Was the NY Jets’ 6-3 start a mirage that foretold their demise?

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By: Rivka Boord

Perhaps we all fell victim to the availability bias

Failure. Disappointment. Once-promising. Collapse.

All of those nouns and adjectives have been used to describe the New York Jets‘ 2022 season. For all the talk of preseason expectations, when a team that was once 6-3 is guaranteed a losing season and eliminated from playoff contention, those descriptions are accurate, at least on the surface.

However, there is one stark statistic that calls these designations into question.

  • Record against backup QBs: 5-0
  • Record against starting QBs: 2-9

Ouch. 2-9 against NFL-caliber competition at the helm? Does that look like a team that just missed, or an outfit that can thank its lucky stars for a confluence of circumstances that led them to face inferior competition?

The statistic softens ever so slightly if you consider Jacoby Brissett a starting quarterback since he has started the majority of the Browns’ games this season (and performed better than Deshaun Watson thus far; his play was above average overall), but 4-0 vs. 3-8 isn’t that much better.

The Jets defeated the likes of the Skylar Thompson Dolphins, Kenny Pickett Steelers, Brett Rypien Broncos, and Trevor Siemian Bears in addition to Brissett.

Lest you argue that the Jets would have beaten these teams even with their starters (which is probable in two of the games and possible in the others), this raises the same point: the Jets earned their hot start against inferior competition, no matter what the projections said in the preseason.

Realistically, the Jets beat only one impressive opponent in that 6-3 run, their Week 9 upset of the Buffalo Bills. In that game, the Jets’ pass rush showed up to mask holes in coverage, and Zach Wilson played efficiently enough along with a run game that woke up on the last drive to pull out the victory.

However, beating the Browns in miraculous fashion due to several gaffes by the opponent is not exactly spectacular, especially given how backward Cleveland has been most of this year. Wilson’s 10-point comeback against the Steelers was necessitated by ineffectual blocking and crushing unforced errors. The Packers and Broncos were both crushing disappointments for most of this season, yet the Jets won both of those games on the backs of their defense, special teams, and Breece Hall.

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You can argue that the losses of Hall and Alijah Vera-Tucker were what foretold the Jets’ demise rather than the turn of their schedule. Certainly, it is unlikely we are discussing a collapse if those two were healthy; they alone were enough to score the points necessary for the defense to take care of the rest.

Still, it is inarguable that as the quality of the Jets’ offensive competition increased, the play of their defense commensurately decreased. Over their five-game losing streak, Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen, Jared Goff, Trevor Lawrence, and Geno Smith took advantage of the soft underbelly of the defense and moved the ball with ease. Although the point totals were not astronomical (between 19 and 23 points, save Cousins’s 27), the yardage, third-down conversion rates, and time of possession numbers demonstrated that preseason fears about the defensive middle of the field were justified.

Now, this could also be a coaching issue. Kevin O’Connell comes from the same 49ers offensive system and beat the Jets’ defense mercilessly with power running. Ben Johnson schemed up a 4th-and-1 masterpiece that forced yet another blown coverage from a Jets linebacker or safety. Doug Pederson and Pete Carroll had a field day with their running backs and tight ends. These plays were there for the taking all season, but these teams finally took full advantage of it.

If the Jets’ 6-3 start was, indeed, influenced by poor quality of competition, perhaps this five-game losing streak also masks the true Jets team. After all, the offensive line featured two ailing tackles and a backup guard while lacking their All-Pro guard (who played tackle admirably) and their runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year.

It’s hard to say that, though, when the Jets have had a grand total of five or six competently-quarterbacked games out of 16. Despite a down year across the league, the QB remains by far and away the most important position in sports. If you have a combined 14 TD passes in 16 games, little will go right.

What does this mean for 2023?

First of all, many general managers over the years have made the mistake of believing in a hot start rather than a team’s final record, just as they put too much stock in a late resurgence over the entire body of work. Jets fans have done that too often with the likes of Geno Smith and Sam Darnold.

Joe Douglas must realize that his team is what their record says they are, not what the 6-3 record indicated. Obviously, the first order of business is to fix the QB position by hook or by crook, but he must not stop there. The offensive line needs a complete revamp; no more relying on injury-prone veterans at both or even one tackle position.

On the defensive side of the football, it’s about time the Jets stop neglecting linebacker and safety. The idea that linebackers are not important in Saleh’s scheme is preposterous when considering that his success came with Fred Warner. Watch Lamarcus Joyner‘s and Jordan Whitehead‘s film and you’ll have no doubts about whether safeties are important to this defense.

It is critical that Douglas also not assume that the pass rush is complete despite the team’s crossing the 40-sack plateau. The pass rush has been way too inconsistent and faltered down the stretch. Carl Lawson is a likely cap casualty, but his replacement must be more than Micheal Clemons. Moving Bryce Huff or Jermaine Johnson over to the right side is a possibility (especially since Huff played there at times in 2020-21), but re-signing Huff will need to precede that. On the inside, Solomon Thomas just won’t cut it.

From a coaching perspective, I believe that Mike LaFleur must be held accountable for the Jets’ offensive struggles. Despite the general lack of competent QB play, the games in which the QBs did play relatively well highlighted LaFleur’s puzzling predictability and inability to adapt. Regardless of the direction the team chooses at QB, they must be wary of nepotism in making hard decisions about the team’s offensive future. They will not have a Patrick Mahomes under center and will need a creative mind to get the most out of the offense. That mind does not belong to Mike LaFleur.

Overall, there is cause for optimism in 2023 due to the abundance of young, star-level talent. However, with a playoff imperative for Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh next season, they must take a good, hard look at the true drivers of the Jets’ collapse and move relentlessly to fix them.

Next Article: Ranking the NY Jets’ top 5 most disappointing players of 2022 

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