If Jets fans are looking for signs of optimism amid an uncertain future, Jermaine Kearse provided an unmistakable indication while seated in front of his locker after Thursday’s practice.
Kearse still is new to the team, having been traded from the Seahawks on Sept. 1 in exchange for Sheldon Richardson and a second-round draft pick in 2018. But the 27-year-old receiver compared this Jets team to the Seahawks in the years before they became champions.
“That’s the first thing I noticed [after being traded],” he said. “Because when I got to Seattle [in 2012], I was a young guy myself, I had a chip on my shoulder, I went undrafted, and I had a lot of things I wanted to prove. A lot of guys in that locker room had the same thing, and that’s the same thing I saw when I got here.”
Kearse has quickly, albeit quietly, become a trusted leader on a Jets team filled with mostly young players just starting to find their way in the NFL. At 27, he has a championship pedigree, having won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks after the 2013 season. They got back to the title game the following year before losing to the Patriots on a stunning fourth-quarter interception thrown by Russell Wilson.
“We had a very successful organization when I was there, and it’s still a successful organization,” he said. “I’m not here to say, ‘This is how we did it in Seattle.’ But I can say that I know what winning looks like and what it takes.”
Make no mistake: When Kearse looks at the Jets, he sees the makings of a winning team, and perhaps a championship team in due time. While the Jets still are very much a work in progress after a tumultuous offseason roster purge that included the release of prominent veterans such as Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold, Breno Giacomini and Nick Folk — as well as the Richardson trade — Kearse believes the foundation is being set for what eventually will be a successful run.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys in here, a lot of talented players, and right now, we’re just still continuing to learn how to play with each other and learning how to win and learning how to handle winning and continuing to be consistent,” he said. “It’s a process. There are going to be ups and downs during that process, but I think this team has the unity to stick together through that.”
A month into what was expected to be an extensive rebuilding process, the Jets are at least a mild surprise at 2-2 heading into Sunday’s game against the 0-4 Browns in Cleveland. In a season that some had predicted would quickly devolve into a nightmare record — although there still is plenty of time for that — the Jets have overachieved. And while that eventually might hurt them in terms of positioning to get one of the premier college quarterbacks available in the 2018 draft, there certainly is a welcome feeling of hopefulness.
And if Kearse is correct in believing that the Jets are a reasonable facsimile of the pre-championship Seahawks, who knows what the future might hold?
Kearse grew quite attached to the Seahawks during his previous five seasons in Seattle and still has to catch himself when speaking about his former team. But just as he did with the Seahawks, Kearse believes he provides an important leadership role with the Jets. That impact is only enhanced by the fact that he has produced on the field; Kearse is the Jets’ leading receiver with 18 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
“We have a lot of characters, a lot of outspoken people in our locker room,” he said, referring to the Seahawks in the present tense. “Or, in Seattle . . . in their locker room,” he said. “But if you talk to any of those guys and ask them about me and about the role I had in there, they’ll tell you. I was a leader there. I don’t think I’m any different here than I was there.”
There is, of course, one gigantic difference between these young, plucky Jets and the team Kearse grew up with in his early NFL years. He came into the league the same year as Wilson, a lightly regarded third-round pick who was expected to be a backup to high-priced free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn. But Wilson immediately impressed the Seahawks’ coaching staff and started from Day 1. By the end of his second season, he was a Super Bowl champion.
Had things turned out differently in 2012, it might have been the Jets who drafted Wilson. Personnel director Terry Bradway was so smitten with Wilson after his career at Wisconsin that Jets executives kiddingly referred to him as Russell Bradway. The Jets wound up not drafting a quarterback that year.
The Jets still don’t have their long-term answer at the position. Despite 38-year-old Josh McCown’s impressive start to the season (his 70.1 completion rate is second among starters with at least 80 attempts), it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be around if and when the Jets turn into a playoff contender. And if they keep winning, it will make it that much tougher to take a quarterback at the very top of the draft in 2018.
But just as Wilson wasn’t a concern for Kearse when the two were rookies, the future quarterback situation isn’t a factor. “I was trying to make the [2012 Seahawks] team my damn self,” Kearse said. “I wasn’t worried about [Wilson].”
Kearse now hopes he can build the kind of relationships with his current teammates that he did with the Seahawks.
“The relationships with those guys [in Seattle] goes beyond football,” he said. “Those are my brothers. A lot of those guys in that locker room are like family to me. I look forward to building those types of relationships I had in Seattle in this locker room.”
He thinks he can build them while the team turns into a contender. And possibly a champion.
“It’s hard to say what this team will be, because you can’t predict the future, one, but I do believe this team could be whatever we decide we want it to be,” he said. “That second game in Oakland [when the Jets were competitive through the first half] was very telling of who this team could be and where we can take it. I think this team can be very special.”