By Steve Lichtenstein
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Being a Jets fan must be a mental illness.
Fanaticism just doesn’t cover it. It doesn’t fully explain why tens of thousands would willfully choose to endure the depression that has come with the end of every football season over the past 46 years.
You’d think we’d be immune to the pain by now, with all the experience we’ve had in being subjected to gut-wrenching games like the Jets’ 22-17 defeat in Buffalo on Sunday that — coupled with the Steelers’ victory in Cleveland — knocked Gang Green out of the sixth and final playoff seed in the AFC.
It’s not observable like CTE, but I can give you anecdotal evidence that my brain has definitely warped over time as I inch closer to death without having the opportunity to see the Jets play in a Super Bowl.
The most recent proof that this is a disease? I wrote the first few paragraphs above on Saturday, believing I had already witnessed it.
I just knew that the Jets would come up small in the biggest game of the year, when all they needed was to beat the underachieving Bills to clinch an improbable run to the postseason.
Instead of rising to the occasion, their effort made my son, Sam, wonder, “Did the Jets know they were playing a football game today?”
Their performance reeked from every orifice — offense, defense, special teams, and especially coaching.
Just like in their 22-17 home loss to Buffalo earlier in the season, the Jets made all the mistakes usually associated with a club under the direction of Rex Ryan, the bombastic coach who piloted the Jets the prior six seasons before getting fired and picked up by the Bills.
The Jets were the undisciplined team, committing key defensive penalties to extend Buffalo possessions, including a personal foul on defensive lineman Leonard Williams for post-whistle shenanigans, wasting timeouts, getting caught with 12 men in the huddle, and losing the turnover battle.
Jets head coach Todd Bowles and his staff plain and simple did not have this team properly prepared.
His most malodorous of decisions: If Chris Ivory was healthy enough to line up in the backfield on the vast majority of passing downs, why was Steven Ridley handed the ball nine times to Ivory’s six? The first time he was on the field for a first-down play, he took an early second-quarter handoff and scampered 58 yards.
Then he was done for the half until offensive coordinator Chan Gailey called his number to run out the final seconds on a meaningless carry.
Ivory had been the horse all year for the Jets — a first-alternate Pro Bowl selectee — yet Bowles said in his postgame press conference that “the game plan” was geared toward a back who entered Sunday with a grand total of 61 yards on 27 carries (2.7 yards per attempt). On the Jets’ initial five first-down plays before Ivory’s big run, Ridley carried four times for a combined one yard.
I don’t want to hear excuses related to the injury that sidelined change-of-pace running back Bilal Powell, who had been a spark plug for the Jets during their five-game winning streak before a sore ankle placed him on the inactive list for Sunday. Ivory played — he just wasn’t utilized to whatever his capacity was for that game.
Besides, the Bills were missing their starting back, LeSean McCoy, and then lost Karlos Williams for the remainder of the game when he hurt his knee on his 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
By that point the Jets were down 13-0, which meant that they needed to take advantage of their remaining opportunities going with the howling wind in the second and third quarters.
The four of them.
The Jets were only able to run 21 plays from scrimmage over the two middle periods because the Bills did a masterful job of sustaining drive after drive — taking huge chunks of time off the clock — through a run/pass mix that featured only two weapons. Thanks mainly to quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s mobility and receiver Sammy Watkins’ elusiveness on pass routes, Buffalo finished the game 9-for-20 (20!!!) on third downs and 2-for-2 on fourth downs.
Watkins torched Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis to the tune of 11 receptions for 136 yards. While some of those catches could be blamed on faulty zone coverage, it’s undeniable that Bowles and his staff severely overestimated the 30-year old Revis’ shutdown abilities all season against the most elite receivers.
And when you added in the pass rush’s inability to chase down Taylor in and out of the pocket, it’s no wonder Gang Green’s defense couldn’t get off the field.
Still, the Jets had multiple chances in the fourth quarter to mount a comeback. But while quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was magnificent down the stretch of recent wins over the Giants, Cowboys and Patriots, he ran out of magic late in the game. Fitzpatrick’s three interceptions in the period sealed the Jets’ fate.
Please don’t tell me to take a step back and be impressed with the Jets’ 10-6 mark just a year after their 4-12 debacle under Ryan. You know, the whole, “Before the season you would have signed up for 10 wins in a heartbeat…yada, yada, yada.”
That was then. Once the Jets got into the position where the playoffs became a high probability, as opposed to a wild fantasy, they had an obligation to take advantage of it.
For you never know what next year will bring. There are no carryovers of things such as relative good health, roster chemistry, and schedule strength. The AFC North/NFC West duo will in all likelihood provide much stiffer competition in 2016 than the historically-weak AFC South/NFC East combination did this season.
Who knows who will be back next season anyway? Unlike last offseason when general manager Mike Maccagnan was the beneficiary of gobs of salary cap room to add talent, the Jets will have some difficult choices to make in the next few months regarding who they can keep.
Will Pro Bowl defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who broke his leg just a quarter away from finishing his contract in style, still get the big bucks he’s been asking for? The same goes for fellow key free agents Damon Harrison, the nose tackle who is very effective stuffing the opponents’ run games in the limited number of snaps he receives each week, and Ivory, who has yet to prove he can absorb the pounding over the course of a full season.
And of course there is the matter of Fitzpatrick, whom Maccagnan acquired from the Texans for only a sixth-round draft pick and then in his contract year broke the franchise’s record for touchdown passes in a season (31). At $3.25 million for 2015, the Jets got terrific value.
If the Jets want him back, though, they’ll need to give him a raise. A very big raise.
You’ve seen the dregs who are put on the market every offseason — who knows what Fitzpatrick will fetch? What will happen if teams like the Rams or 49ers entice Fitzpatrick with offers over $10 million? Should the Jets break the bank to match? Who’s up for a return to the Geno Smith Error?
As a Jets fan, I am skeptical that Fitzpatrick will bypass one last big payday for which — when you consider how much of his success was due to his surroundings as opposed to his talent — I believe he is not entirely deserving.
You see, the beauty of this past season was that for the first time in about five years, so much aligned the Jets’ way. The quarterback and receivers found a rhythm that didn’t make you want to avert your eyes. While every team experiences injuries to a degree, the Jets were fortunate that no position was ever decimated. They had a positive takeaway/giveaway differential. And on the last day of the season they held their postseason fate in their hands.
Only to fumble it away.
The “Same Old Jets” maxim usually refers to the team’s inability to get the job done when it matters, but it is also applicable to fans like me. We keep coming back every year for more and expecting different results.
Which, as you may know, is Einstein’s definition of insanity.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1