By Steve Lichtenstein
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I’ve been a Jets fan for more than 40 years, so I have asked you from time-to-time to please excuse my fatalistic tendencies.
Maybe that’s why the fact that the Jets are now 1-3 after their 27-17 loss to the Seahawks at MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon comes as no surprise to me.
Am I depressed? Of course. Shocked? Absolutely not.
However, you needn’t be a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist to comprehend how this season, in advance of which so many Jets fans fell into the “You’ve Gotta Believe” trap despite all the disappointments from dashed hopes in the past, is on the verge of falling off the rails just a quarter of the way through.
To simplify, there are two reasons:
First, the opposing teams that have beaten the Jets are pretty good.
Second, the Jets are not that good.
The Bengals, Chiefs and Seahawks all made the playoffs last season. While there are no year-to-year guarantees in the NFL business, all three clubs possess boast the roster balance and at least a sufficiently competent quarterback required to return to the postseason.
In Seattle’s case, even a hobbled Russell Wilson was too much for a Jets defense that lacks consistency getting after the quarterback and covering receivers downfield.
Like Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Kansas City’s Alex Smith before him, Wilson shredded the Jets’ defensive backfield with short passes and then hit on enough of the few big ones he attempted, the most crushing a 42-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter to someone named Tanner McEvoy.
The above may sound harsh to McEvoy, but that’s because the Jets still haven’t been introduced to him. There were no defenders in the FOX picture when the rookie made his first NFL reception and waltzed into the end zone.
Another common factor has been the defenses. The Seahawks, Bengals and Chiefs ranked first, second, and third, respectively, in points allowed per game last season.
Seattle stifled the Jets’ ground game, holding running back Matt Forte to just 27 yards on 14 carries. That put even more of a load on the shoulders of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who a week after tossing six interceptions in Kansas City cut the total in half on Sunday.
Unfortunately, the three picks — which all came in the fourth quarter — were way too many to beat a quality opponent like the Seahawks.
Even more unfortunate is the fact that the Jets’ schedule doesn’t soften for a few more weeks, as difficult road trips to Pittsburgh and Arizona are up next.
The mistake many true believer made going into this season was to assume that the Jets were ready to step up in class based on their 10-6 record in 2015.
So many outside influences contributed to the Jets’ rise to postseason contention a year ago, including a relatively accommodating schedule. Outside of one glorious victory over New England, the Jets beat only one other team (Washington, which was a mess at the time) that finished over .500. The eight other clubs (without double-counting 6-10 Miami) combined to go 44-84 last season.
Those 10 wins masked numerous deficiencies which have been exposed this season to date. For example, tight ends and running backs on pass routes still give the Jets’ defense fits and Todd Bowls’ bunch lacks a true pass-catching tight end of its own.
The most obvious reason why the Jets are off to a bad start is the same reason that has plagued the franchise for the vast majority of its history — the quarterback/coach combination.
Oh, it was easy to fall in love with Fitzpatrick last season, when he set the team’s single-season record for touchdown passes (31), and threw for 3,905 yards. He nearly pulled off the impossible by leading the Jets to five consecutive victories before faltering in Buffalo in the 2015 regular season finale.
He is tough and displays moxie.
However, those same characteristics have also been the cause of Fitzpatrick’s downfall wherever he’s been during his itinerant 12-year career. He too often thinks he has a great arm when it is in reality well below average.
Fitzpatrick is among the least-efficient quarterbacks in the league on the deeper throws. He didn’t connect on any of the four passes that traveled beyond 20 yards on Sunday, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Combine that with his penchant for turnovers in stressful situations and any team, let alone the Jets, would struggle to compete against better competition.
Now, not every interception is Fitzpatrick’s fault. Rookie Robby Anderson should have done better on a ball that caromed into the air off his hands to the delight of a voracious Seahawks’ secondary in the fourth quarter, and we don’t always know if receivers run the proper routes. But there’s no excuse for the large number of forced throws into tight coverages that we routinely see every week.
Fitzpatrick got away with many of those last season. In the Jets’ 10 wins, he threw only four picks. In the five losses (he was injured early in the Oakland game), he threw 10.
Fitzpatrick has already crossed into double digits in interceptions this season, which brings me to the second half of the above deficiency — the coaching staff.
There are no more mulligans for Bowles now that he is in his second season at the helm.
I had hoped that Bowles would improve in his game management from his rookie season, but it is still clearly flawed. He wasted two timeouts on defense early in the fourth quarter on Sunday, including one on what could be best described as a panic challenge of a fairly conclusive catch by Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham.
After he described last week’s loss to Kansas City as an “(expletive) all around” performance, Bowles should have had his players breathing fire in such an important game on Sunday.
Instead, the same glaring mistakes continued. Blown coverages, stupid penalties (guard Brian Winters’ dirty second-quarter head butt was not only flagged, it sent him into the concussion protocol), and poor offensive execution doomed the Jets against the Seahawks.
Everything from the game plan to the personnel on the field should be questioned. Why is defensive end Sheldon Richardson still periodically dropping into coverage? If Forte is such a special weapon as a receiver, why has he been coming off the field on most third downs? If the team has so much invested in its defensive line and can’t cover a paper bag, why blitz so often and risk large swaths of open field to be left unaccounted for?
Most urgently, Bowles and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey need to get on the same page as to what the Jets’ attack plan should be given their quarterback’s limitations.
I still believe Fitzpatrick is superior to the alternatives, especially backup Geno Smith, but Fitzpatrick has played so poorly in the last two games that I am now expecting whispers of some undisclosed injury to start spreading through social media.
Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan may have seen all of this coming as well. His summer-long tug of war with Fitzpatrick over a new contract suggested to me something that I surmised all along — that the quarterback that would one day take the Jets to new heights is not currently on the roster.
No Jets fan should take any comfort in that world view. It is, after all, Maccagnan’s job to find such a quarterback ASAP, but it should at least make the team’s current predicament understandable.
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