As the clock ticked off in the most ineffectual attempt by an NFL team to win a game this season — and the New York Jets mismanaged their way to a 24-0 loss to the Miami Dolphins, the league’s first shutout of 2020 — a few inescapable realities began to set in.
The Jets are an NFL expansion team, right at the intersection of one of the worst free agent classes in recent league history (from 2019), signed by a former general manager (Mike Maccagnan) whose final spiral still hangs over the team, and coached by a staff that is fitting together like a square peg and a round bedsore. All in the middle of a pandemic, no less — when maybe the only upside is there are no fans ushering into MetLife Stadium to throw overpriced beers at this malfunctioning ensemble.
A wave of individuals will need to be fired before everything gets toxic inside the franchise.
But not quite yet. And that means keeping head coach Adam Gase around.
Jets’ incompetence coincides with Trevor Lawrence
If you’re going to have a season where years of choreographed ownership missteps all smash together at once, this is it, because a special quarterback is going to be at the top of the draft board. The kind of player teams have been watching since he was a freshman starter and seemingly destined to be a No. 1 overall pick. A guy who is drawing comparisons to Andrew Luck as the most complete quarterback prospect to come out of the draft in the past 20 years.
That, of course, is the tag on Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who turned 21 this month and is putting together the most flawless season of a nearly perfect college career. One NFC West evaluator framed him like this over the weekend: “I would say if the [Cincinnati] Bengals were to get the No. 1 pick again, I would draft Trevor and trade [Joe] Burrow. And I love Burrow.”
That’s a hell of an assessment. And it came from an evaluator who began chirping about North Dakota State’s Trey Lance as a potential top-five pick long before most people knew Trey Lance existed. Not that everyone is that head over heels in love with Lawrence. He has his even-handed assessments out in the scouting ether, too.
But it’s hard to find anyone to disagree that Lawrence is the top pick in the next draft, and he’s also good enough that when the more cautious bird-dogging scouts nitpick his long-standing hype train, they often do it through the lens of quarterbacks who are expected to shape the next decade of the NFL. They compare his arm against Patrick Mahomes, or his ability to create against Deshaun Watson, or his potential room to grow against Josh Allen.
The point is, Lawrence lacks ambiguity as an option for the Jets, which is good when you’re plummeting toward the No. 1 pick in the draft like a piano pushed out of a 10th-floor window. And that’s exactly what is happening in New York with all the mistakes that have been made.
This is hindsight, yes, but it’s necessary because the Jets have a good general manager in place in Joe Douglas. He’s swamped right now and doesn’t have a wealth of great options in front of him — particularly with team ownership tightening the purse strings after splurging on Maccagnan’s last and most feckless free agent class, which was signed just months before his firing.
Why the Jets shouldn’t fire Adam Gase — yet
With all that in mind, let’s brass tacks what’s going on here, and recognize the odd but necessary decision that must be made: to keep Adam Gase and stay on the wrong track in hopes that it leads to Lawrence, as well as a necessary reboot through drafting and developing.
Asked how good Lawrence was over the weekend, a league source who has spent his career working with quarterbacks replied, “Good enough to keep Gase as a head coach through the rest of the season.”
That is the useful part of abject failure. There is a head coach in place who is already a swinging piñata in the market — taking up oxygen in the media that would only be directed elsewhere if he’s fired and everyone moves on to the next guy in line. There’s no hiding anymore that Gase hasn’t worked out in even the faintest sense. Everyone knows it. Everyone will continue repeating it. And there will probably be some continued internal fireworks and toxicity.
It’s not ideal. But part of the NFL is recognizing reality and then curving a plan just enough to avoid going completely off a cliff.
Keeping Gase is better than the alternative, which would be firing him and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, then winning a few games and only jeopardizing an impactful outcome. In the process, the Jets would also be exposing Douglas to the media for a raking he hasn’t earned.
The Jets have an opportunity to Tank For Trevor here — and they can do it in the most honest way possible by sticking with the bad decision to hire Gase made by franchise owner Christopher Johnson. They should be forced to live inside this mess together, with Maccagnan’s part recalled prominently. And when it’s all over in January, everyone can part company with a clean break and a fresh coach who is hired to grow with Lawrence.
Cardinals’ handling of Kyler Murray/Josh Rosen situation can inform Jets
Along the way, Douglas will have to do a lot of heavy lifting that will likely define him in this job starting in 2021.
He’ll have to once again open most of his roster to offers at the Nov. 3 trade deadline. He’ll have to manage Gase and Williams behind the scenes, which likely won’t be enjoyable. He’ll have to manage upward toward team ownership and keep Johnson invested in suffering through the next few months without the firings that local and national media are calling for. If this all ends up with the Jets sitting at the top of the draft, Douglas will have to make the difficult move of trading away Sam Darnold, who is not a bust and who very well may have a good career left in front of him.
Make no mistake, if the Jets hold the first overall pick next spring, Douglas will make that move. I am certain that barring some kind of catastrophic injury, the Jets would pick Lawrence and deal Darnold by the draft.
That’s a mountain of a move for anyone. One that Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim made in 2019, when he jettisoned top-10 pick Josh Rosen after only one year to take Kyler Murray. What we know now is that Keim had a larger plan in mind, to pair Murray with the perfect system for his talents and the coach who essentially designed his offense entirely for the quarterback he would be coaching. But Keim also had to earn the trust of team ownership in the middle of that pivot — to not only ditch a first-round quarterback pick from the previous season, but also a head coach in Steve Wilks who had basically no shot to shape his team before getting fired.
None of that was pretty. Sometimes it’s what an NFL job calls for, general managing in every single direction while also evaluating players, resetting expectations, hoarding assets for a reboot and risking a course that could poison some of the remaining talent, all while the media has opened the cannons on your organization.
That’s basically where Douglas is now. And needless to say, he’s going to earn every cent he’s paid just from the stress and pressure alone.
This is also what he signed up for. The Jets have been messy for years. The cyclical teardown and languishing culture was never just a product of subordinates. It was facilitated from the very top of the business. For someone to step in and believe he could change it was going to take some significant self-belief and a threshold for pain. The former got Douglas in the door, now the latter will be tested for another 11 weeks.
The first thing he can do is actually the hardest thing, and that’s to resist his urge to start cleaning the mess up before the timing is right. There is still some value inside this breakdown, and the challenge is to see that value and figure out how to come out on the other side with the right plan in place.
Douglas can start that by keeping Gase and Williams and all the difficulty that comes with it. This is the rare instance where the vast intersection of futility will be worth it. Maybe the only lasting mistake would be failing to recognize it.
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