FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — When Sam Darnold emerged from the locker room after his opening-night victory in Detroit, he received big hugs from his mother and father. It was a terrific family moment and a really cool moment for the New York Jets. They were 1-0, and their rookie quarterback was everything they had envisioned.
“That was fun,” a smiling Darnold said to his father, referring to the 48-17 win.
Two months later, the fun is gone.
The Jets (3-7) are a bad football team, losers of four straight and headed toward an offseason of major change. Barring a miracle turnaround, coach Todd Bowles will lose his job as ownership — in a perpetual search for a coaching savior — applies the “next man up” philosophy.
How did the Jets go from a Motown high to such a bye-week low? There are many, many reasons for their breakdown — a perfect storm. Here are a few:
• Acute growing pains: Darnold has a bright future. The Jets will tell you that, and so will personnel experts around the league. The kid’s ceiling is high, but let’s not sugarcoat the current situation. The Jets have been outplayed at the quarterback position in almost every game, and it’s tough to win in this league when that is the case.
Passer rating is a flawed statistic in many respects, but in this case, it provides an accurate illustration. In the Jets’ seven losses, including one start by Josh McCown, their average passer rating is 52.1. Their opponents have doubled that, at 104.6. A lot of factors go into that, including some disappointing games by the defense, but it should be noted that the Jets have faced only one elite quarterback: Andrew Luck. Darnold outperformed Luck, as he did Matthew Stafford in Week 1 and Case Keenum in Week 5, but that’s it.
Darnold will flip the script in future years, assuming he gets better coaching and better talent around him, but it’s a weekly struggle right now. He has reverted to his USC tendencies, notably too many turnovers (a league-leading 14 interceptions and one lost fumble). That makes 37 turnovers in his past 23 games, including his final college season.
• Lack of preparation: The Jets have played from behind in almost every game because the coaches have done a poor job of preparing the players. Wrap your brain around this: Only once have they led after the first quarter — a 10-7 edge over the Indianapolis Colts. In most games, the Jets are like an overwhelmed boxer. One minute into the fight, they’re trapped in the corner, covering up amid a barrage of punches.
Opponents have scored on their opening possession in three games against the Jets. Against the Colts, the Jets struck first on a lucky deflection that resulted in a pick-six by Morris Claiborne, but they let Luck march the length of the field for a touchdown on the ensuing possession. When they see a new wrinkle, the Jets are slow to adjust. The most blatant example came against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who connected on shallow crossing routes. Over and over.
The problem is worse on offense, as the Jets have yet to score a touchdown on their first possession. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, like most coaches from the Bill Walsh tree, scripts the first 15 plays. It worked for Walsh and a lot of other greats, but the coach has to be flexible. Take last Sunday, for instance. Cornerback Levi Wallace, an undrafted rookie just up from the practice squad, was a surprise starter for the Buffalo Bills. There should have been a neon target on his back, but the Jets didn’t throw at him downfield until the final minute of the second quarter. By then, the game was over.
By contrast, the Bills attacked the “new” guy in the Jets’ secondary on the first play. Trumaine Johnson was back in the lineup after a five-week quadriceps injury. Resembling a latter-day Darrelle Revis, Johnson was torched for 47 yards. By a rookie wide receiver, Robert Foster, just up from the practice squad.
• Personnel deficiencies: Johnson seemed happy and carefree as he strolled into the locker room two hours before kickoff, telling a security guard, “I’m back.” Clearly, he wasn’t ready to play because he got caught napping on the first play. An occasional lack of focus, one opposing coach said, is the biggest flaw in Johnson’s game. That can be deadly in his position. In his previous game, Week 4 in Jacksonville, he was burned for a 67-yard touchdown.
Rust could have been a factor last Sunday, but Johnson did nothing before his injury to make you believe he’ll live up to his huge contract (a $34 million guarantee). It’s too early to draw a conclusion, but this smells like another big-money disappointment for general manager Mike Maccagnan, whose job is safe. There’s already grumbling in the locker room about Johnson.
Although Maccagnan deserves credit for Darnold and several low-risk moves that have worked out nicely (how about kicker Jason Myers?), he has yet to deliver the two most important defensive pieces for his head coach: an edge rusher and a lockdown corner. Bowles needs those to play his pressure-based defense, but the Jets wasted $39 million on Revis and whiffed on draft picks at corner and outside linebacker.
The Jets remain a work in progress, as they gutted the roster only a year ago, but they’ve acquired only two blue-chip talents the past four offseasons: safety Jamal Adams and defensive end Leonard Williams. If Darnold reaches his potential, Maccagnan’s plan will come together quickly. For now, the Jets are dealing with roster issues, especially at wide receiver, where injuries have shined a light on the blemishes.
By wasting $2 million on Terrelle Pryor and missing on former draft picks ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen, the Jets have been forced to play former street free agents Rishard Matthews and Deontay Burnett. In an ideal world, Stewart and/or Hansen would be in prominent roles, growing with Darnold, but they’re not on active NFL rosters.
It isn’t just a talent issue; it’s about roster composition. The Jets devoted two receiver spots to special-teams players, Andre Roberts and Charone Peake, limiting their flexibility. For nine weeks they carried four tight ends, none of whom was a proven receiver. How unusual is four? Currently, only four teams have four tight ends.
• No identity on offense: It seemed like a coup at the time, the hiring of Rick Dennison to be the offensive-line coach/running-game coordinator. Dennison worked with Bates in Denver, where their zone-based scheme turned pedestrian runners into 1,000-yard backs. Surely, their outside zone — a.k.a. stretch play — would transform the Jets into a formidable rushing offense.
The Jets are 19th in rushing yards per game, which doesn’t sound half-bad, but the ranking is misleading because they accumulated 30 percent of their yards in one game. They rushed for 323 yards against the Denver Broncos, proving that a blind squirrel does indeed find an occasional acorn. Remove that game, and they’d be averaging only 3.4 yards per carry.
That is no way to support a rookie quarterback.
Clearly, the Jets have struggled with Dennison’s scheme, as blown assignments have resulted in too many unblocked defenders. When they run outside the tackles, they have averaged only 4.4 yards per attempt (26th), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Four starting linemen are holdovers from last season, so it’s possible that they’re ill-equipped for Dennison’s system. But this is what happens when there’s constant change on a coaching staff. The coaches have dialed up more “gap” running plays in recent weeks, hoping to put the linemen in their comfort zone, but that hasn’t worked, either.
The lack of a ground game is killing them. When the Jets attempt more than 30 passes in a game, they’re 0-6.
• The coach: The players like Bowles; they really do. He’s a good man, a total professional. He cares about them as people, not just employees. But as one NFL lifer asked in a recent conversation about Bowles: Does he make them better? The man answered his own question: No.
While Bowles gets criticized for his game management and the penalties (by the way, penalties are down this season), the biggest problem is that he hasn’t created a culture of accountability. He isn’t afraid to fire assistant coaches, but he rarely benches a player for performance. He sat Muhammad Wilkerson for three games at the end of last season, but that was a disciplinary matter that became a financial issue. Contractually, it was in the team’s best interest to bench him.
Bowles understands the plight of the player because he’s a former player, but that can cloud his judgment. Ten days ago, it was blatantly obvious that center Spencer Long needed to be pulled, but Bowles left him in until he had no choice because of an injury. Even some of Long’s teammates wondered what took so long.
As a team builder, Bowles deserves credit for cleansing the locker room of malcontents and divas, but a unified team doesn’t always translate to wins. There has to be consequences for those who don’t perform. Maybe he’d drop the hammer if he had decent replacement options, but sometimes a coach just needs to make a statement.
The team also is inconsistent and lacks mental toughness, as evidenced by their road struggles (2-11 the past two seasons) and inability to fight back from deficits. They’ve gone two years without winning a game after trailing at halftime. Since then, their record when facing a halftime deficit is 0-15.