Do-Rag of Thorns: a NY Jet Fan’s Lament

For his sins Matthew Stevenson has been a fan of the New York Jets (originally in the old American Football League they were the New York Titans) since 1960, when he was six years old and went to one of their first games at the Polo Grounds in New York.

The Titans won that game against the Dallas Texans by a score of 41-35 (Don Maynard and Art Powell ran wild), but since then, with the exception of the 1969 win in Super Bowl III and losing in a few AFC championship games, it’s been largely downhill.

We all have our sports crosses to bear and mine is the Jets, who this year are headed in the direction of 0-16, a distinction of ineptitude that only a few teams in league history have matched. Celebrated Jets quarterback Joe Namath was wrong when he said: “I never drink at halftime.”

I watch the games, listen to the podcasts, and read the sports pages, and nothing makes the team any better. So while counting votes in the Electoral College and wondering if Bill Barr will go more rogue that he has to date, I thought I would offer a few ideas on how to revive the Jets (in the fiftieth year of their rebuilding program) into something, well, a little less mediocre.

Is this Gestalt football therapy? Perhaps. Will it do any good? I doubt it. As Sigmund Freud once wrote in a letter to his friend Ernest Jones: “If client kills himself at halftime at MetLife Stadium, I still think he should pay for the balance on his season tickets, if not for a few $8.75 beers…” But we all spend more time than we should reorganizing our own teams.

Build the roster from the back. By this I mean, start by using some of that cap space (for now, $76,084,956 in 2021) on special teamers, who can be had for about $800,000 a piece. Sign great special team players from other rosters, pay them a little more to come to the Jets, and build on the strength of special teams play.

With a commitment of about $6-8 million in this direction, the Jets might find some terrific young, enthusiastic players who could perhaps grow into starters.

Certainly it’s a better use of the money than to pay someone such as linebacker C.J. Mosley $29 million, which is what the Jets have paid him for five quarters of football in the last two years.

Raid practice squads from around the league. Come the end of training camp, most teams try to hide one or several promising players on their practice squad.

This works because every other team is hiding their own young guys on the practice squad, which leaves no room for signing potential players from other rosters.

If the Jets approached the end of training camp with four or five roster spots available, they might be able to swoop in and find some diamonds in the rough, so to speak. Think of it as a second draft class, courtesy of the competition. (Remember how we lost Danny Woodhead.)

Buy and operate a minor league team. Whether it is in some variation of the now-bankrupt Alliance of American Football, the wrestling man’s XFL, or in a new league in Mexico, England, or Canada, the Jets need a minor league affiliate football team, to which they can send their late round draft choices and developmental players to get playing time.

Granted, I am sure second round draft bust QB Christian Hackenberg (“couldn’t hit the ocean…”) was a flawed prospect. But I like the idea of his ilk—if drafted by the Jets—getting a year or two of game time in some lesser league, before moving up to the big club.

If no minor league teams can be bought, start a four-team league with some like-minded owners, and play the games on Thursdays at noon on Randalls Island—just so the players can get playing time in real games.

Give up on first round draft choices. The economics just do not work for many first round draft choices. (Guess it would help, too, if we could have avoided the likes of Dee Milliner and Calvin Pryor.)

Is the pistol-packing DT Quinnen Williams really worth $7 million this year or $15 million in the future?

Keep in mind: a first round choice is only about 1/30th of your starting team, if you factor in all the starters on offense, defense, and special teams. So why do we all focus endless energy on 1/30th of the team, when you need another 29 guys to win?

Why pay one or two players 30 percent of your cap space when they represent less than 3 percent of your roster?

Focus on the second and third round: What you want, every year, is at least two number twos and two numbers threes, which is often the sweet spot in terms of future salaries and player potential. So trade down and trade up until you have that position each year in the draft.

Rely on the concept of “games played per draft choice.” The way I figure it, anyone who can start for an NFL team, over a long period of time, is worth their weight in Bud Light. So why aren’t we relying more on “starts per pick”?

OLs Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson were great choices because we got more than a hundred starts out of each of them. But many recent picks have started less than about twenty games, if that, and as we know nearly all picks in the Mike Maccagnan/John Izdik general manager eras were busts.

If you analyze “starts per pick” when looking at successful draft choices, my guess is it will lead exclusively to drafting offensive linemen in the early rounds, which is fine.

With an All-Pro line, many problems in the passing, running, ball-control game would be solved. Behind an All-Pro line even QB Sam Darnold would look passable.

The goal should be to maximize the number of starts you get from each draft class. Focusing draft choices on potential starts (as opposed to searching for stars) would diminish the gap between early and late round choices: meaning, all you want from a selection is to become a starter. (In such a system, the stars will float to the top.)

Free agents: Spend money on edge rushers, cornerbacks, and tight ends. For positions such as linebackers and running backs, develop your own. I will leave it to the professionals to decide the best way to develop an elite receiving corps, without which there is no hope.

For the moment the Jets attitude toward free agents is bizarre. If a player on the team (Jamal Adams, Leonard Williams come to mind) is approaching free agency and demands more money, the team acts as though he is holding the Johnsons hostage in a bank lobby. But if an outside free agent approaches the team (Lev Bell et al.), it pays way over the market, usually for diminished talent. (Mosley, Bell, and Trumaine Johnson collectively got well over $100 million and contributed less than a few undrafted free agents.)

Furlough the Johnsons: I know, they own the team, but these guys—including the likable, on his knee, Chris—are a train wreck when it comes to making operating decisions about professional football.

The fact that older brother Woody has been willing to serve as Donald Trump’s ambassador to the Court of St. James (United Kingdom) might give you some idea of his character judgment, as might his ambassadorial lobbying to get the British Open onto a Trump-owned golf course and some allegations of workplace harassment. (Don’t worry: to remedy the charges, Woody watched a training video on proper diplomatic conduct.)

The idea of both the coach and general manager reporting to some Johnson & Johnson heir (the structure we have today) makes no sense, and probably explains the many awful decisions made by the franchise in the last fifteen years.

Remember when USC QB Mark Sanchez could, according to coach Rex Ryan, “make all the throws?” Little did we know that included “making all the picks.”

The ownership problem is this: fans are in the win business, while owners, including the feckless Johnsons, are in the cash-flow maximization business.

Presumably, when the Jets are $30 million under the cap, the Johnsons are plus $30 mill in their sharkskin wallets, which may explain bizarre cap decisions recently made by the likes of Izdik and Maccagnan, who after all were company men and doing what they could to keep their jobs and the Johnsons flush.

Replace day-to-day ownership with an anarcho-syndicalist fan council: Put on it some ex-Jets, grizzled scouts, wily agents, dynamic young coaches, Marty Lyons, Joe Willie, Fireman Ed Anzalone (I met him once: he’s a terrific guy), and let them operate as the team’s steering committee.

At least let them be the voice of fans’ rage and disgust at the current direction of the team. (If there was relegation in American football, as there is English soccer, the Jets would have fallen to a division that includes teams from Terre Haute and Shreveport.)

Bring back the New York Sack Exchange. I am not talking about Joe Klecko or Mark Gastineau, à la Jason Witten coming out of the broadcast booth, re-signing with the team. I am talking about making a pass rush the signature play of the New York Jets.

Last time it happened the NYSE was fun and galvanized the city. It worked with the trademark of nearby Wall Street and won games in a dramatic fashion—a branding win.

What have we had since then to cheer about? (Somehow I can’t get as excited about all the holding penalties.) The last pure pass rusher to make an impact (that’s not you, Vernon Gholston) was drafted about twenty years ago.

Make sure the coaching successor is always on the staff: Given how often the Jets change coaches (about every three years), we ought always to have a succession plan in place within the team.

Meaning: when you appoint someone such as Eyes-Wide-Open, Mind-Wide-Shut Adam Gase as the coach, the assistant head coach ought to be sufficiently experienced to take over the top job, if need be.

Every organization should have a succession plan, but with the dysfunctional Jets it’s necessary every few years to conduct “a search” to find yet another coach, when he or she should nearly always be in the house. At least then you get better continuity with offensive schemes and the like.

By repeatedly changing coaches and the general manager every few years, the Jets are endlessly starting from scratch (ten years and counting out of the playoffs), which wasn’t at all the case when George Seifert moved up to take over the 49ers from Bill Walsh. Or look at the Steelers and how they groom their successful coaches.

FYI: I would also only hire a head coach who has won a Super Bowl or an NCAA championship.

Rarely, if ever, sign a contract that is for more than two years (see Johnson, Trumaine and Bell, Le’Veon), but pay higher salaries in those two years.

Ok, we will lose some players who want long-term deals elsewhere, but generally they will be at the back-end of their careers. Perhaps with a quarterback I might make an exception. But even then I wonder about going out more than two years.

Rosters turn over anyway, but this way you would avoid all the dead cap space that comes with the territory of paying Darrelle $70 mill over five years, with $39 big ones guaranteed, just so that he could whiff on some power sweeps heading for the Island.

Figure out a quarterback’s prime age and stick to it: It strikes me that Maccagnan only liked rookies and old timers at QB (FitzHackenSamCown) while I suspect that the average age of a Super Bowl winning quarterback is around 30. (Old enough to read defenses; young enough to avoid them.)

Douglas seems to favor younger, cap-friendly QBs, even those who can’t play (see Morgan, James), while offensively Gase is partial only to hiring his friends (see Loggains, Dowell), a deadly quality in any manager.

Granted, the prime QB age profile might be hard to sign, but at least give yourself a chance with players in the right age bracket.

The Parcells rule for drafting quarterbacks isn’t fool proof but it is at least a rigorous criteria. As follows:

+ Be a three-year starter

+ Be a senior in college

+ Graduate from college

+ Start 30 games

+ Win 23 games

+ Post a 2-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio

+ Complete at least 60 percent of passes thrown

Give up on Darnold? I like QB Sam Darnold more than most fans these days, but what happens if it takes him seven more years (and $100 million more in salary) to stop seeing ghosts in the NFL game? Statistically, that might well be the case. (He met only two of Parcells’s seven QB standards.)

The problem with Tanking for Trevor (Lawrence, the Clemson QB) is that without a supporting cast he could well be as lost as Darnold. OK, he would be cheap for a few years, but so was Darnold (you get what you pay for).

Actually, I might keep both Darnold (on a reasonable two-year deal, as he’s a good leader of the team, and I appreciate his honesty) and Lawrence, and let them compete for playing time. All good teams need two QBs, and the competition would be fun.

In 1965 Namath had to beat out not just Mike Taliaferro but also Notre Dame’s QB John Huarte, who had won the Heisman Trophy. And leaving aside his Super Bowl win, Namath was a turnover machine, as much as I admire his bravado—and his books, which include I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow…’Cause I Get Better-Looking Every Day. (It has a chapter entitled, “I Like My Women Blond and My Johnny Walker Red”).

Where are we: If the Jets were a business, they would be hiring a crisis management and audit firm to figure out how to survive bankruptcy.

Instead, because the NFL is an oligopoly with anti-trust exemption in which the owners share an $8 billion annual jackpot of TV monopoly money, the richly rewarded Jets limp along year after year without any prospect of winning the division or, god forbid, advancing to the Super Bowl.

I can’t see the Don’t-Let-the-Door-Hit-You-On-the-Way-Out, Bound-for-0-16-Glory Adam Gase and his dysfunctional coaching staff winning any games this season, but the problems with the franchise go beyond one coach, even if his idea of a wildcat offense is to send 37-year-old RB Frank Gore off tackle for a one yard gain (it’s more of a tired kitten formation).

Simply relying on GM Joe Douglas to draft better players or find some free agents isn’t much savvier than betting on GM John Izdik to bat higher than one-for-twelve with his 2014 draft picks, or entrusting GM Mike Maccagnan to draft players along the lines of LB Darron Lee (don’t ask).

The team’s approach to football needs a radical overhaul. It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, starting with the special teams (about a third of all plays in a game) and the structure of the organization, which is broken (from the trump on down).

Don’t expect to find lightning in Trevor Lawrence’s locks or locker. He would only be 1/30th of the possible solution. As Joe noted: “Nobody loves a rich rookie.” He also said: “I’d rather play football than…almost anything.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.
 

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