By Jeff Capellini
Jets fans have a decision to make.
Coming into this season, the common refrain was that as long as Sam Darnold showed signs that he could be the savior quarterback this franchise has been in search of for the better part of 50 years, it would be easier to live without a playoff berth, in this case for the eighth straight season.
But then the Jets went out and destroyed the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football in Week 1 and it seemed like expectations were instantly ratcheted up. By fans, by the media, by basically everyone.
They shouldn’t be.
The reality is nothing has changed. The Jets are just one big work in progress and are probably a good two years away from being serious players in the AFC, and that’s only if a whole bunch of things shake out correctly. That’s if Darnold lives up to the hype and if many of the other homegrown players on the roster develop properly and if Todd Bowles proves that he is indeed the right man to lead this team forward.
That’s a lot of ifs.
And if all those things do happen, the front office then has to convince high-profile free agents to compliment the building process next offseason. The Jets will certainly have the salary cap space, as most estimates have them with an NFL-high $100 million to spend, but there are still no guarantees they’ll be appreciably better on paper next spring.
The Jets can become a destination by showing promise, and if that happens over the course of a 10-win season, all the better. But the reality seems to be there are going to be games like what we saw on Sunday in the loss to the Miami Dolphins.
The Jets looked their age. They made a ton of mistakes. The interceptions, the penalties, the lack of concentration and execution at key moments were all things that both bad teams and inexperienced teams do.
Only the Jets are not a bad team. They just don’t know how to win yet.
That’s why I believe this season needs to be about Darnold and Bowles, not victories and defeats. If the Jets outplay their opponents, which they did throughout the opener and did for most of Sunday’s loss, that’s the type of progress that should matter more than the number of wins they have, given what the roster currently looks like.
If the Jets somehow have a winning record entering December, expectations will understandably change because it will be highly likely they won’t be winning in spite of Darnold and Bowles. Those two guys are the key to everything, as they should be. Quarterback and head coach. You can’t win in this league without either.
I fought the urge to drink the Kool-Aid after the Detroit game. It was easy to see that performance and know the next two opponents were Miami and Cleveland and imagine a 3-0 start. Now while the Dolphins are a decent team, they don’t scare anyone. And the truth is, if the Jets were a bit more seasoned on Sunday perhaps they would be 2-0 right now staring at what would figure to be a very winnable game on Thursday night against the Browns.
But the NFL is a funny league. It is very unforgiving. The Dolphins made plays when they needed to and the Jets didn’t. And the Browns aren’t nearly as bad as people expect them to be. One can make the argument that if they had executed at key moments against both Pittsburgh and New Orleans, they’d be 2-0 right now instead of 0-1-1.
So the Jets are going to have their hands full Thursday. Sure, I realize the Browns are 4-45-1 since the start of the 2015 season, but they’ve been much more competitive through two weeks this season and, like the Jets, probably view this game as an opportunity.
As for Darnold, he played extremely well on Sunday, even with his two interceptions. It was refreshing to see him throw for 334 yards and repeatedly move the Jets down the field after the slow start. Of course, they only scored the one touchdown, but through two games you can see that we’re not watching the early stages of Mark Sanchez here.
But what you don’t want to see is a rookie quarterback, regardless of his ability, being forced to drop back 41 times. The Jets’ early mistakes eventually ended up in their end zone and that effectively put to bed any hope they had of having balance on offense. Running backs Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell, who were brilliant in the opener, were mostly non-factors against Miami.
Darnold has a gunslinger mentality and there’s no doubt he has the smarts and arm to make things happen, but even though Bowles has said since the beginning he has no intentions of ever simplifying the playbook for his young signal-caller, the Jets have to have a running game to prevent Darnold from thinking he has to do too much.
So, again, this season should not be judged on whether or not the Jets end their playoff drought or earn a home game in January. If either happen, fantastic. It will be anarchy in the streets. But to let that hope dictate how we react to what happens on the field on a weekly basis is really not what we signed up for.
The Jets are all in on one thing and one thing only this season.
And how you define it will determine just how happy or miserable some weeks will be.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapGLJ