In the Jets’ endless search for another Super Bowl championship — an odyssey nearly a half-century long and counting — the Patriots have become the latest symbol of comparison and frustration.
Since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady first won a championship 15 years ago, thus beginning a reign of dominance rarely seen in NFL history, the Jets have had to measure their progress strictly in how it relates to closing the gap with the Patriots.
Rex Ryan got as close as anyone, leading the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games and even beating the Patriots in the playoffs to get there the second time. But the gap has widened to a chasm since then, and the Jets are as far from the Patriots as at any time in the recent past. At 4-10, the Jets on Saturday afternoon will face a 12-2 Patriots team looking very much as if it’s headed for a seventh — SEVENTH! — Super Bowl appearance in the Belichick-Brady era.
Meanwhile, the misery continues in earnest for a franchise that has known so much heartbreak in the intervening years since Joe Namath won the team’s only Super Bowl on Jan. 12, 1969.
The latest ignominy: The Patriots are 16½-point favorites against their AFC East rivals in their latest matchup.
How else can the Jets be viewed in their current state? They’re down to giving Bryce Petty an audition for next season after Ryan Fitzpatrick bombed. Their starting center (Nick Mangold) and two tackles (Ryan Clady and Breno Giacomini) are on injured reserve. Their recently signed 30-year-old running back (Matt Forte) is gimpy with knee and shoulder injuries. Their best red zone receiver (Eric Decker) is on injured reserve. The best cornerback in franchise history (Darrelle Revis) is a shell of what he once was. And two of their best defensive linemen (Sheldon Richardson and Mo Wilkerson) have a combined four sacks.
“It’s not a challenge of getting them motivated. We’re going to show up and play hard,” coach Todd Bowles said before being hospitalized Friday with an undisclosed illness (he did not travel with the Jets to New England on Friday and it was unclear whether he would coach Saturday). “That’s the easy part. We’re just losing bodies left and right. Plugging in the new guys to make sure they understand what they’re doing and adjusting again is, really, the big challenge in handling that. But they play hard and we’re going to show up on [Saturday] and play hard as well. We’ll just get used to the guys and plug them in. It’s one of them seasons where the ball hasn’t bounced the right way. You’re discouraged, you’re disappointed, you’re [ticked] off, but you’re not giving up hope and you have to try to turn things around.”
The Jets are nearing the end of a staggering fall from grace after a 10-6 season that left them just short of the playoffs, and the fallout is sure to be profound. Team owner Woody Johnson doesn’t appear inclined at the moment to fire general manager Mike Maccagnan or Bowles, but Johnson has made changes at a moment’s notice and with no expectation. Look no further than his initial promise to Eric Mangini that he’d be safe after a 9-7 season in 2008. Mangini found himself fired days after the final game.
But if Maccagnan and Bowles are given another year, then look for a dramatically different emphasis on the roster. After giving Fitzpatrick one more chance to prove himself as a capable long-term starter, and after seeing Fitzpatrick promptly revert to the turnover-prone habits he’d shown throughout most of his career, there will be a sea change at quarterback in 2017.
Petty has shown some flashes in his limited time as a starter, with a big arm and certainly a courageous presence in the pocket. He took a brutal hit last week when sandwiched between the Dolphins’ Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake, but he was set to start against the Patriots. Petty nevertheless projects more as a long-term backup than a reliable starter.
“Obviously, I’d like to have more production,” Petty said. “I have to be more consistent throughout a game, play-to-play, down-to-down, half-to-half, of putting the offense in the best chance to be successful. No mental errors, no bumps and bruises, no ‘oh, I’m learning.’ I need to be consistent. That’s why they brought me here. That’s why I want to be here. Turning the ball over is an emphasis for me this week and coming weeks.”
And what does it say that the Jets haven’t seen fit to let second-round pick Christian Hackenberg anywhere near the field this year? Hackenberg clearly is a project, and that’s fine, but not for a second-round pick. He clearly was overdrafted, and unless he makes stunningly efficient progress in the off-season, you have to wonder why the Jets wouldn’t have waited longer to draft him instead of spending a valuable second-rounder on him. A fourth-rounder? Fine. But a second-rounder? He should at least be good enough to get a look at during a season like this one, but the Jets haven’t even been willing to do that much.
The Jets badly need to get younger and more athletic on the offensive line. They need a legitimate pass rusher — a familiar refrain going back years. The secondary needs another makeover. And an aging Forte clearly was not the answer at running back.
The Jets’ myriad shortcomings, almost too many to count, surely will be in evidence Saturday against a team that has the best quarterback in NFL history and is led by arguably the greatest coach ever. The Patriots consistently re-tool their roster to complement Brady, and Belichick is always resourceful in making sure his defense has enough playmakers to win championships. It is a spectacularly efficient operation, which makes the Jets’ struggles even more pronounced.
A 16½-point spread as a sign of disappointment? Considering all that’s wrong with the Jets and everything that’s right with the Patriots, and it might understate what happens Saturday.