Dec 13, 2018

  • Rich CiminiESPN Staff Writer Close
    • Longtime Jets beat writer for New York Daily News
    • Syracuse University graduate

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Tickets on the secondary market are selling for as low at $10, which means a beer at the game will cost as much as the price of admission. The nearby shopping malls will generate more traffic than MetLife Stadium, which figures to be half-empty for the New York Jets and Houston Texans on Saturday afternoon. When the game is over, a guy in a Santa suit will be screaming obscenities at coach Todd Bowles as he walks off the field — and Santa won't be alone. He will be joined by plenty of angry elves.

Welcome to another meaningless December for the Jets. Ho, ho, ho.

Mathematically eliminated last week, the Jets' postseason drought is up to eight years, trailing only that of the Cleveland Browns (15) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10) among active streaks. It's tied for the second-longest drought in Jets history, but let's be perfectly clear:

This one is the worst.

Unlike the previous dry spells, this is happening in the free-agency/salary-cap era, which means there's no excuse to stink year after year. There was an 11-year drought from 1970 to '80 (a long, post-Super Bowl III hangover) and an eight-year clunker from 1960 to '67 (the first years of the franchise), but it was hard to rebuild in those days because the only real source of talent was the draft. The current league is built for parity, giving wayward franchises a chance to get well soon.

Not the Jets.

No player on the current roster has experienced a Jets playoff game. Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, one of the longest-tenured players, said he has "an idea" of what a significant December game feels like (a reference to the ill-fated playoff run in 2015). Mostly, he lives vicariously through fellow receiver Jermaine Kearse, who shares stories of his Super Bowl championship with the Seattle Seahawks.

The Jets have been out of the postseason for so long that it feels like the rest of the league has passed them by. It's like they're still talking on flip phones and have no idea what they're missing.

"There has to be change," Enunwa said. "Without change, you can't have change. Things have to change mentally. There has to be a different mentality, just more discipline. I don't think it's the talent at all. A lot of guys around the league respect us as a team because they see the talent, but we do dumb stuff. That's what we have to change."

A familiar refrain.

Nearly eight years ago, Rex Ryan guaranteed a Super Bowl for the Jets. It was an outrageous thing to say — for any coach — but he wasn't a mad man howling at the moon. After all, the Jets had reached the AFC Championship Game in back-to-back seasons in 2009 and 2010. They were good enough to talk a little smack.

Since Ryan's moment of bluster, the closest they've come to a Lombardi is the Vince Lombardi service area on the New Jersey Turnpike, located in the shadow of the stadium. Maybe each franchise is permitted only one bold guarantee; the Jets used theirs in 1969 (see: Joe Namath).

"We were close, and we made a run at it by signing older players," said Ryan, who presided over the first four years of the drought. "We were all-in, and it never worked out."

Under two coaches and three general managers, the Jets are 50-75 since the playoff drought started — a .400 win percentage (30th in the NFL) and a mind-blowing 47 games behind the New England Patriots.

The Jets are in a constant state of rebuilding — 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2018 — unable to create any traction. The current regime, led by general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles, turned over the roster it inherited, but the results haven't improved. Only seven players in uniform Sunday were holdovers from the first Maccagnan-Bowles roster in 2015.

And they're still tied for last place.

"I'm craving that playoff vibe," said special-teams standout Rontez Miles, who arrived in 2013. "There's a big void. I want to know what that feels like."

Those back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game feel like a lifetime ago. Despite a crushing loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 23, 2011, the Jets seemed to have it figured out. They had a terrific defense, a young quarterback in Mark Sanchez and a larger-than-life coach in Ryan, who already had four playoff wins on his résumé.

Since then, they've been doomed by a combination of bad personnel decisions, suspect coaching and bad luck. This is their third straight losing season, something they hadn't done since 1994-96 under Pete Carroll and Rich Kotite.

At 4-9, Bowles is on the verge of becoming only the sixth NFL coach since 2000 to lose at least 10 games in three straight seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His team isn't as inept as the Kotite Jets, who provided regular fodder for David Letterman's top-10 lists, but you wonder if the trend will be reversed any time soon.

Oh, they almost did it in 2015 — 10-6, no playoffs — but it turned out to be a one-year mirage. Unfortunately, it took Maccagnan another year to recognize that, triggering a free fall that has resulted in the team's current plight. The Jets are two years into a total reboot.

"I'm sorry to say it, but our organization is bad," said a former Jets player, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "[We're] the Browns of the Northeast. It'll be a long time before they win. The folks they have don't care. They're protecting each other from getting fired and bulls— the owner when he shows up. They need an overhaul. They're content with losing."

"They don't fit the mentality of the fan base," a former Jets staffer said of the current leadership. "Show some guts, show some balls. There's none of that. They need to hire someone who can identify with the fan base."

It takes a seminal moment to turn around a franchise. For the Jets of yesteryear, it was two watershed drafts: 1965 (hello, Broadway Joe) and 1977 (Marvin Powell, Wesley Walker and Joe Klecko). They didn't need a draft to conquer the Kotite malaise; they hired Bill Parcells, who brought instant credibility to the franchise.

When will the current Jets have that game-changing moment? What will it be? The hiring of a superstar coach? (Unlikely. Who's out there?) The blossoming of Sam Darnold? They certainly hope so. When they drafted Darnold in April, CEO Christopher Johnson called it a turning point in the franchise's history. They were ga-ga over Sam, but they quickly realized that Sam needs a better supporting cast. Does that mean better players or better coaching?

"I hate the idea that it has to be one or the other," Enunwa said. "Sometimes it's a combination of everything. Guys have to start being smarter. It doesn't matter who you bring in [to coach]. Guys have to start playing smarter football."

The franchise has slipped into a funk and desperately needs that "wow" moment. Once again, the franchise has reached a crossroad. This is the low point of the Woody Johnson era, the first time in his 19-year ownership that the Jets have endured three straight clunkers. The fans are waiting to see how Johnson and his younger brother, Christopher, fix this. This generation has suffered enough.

"They're operating with a losing plan," a longtime NFC personnel executive said. "Woody makes bad hire after bad hire. It's hard for some owners. They're a product of who they listen to."

How did it go so badly? There are many reasons, but here are three:

Questionable decisions by ownership: You know what they say in sports: It starts at the top. Johnson has proven that he is willing to spend money to win, but the irony of the NFL — a multi-billion-dollar industry — is that it takes more than money to succeed. It takes vision and leadership, hiring the right people. Johnson has failed in that area.

In pairing Bowles and Maccagnan, he made the same mistake he made in 2013, when he hired John Idzik to be Ryan's general manager: In each case, he took two strangers and asked them to coexist. The Idzik-Ryan pairing was toxic. Maccagnan and Bowles have a professional relationship, but cracks have formed amid the losing. Johnson is a bad matchmaker.

Poor drafting: Three GMs — Mike Tannenbaum, Idzik and Maccagnan — have contributed to the malaise. Since the Darrelle Revis draft in 2007, only one Jets draft pick has made the Pro Bowl: defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. (Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams made it as injury replacements.) Only three players from the 2012, 2014 and 2015 drafts are starting in the league: Demario Davis (New Orleans Saints), Enunwa and Williams.

The heart of the team at this point should be players from the 2013-15 drafts, but only three of the 25 picks are contributing to the Jets: Williams, Enunwa and Brian Winters. To compensate for the draft misses, the Jets have had to overpay in free agency, often reaching for players who turned into one-and-done situations. It's a vicious cycle that won't stop until they start drafting better.

Quarterback/offensive follies: Bowles and Ryan are defensive-minded coaches who failed to build any consistency on offense. Ryan went through three coordinators in six years and Bowles three in four. It's impossible to develop players when the playbook changes almost every year. As Ryan used to say, the proof is in the pudding. Since 2011, the Jets rank 30th in scoring and 30th in yards. That's some bad pudding.

"Unless you have a good quarterback, it's hard as hell to make the playoffs," Ryan said.

In one respect, it's a chicken-or-egg question. Are the Jets dysfunctional because they haven't had an elite quarterback? Or has the lack of an elite quarterback made them dysfunctional? It's more of the latter. Their most recent quarterback to make the Pro Bowl was Brett Favre (2008), and he made it on reputation alone. The Jets have drafted six quarterbacks since 2011, only two of whom remain in the league: Darnold and Geno Smith (Los Angeles Chargers).

Is there any hope for the future? Kearse, the former Super Bowl champ, pondered the question for a few seconds.

"There are pieces for a solid foundation," he said. "You have a young, gifted quarterback who I think will get better over time. Guys like Jamal Adams … I mean, just watch him play, and that tells you everything you need to know. You've got pieces here. We just have to continue to build that core group."

Another familiar refrain.

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