By Steve Lichtenstein
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With the start of the NFL’s regular season just a few days away, there seems to be some confusion regarding the expectations for the Jets.
Too many folks out there seem to have suddenly labeled this current iteration “a win-now team.”
I get that new general manager Mike Maccagnan has infused the locker room with some players on the wrong side of age 30, such as wide receiver Brandon Marshall and cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Included in the returning core are offensive line mainstays D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold and linebackers David Harris and Calvin Pace — all of whom are also on the down side of their respective careers.
People seem to have taken these actions as if it were intended to limit the Jets’ window of opportunity. As if “it’s playoffs or bust” this season.
They’re missing the point.
Maccagnan had a major rebuilding job in front of him when he took over for the incompetent John Idzik in January. Though the talent cupboard was in dire straits, Maccagnan did have money to spend.
He just wasn’t going to hoard it like Idzik did. So he upgraded the Jets’ depth chart at a number of positions.
But the job is far from finished. This is not a serious Super Bowl contender, or even a playoff team.
What we have is a team that will be competitive in most games, which is in sharp contrast to last season’s 4-12 crew of unwatchables.
And that should be good enough for Jets fans — this year.
The defense could be very good, provided that new coach Todd Bowles and his staff can get all the new pieces to limit coverage breakdowns. The defensive line, even with Sheldon Richardson suspended for at least the first four games, should be stout against the run. I think the lack of speed at linebacker will catch up with them against the league’s elite offenses, but I’m hopeful that the revamped secondary can make some plays after finishing 2014 with a league-low six interceptions. It would be nice if 2014 first-rounder Calvin Pryor made some impact this season at safety.
But even if the defense lives up to its potential, it won’t alter the fact that the Jets are lacking a quarterback with the ability to take them anywhere meaningful. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who at age 32 was another of Maccagnan’s veteran pickups in the offseason, will help them beat some of the bad teams, but it’s a stretch to believe that his arm will suddenly morph into a cannon.
Fitzpatrick at his best is nothing more than a smart game manager. His moxie can be at times thrilling and — at many other times — infuriating. I’d still rather see him under center than Geno Smith, but Fitzpatrick is mere duct tape over a hole that has crippled the Jets since 1998.
The bigger issue is where is Maccagnan going to get a Grade-A quarterback? The Jets couldn’t even get the tanking route right to earn a top draft choice despite such a miserable 2014.
And what team is going to let anyone decent slip away in free agency? Redskins management has had enough of Robert Griffin III, but even they know he would be snatched up in a heartbeat if they simply cut him. (I can think of a certain coach in upstate New York who would probably kill for him, just not at $16 million for 2016, per his current contract).
Don’t expect the future marketplace to include anyone better than the Rex Grossmans, Matt Cassels, or Fitzpatricks of the NFL universe.
There can’t be any “win-now” scenario for the Jets until “Magic Mike” pulls a franchise quarterback out of his hat — or more likely finds a way to swindle someone from another inept organization in a trade.
And should that occur in the relatively near future, it’s not like Maccagnan mortgaged the farm like the Brooklyn Nets for a title run that will never happen. There is plenty of flexibility in their upcoming salary cap. Of all the offseason signings, only Revis and Harris have big guaranteed money coming their way next season. Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and running back Chris Ivory, who play positions in which the Jets possess sufficient depth — would be the only marquee free agents should the Jets fail to sign them to extensions beyond this season. Like the rest of the NFL, it’s time for the Jets to start replacing anyone else who bolts with their younger drafted players.
In the meantime, the best that can be done until the quarterback conundrum is solved is what Maccagnan did in the offseason, bringing in a stopgap like Fitzpatrick as insurance over young QBs Smith and rookie Bryce Petty. Fitzpatrick happened to leapfrog into the starter’s role after a punch by since-waived linebacker IK Enemkpali fractured Smith’s jaw early in training camp, sidelining Smith for at least the beginning of the season.
If only we could surgically switch Fitzpatrick’s head onto Smith’s body.
At least Fitzpatrick enters the season with a healthy pair of receivers in Marshall and Eric Decker. They’re both reliable chain-movers. I’m hopeful that Devin Smith, the Jets’ 2015 second-round pick who has been out almost all training camp with broken ribs and a punctured lung, can eventually become the deep threat that’s been missing since Santana Moss.
That should help take the load off Ivory, a punishing runner with whom the Jets have been careful not to overuse despite the temptation. Ivory excels at gaining yards after contact, which is important when running behind a line that has been inconsistent in its execution the last few years. Guard has been a particularly troublesome spot. Willie Colon was asked back after a penalty-prone season and James Carpenter was signed after a four-year stint in Seattle to replace a series of matadors who previously manned left guard.
All of these additions should translate into a better record than last year — that’s a given. How much better is quite subjective. Sports Illustrated projected 5-11, which I find insulting.
I tend to agree with the majority who pick the Jets to go around 8-8. After the hell we went through last year, how can that be viewed as a disappointment?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1