to have expectations on him no matter what he did as a rookie. The history of the Jets, however, suggests that growth could be a painful process. Would it shock you to learn that the Jets have only ever had one quarterback achieve 4,000 passing yards in a single season? It was Joe Namath all the way back in 1967 with 4,007 passing yards (Fitzpatrick had over 4,000 total yards in 2015). That's right; the Jets went the entirety of the 16-game era without having anyone else get to 4,000 passing yards; the fact that Namath did it in 14 games is almost as impressive as that. It's slightly better than the Bears, the only franchise that has never had a passer achieve 4,000 yards (Cutler had over 4,000 total yards in 2014), but every other team has had at least one.
Additionally, the Jets have only ever had one quarterback pass for 30 TDs in a season. Fitzpatrick set the franchise record with 31 passing TDs (and 33 total TDs) in 2015, and only Mark Sanchez in 2011 and Vinny Testaverde in 1998 had at least 30 total TDs in a season as Jets QBs. If Wilson is able to break these franchise records in 2022 while keeping his ratio in a good place, fantastic; it probably means he'll be the best QB since Namath at a minimum. Still, I'm not expecting these records to fall in his second season.
Perhaps I didn't emphasize enough just how much this expectation needs to be met. I shouldn't have even have to have said this once, let alone twice. Apparently, there's still some interference between us in transmitting this message. So let me try once again to share it.
The Jets need to not suck in 2022. Outside of 2015 (the last year of relevancy for this franchise), the Jets haven't ranked even in the top 16 in point differential in a season since 2011. 2015 was the only season where they even came close to the playoffs during their 11-season drought. That needs to change in 2022; coming close is the bar. If they are so far from the playoffs that they might as well not even be in the NFL, the Jets will be cleaning house again. They fired Adam Gase after two seasons despite hailing him as a football genius multiple times during his tenure. Woody Johnson likely won't hesitate to fire everybody that his brother hired if this team sucks again next year.
The Jets have not managed to inspire a lot of hope over the last two years, at least in the middle of the season. There was nothing to get hopeful over in the middle of the 2020 season until we all saw Trevor Lawrence in a Jets uniform coming into reality. Then they botched it at the last minute and snatched away all that hope until a few hours after the season ended when they fired Gase. Then, in the next season, we got maybe a semblance of hope in the Titans game and didn't really get it back the way it was in that game. To lesser extents, the Bengals game and Buccaneers game brought some hope back, but those moments were few and far between.
It really shouldn't be hard to screw this expectation up in 2022. Not sucking can give hope that they've turned a corner, putting on a fun product can give hope that they've probably found the right coaching staff and front office setup, adequate play by Wilson can give hope that they've probably found at least a starting caliber quarterback (something we haven't really drafted since Ken O'Brien), and doing all of those things can give us the best feeling coming out of a season we've had since the 2010-2011 postseason finish at Heinz Field.
These are simply the baseline expectations and can go up over the course of the offseason. Right now, though, these feel fair to me. Having a team that can win some games (preferably 8 of them, no fewer than 7), putting on a watchable product that can be fun around half the time, an offense and defense that can sustain itself and survive the loss of one player and a QB that at least looks like he can start over the course of a season is not demanding the world.
If you have different expectations right now, feel free to share them. This is about setting the bar, and the Jets need to clear it if they don't want to fall flat on their collective faces.