The Jets find themselves in familiar territory as October comes to an end. The key question for them and head coach Todd Bowles is, will they be in familiar territory when New Year’s Day arrives?
The Jets are 3-4, the same record they had last year through seven games, and one better than their 2-5 in 2016. There was a thought in both of those years at this time that maybe the Jets could stay in the playoff race. Instead, they fell on their faces and finished 5-11 in both seasons.
Now, they are at that crossroads again. Will they stay in the race or fall on their face?
For Bowles, this is crunch time. He can’t survive another 5-11 season. The Jets gave him a two-year extension at the end of last season, but it doesn’t matter. The Johnson brothers cannot keep a coach after three straight 5-11 seasons. Is 6-10 enough? Eh. 7-9? That might be enough.
The path to 7-9 or better is not easy for the Jets, but it is also not brutal. They have four home games left and five on the road. They have five games against teams currently with winning records and four against teams at .500 or worse.
The most difficult games are this week’s trip to Chicago to face a 3-3 Bears team that has lost two games in a row, and the season finale in Foxborough against the Patriots. Their easiest game is a home date with the Bills. That leaves home games with the Texans, Packers and Patriots and road trips to the Dolphins, Titans and Bills.
If you give the Jets losses in Chicago and Foxborough and a win over the Bills at home, that puts them at 4-6. They would need to go 4-2 in the other games to get to 8-8.
The key for Bowles and the Jets will be how they play on the road. They are 2-9 away from home since the beginning of last season. One of their best wins came on the road this year in the opener in Detroit, but two of their worst outings also came on the road in losses at Cleveland and Jacksonville.
For Bowles, a strong finish can keep him around for 2019. That is the year that everyone inside the Jets has been pointing to for a few years. Last year was about tearing down the roster. This year was about finding a franchise quarterback. Next year is actually about making the playoffs.
The Jets will have around $100 million in salary-cap space. They believe they have found a quarterback in Sam Darnold, who will be playing on an affordable rookie contract for the next four years. They should be able to add pieces they need like playmakers and pass rushers this offseason in free agency and the draft.
The question is: Will Bowles be the guy to lead the Jets? Woody Johnson was at Sunday’s loss to the Vikings, so he witnessed Bowles make the blunder of failing to call a timeout just before the half and the disappearance of the offense for two quarters. Bowles has already had some rough outings this year. He failed to adjust when Baker Mayfield came in for the Browns and the Jets collapsed in the second half. His team looked unprepared in the loss to the Jaguars.
There have been good moments, too. The opening night win over the Lions was perhaps the best game he has coached with the Jets.
But Bowles is smart enough to know how this goes. If the Jets falter over the next two months, the cries will come for an offensive-minded head coach to replace him and help Darnold’s development. The Rams dumped Jeff Fisher after Jared Goff’s rookie year and look how that turned out. This week, the Jets will see new Bears coach Matt Nagy, who replaced John Fox after Mitchell Trubisky’s rookie year.
The same fate could await Bowles if the Jets don’t finish strong. He has been in this position in each of the last two years.
This time, though, it feels like he needs a better finish or he won’t get another chance.