CHICAGO — Todd Bowles didn’t rip his team for its inexcusable lack of concentration (pre-snap penalties: seven!) or its dreadful offensive performance (one of the worst of his head-coaching tenure). No, the New York Jets coach focused on the positive after a 24-10 loss Sunday to the Chicago Bears.
“I’m very proud of the way they fought and stayed together,” he said, relaying his postgame message to the players. “This was one of the first games the entire year we stayed together as a team and fought, collectively.”
It was a curious statement — the first time, really? — but it spoke to the state of the team and the mindset of the head coach, whose job security will be a major story line over the second half of the season. Bowles is reaching for anything to sustain the Jets, losers of two straight. When a team is on the brink of losing its season, it needs a pat on the back, not a kick in the rear. The best thing the Jets have going for them is team unity. If that gets wrecked, Bowles has no chance to survive.
Even then, it might be tough for Bowles, who reached the midpoint at 3-5 — same as last season and the year before. He had plenty of legitimate excuses against the Bears — namely, a rookie quarterback and an injury-ravaged receiving corps — but the question is whether CEO Christopher Johnson will buy any of that when he decides Bowles’ fate.
Johnson had a rough landing when he arrived Sunday morning in windy Chicago, and the turbulence didn’t stop at Soldier Field. He watched a pathetic offense, down four starters, produce only 98 total yards through three quarters. For a while, it looked like the Jets would need to show a passport to get into the red zone. They finally made it … in the fourth quarter.
When a rookie free agent named Deontay Burnett (four catches for 61 yards) is your leading receiver, you have a world of problems. The receiving corps, sans Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa, gained no separation against a Chicago defense that was missing star pass-rusher Khalil Mack. Quarterback Sam Darnold, who mastered the art of the throwaway, miraculously played turnover-free football.
“We had a lot of new people in there,” Bowles said. “They fought hard, and they played hard. I’m not going to use injuries as an excuse. We just have to make more plays.”
Bowles is in a tough spot. With a formidable schedule and a roster picked apart by injuries, the Jets could be headed for another double-digit-loss season. Bowles doesn’t have a playoff mandate, per Johnson, but that doesn’t mean he gets a free pass. His charge is to show progress, to prove to ownership that he is building something special with Darnold, but it could be difficult to manufacture the necessary evidence.
Will ownership be sympathetic to Bowles because of the injuries and the rookie-quarterback factor? Don’t bet on it. Another 5-11 season, no matter how it happens, would be difficult to sell to the fan base. That would mean three straight five-win seasons, and there’s no way to spin 15-33 into a happy story.
After the game, Bowles was asked if he has received assurances from ownership that his job security won’t be affected by playing a rookie quarterback.
“I don’t discuss what happens with me and ownership,” he said flatly.
Owners preach patience and staff continuity when rebuilding, but that can change quickly if the customers stop showing up and the media pressure becomes too much. It’s a big-boy business, and sometimes coaches get fired because of matters out of their control. This isn’t to suggest that Bowles is blameless because there have been games in which the Jets were out-coached.
On Sunday, Bowles was fighting one-handed because of the injuries on offense, but that was no excuse for a couple questionable decisions: punting when trailing by 14 points with 5:37 left in the game and declining an offensive pass-interference penalty by Chicago that would’ve made it second-and-20 instead of third-and-10. Naturally, the Bears converted, with Mitchell Trubisky scrambling for 10 yards to set up their second touchdown.
The worst part of the day? The pre-snap penalties. That’s a bad look for the coach.
“The good teams don’t do that,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “The teams that win Super Bowls and get to the playoffs, they don’t do that. They don’t jump offsides, and they don’t have those costly penalties.”
The Jets aren’t a good team. Soon, ownership must decide if Bowles is part of the problem or part of the solution.