By Jeff Capellini
The Jets usually have their mail forwarded to Misfit Island at this time of the year.
You know the reasons why all too well. They have featured quarterbacks that squirted jelly, running backs that chugged around on square wheels, linebackers more adept at flying than tackling and a few coaches better equipped to ride an ostrich in an abandoned parking lot than a float down the “Canyon of Heroes.”
It’s a column I’ve always dreaded writing, but often felt was necessary because, let’s face it, this team has not had much to play for heading into the final weeks of many Decembers.
Sure, the Jets have had their moments. There was a stretch from 1998 to 2010 in which they made the playoffs seven times, including three appearances in the AFC Championship game. But I’ve had to remind myself from time to time that those events actually happened. The bottom line is most of the Jets’ seasons since winning Super Bowl III in 1969 have been filled with all measure of angst, frustration and sense of bewilderment.
But to its credit, the 2015 season has been different, a lot different. Dare I say it has been enjoyable? Damn straight, even if ends without a playoff appearance.
The new-look Jets, however, need to be mindful of the past, just as much as they are excited about the future.
Going forward, head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan must avoid the missteps that doomed their predecessors. The last thing the Jets need is to disappear again off one or two good seasons under a new and promising regime.
I can offer that warning because, as it turned out, the beginning of the Rex Ryan era was just a tease. And as much as I like Rex’s enthusiasm for the game, his passion for his players and the fact that he guided this forlorn franchise to within one half of the Super Bowl in each of his first two seasons, the bottom line is he left the Jets in worse shape than when he arrived.
The Jets went 9-7 with Brett Favre as their quarterback back in 2008. Yes, they spit the bit in December and missed the playoffs, but that seemed like Utopia compared to the follies of Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith over the final four seasons of Ryan’s reign.
Now the Jets have hit the reset button with plenty of success, as an unexpected 9-5 record to date illustrates. But they need to find a way to remain relevant in the AFC for years, not just be some flash in the pan for a season or two. Of course, they would love nothing more than to get back to the conference championship game in Bowles’ first season wearing the headset, but they have to be more about maintaining consistency going forward than anything else.
Bowles and Maccagnan seem to understand this.
The Jets have a window here to be good over the short-term, but they need to extend it. Though they do have their share of older players, they are by and large a team that can contend for something of significance. If someone of the ilk of Ryan Fitzpatrick is their quarterback, they consider upgrading their running game, they tweak their offensive line and they find some kick returners, this team can be dangerous for some time.
None of that should be a problem for Maccagnan, who has shown quite a flair for making something out of nothing. Just look at the stunning trades that landed the Jets both Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The quest will be to keep Fitzpatrick, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Then they’ll need to transition someone along to take his place and continue to add pieces to the delightful mix of Marshall — who at 31 is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down — and Eric Decker.
Most of the Jets’ immediate issues should end up being addressed in typical grocery list fashion heading into free agency. Maccagnan will have decisions to make on aging tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson ($14 million salary-cap hit in 2016) and cornerback Antonio Cromartie ($8 million), but neither is irreplaceable. They will also have to decide on whether to invest long-term in running back Chris Ivory, a player who may be replaceable, but also fits well in coordinator Chan Gailey’s offense.
The idea needs to be about transforming the Jets into a juggernaut, not just a team with a chance to make the playoffs.
I have faith that Maccagnan will do well in future drafts. So much of it is a crapshoot, as we know, but by taking Leonard Williams when he fell to the Jets in the first round last spring, the rookie GM showed he’s already a lot smarter than many of the executives this team has employed in the past. Can you say with conviction that any of those guys would have taken Williams regardless of needs? I could easily throw up a YouTube link to past Jets draft follies to give you the answer.
The goal is for the Jets to become a premier NFL franchise. This season has been a good first step. It just remains to be seen if they will continue to be proactive instead of reactive. All of the great teams in this league do it with solid QB play and positional depth. The Jets are getting there, but must prove that one great offseason is not all they’ll have to hang their hats on five or so years from now.
But all of that will hopefully be addressed in due time. Regardless of what happens this Sunday against New England or next week in Buffalo, the Jets have made it pretty clear that they plan to be in it for the long haul. Now, it’s just a matter of staying ahead of the curve. They have an offense and a defense at the same time for the first time since 1998. Neither can afford to take a step back if the desire is to stay hot on the heels of the Patriots in the division and the usual suspects throughout the conference.
I don’t want to write that aforementioned column ever again. The Scooter for Jimmy, Dolly for Sue, King Moonracer and Charlie-in-the-box don’t deserve nearly as much face time as I give them.
It’s up to the Jets. It’s always up to the Jets. Perhaps their future will be better than their past.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to put our annual cries of “Bah, humbug!” on hold.
Read more by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet