Coming out of the bye week, the New York Jets find themselves at 4-6, just one game out of the final wild card spot. Is this team truly capable of making an improbable run at the playoffs? Is Todd Bowles safe to return as head coach for 2018? Here is a brief look at some questions facing Gang Green in the coming months.
Are the Jets truly in contention for the playoffs?
Yes. Based on the standings that show the team one game out of the final wild card spot, and the fact that they have demonstrated the ability to compete with anybody, they are certainly as deserving as anybody else to be considered in the hunt at this given moment. Factoring in the schedule and the likelihood that this team is capable of closing out better teams to go on a 5-1 stretch, things start to look bleak. Regardless of the outcome, getting to late November with meaningful games still in play is a major win for a rebuilding Jets team. As a fan, there is no need to walk on eggshells. Be excited about being in contention and let the draft situation sort itself out. The Jets have earned the right to consider themselves in the playoff mix and as a fan that should generate some excitement. It doesn’t mean the bigger picture is lost, it simply means we are living in the moment with a team that has a chance. Unfortunately, a loss to either Carolina or Kansas City in the next two weeks will quickly put to bed any playoff dreams.
Will Josh McCown remain the QB?
Take a lesson from Buffalo. Playing the young quarterback just to get experience doesn’t always work out. While many fans including myself would much rather have taken a look at Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg this season, the reality remains that neither have progressed to where the Jets would like them to be in their development. Does it mean the team has given up on them long term? Not necessarily. But it would be a major surprise if Maccagnan does not add a big name quarterback to the mix via free agency or the draft this upcoming offseason. McCown will remain the guy as long as the Jets are mathematically in contention. McCown has played well enough to allow the team to stick with the process and develop the kids, but it would make little sense not to make the switch and get a look if the team falls out of contention.
Playing for jobs in 2018?
These final six games will be big for several players looking to remain with the team next year. Wesley Johnson is a free agent who has shown little to warrant returning as the starting center and these final six games are unlikely to change that. Muhammad Wilkerson and Buster Skrine are both under contract, but the Jets could decide to part ways and save additional cap room ($17M combined savings with $11.5M in dead money). If Wilkerson continues his recent success throughout the season, a return should not be ruled out, however Skrine’s time may be up after a penalty-filled three years.
With Steve McLendon playing at a high level against the run and a relatively cheap cap hit, he has likely done enough to secure his spot for 2018 as the Jets will be looking to fill needs elsewhere and not create an unnecessary hole up the middle. Does Mo Claiborne need a strong finish to restore confidence in potentially paying him long-term given a lengthy injury history?
Is Bowles coaching for his job?
In my opinion, Bowles has already done enough in the eyes of the those that matter to retain his job status for 2018. Barring the team flat out quitting over the final six games, which does not appear likely to happen, Bowles will have successfully guided the team through the first phase of a rebuild in New York, which is never easy. As a coach, Bowles has several areas that need improvement, but the players respect and play hard for him. The stoic Bowles we see with the media is not the same person he is with his players, as he is overseeing the type of overhaul this franchise has needed. Bowles’ continued progression as a coach, or lack thereof, will ultimately determine his fate moving forward, but his job status for next year appears safe.
The road ahead for Mike Maccagnan
This past offseason was arguably Maccagnan’s best since taking over, acquiring much needed top end talent via the draft while also hitting on some under the radar moves. Let’s also remember that just because we have yet to see some of his recent draft picks in large samples does not mean they are all busts. In the process of rebuilding, Maccagnan has navigated the Jets successfully under the cap with roughly $80M to spend this offseason and a full slate of draft picks (plus an additional second rounder). Now Maccagnan will need his fourth offseason to be even better, as he is faced with the task of using these resources correctly to add impact players at key positions. Finding the franchise quarterback will be task number one. However fair or unfair, Maccagnan’s success or failure as general manager will come down to his ability to find a quarterback. Between the draft and free agency, plenty of options will be available to pursue. In addition to quarterback, the Jets need long term answers at center and left tackle. It is possible they feel comfortable with another year of Kelvin Beachum at left tackle, but at least one lineman early in the draft seems long overdue.
The return of Quincy Enunwa along with any development from Stewart and Hansen may allow the team to hold off on adding a big time wideout. Bringing back Austin Seferian-Jenkins and perhaps a true featured back in place of Forte could take precedent.
Next comes the Jets long awaited search for an edge rusher. Jordan Jenkins is beginning to solidify himself as a starting caliber outside linebacker while Lorenzo Mauldin, Dylan Donahue and Josh Martin could provide nice depth going forward. Still, there remains a glaring need for a dominant presence coming off the edge with speed to compliment the interior rush of Leo and Mo. A dominant rusher and shutdown corner are perhaps the final two pieces needed to take this defense to the next level.
What to expect down the stretch
In some ways, the Jets have overachieved in their first ten games. Their 4-6 record is nothing spectacular but the competitive nature of several losses against better teams is far more than most expected. Are the Jets closer to the dysfunctional team that showed up in Tampa, or the one that played competitive football against the Patriots, Falcons, and Jaguars? I would say they fall somewhere in the middle, which is perfectly fine. If the young defense continues moving in the right direction and Morton can remain innovative in his playcalling, it would not surprise if the Jets win a few more games to close out the season. It seems far more likely however that the lack of top end talent catches up with the team as they continue to face better teams down the stretch. There are pieces in place, but more is needed before the team is ready to take that next step.
Will younger players begin to see larger roles?
Until the team is mathematically eliminated, Bowles will coach each game to win. We are all eager to get a glimpse at the future, whether it’s more ArDarius Stewart at wideout, or Derrick Jones at corner, but Bowles has demonstrated throughout his early tenure that he is in no rush to throw rookies into the fire to learn on the job. Adams and Maye have been the exception to the rule, and both have played with the poise and football IQ you would expect from seasoned veterans. Other rookies have been eased into playing time, earning their roles along the way. Until the Jets fall out of contention, expect Bowles to continue going with who he feels gives him the best chance to win and who is earning their reps in practice.
Confidence moving forward into 2018?
Unless the final six games are a complete disaster, I would move into next season with restored faith in the direction of this franchise. I had little faith in coach Bowles to last beyond this season, but he is slowly earning my respect as a head coach. The team has been prepared each week with players buying into the team first philosophy. The locker room turmoil has left and in place is a united group determined on changing the culture. The team is still searching for an identity but some promising young leaders are emerging that can help get them there. With a ton of resources available this upcoming offseason, it is important that the Jets identify the right players to bring in. Pulling off the band aid and committing to a full rebuild was the hardest part. Now comes the need to address key positions with impact players, but there is no sense in rushing by handing out bad deals to the wrong players. It is not just about 2018, but continuing to add the right pieces into the fold for sustainable success.