From the outside looking in, there’s a case to be made that the Jets could have — and perhaps should have — moved on from the Mike Maccagnan-Todd Bowles regime. Three years with no playoff berth, including back-to-back five-win seasons (with one game remaining in 2017), and Jets chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson had every right to look in a different direction.
But as the Jets go into their regular-season finale against the Patriots with almost zero hope of beating the defending Super Bowl champions, Johnson opted to extend the contracts of the general manager and coach by two years each and stay the course for at least the near term.
It was a smart choice.
While it might appear counterintuitive, given the record, Johnson did the right thing by letting the two men continue with a rebuilding process that has shown tangible signs of improvement. That might not be reflected in how many games they’ve won, but there is a decidedly different vibe around this team after a series of moves by Maccagnan to tear down a rotting roster and rebuild it with promising young players. And Bowles has changed the culture after going as far as he could with an aging team that came close in 2015 but disintegrated last season.
The process is far from complete, and the results most certainly will need to get better in the years ahead to ensure a more stable long-term future. But Johnson’s benchmark was progress, and he saw unmistakable growth from a young team that will get better with another year or two of smart drafts and free-agent acquisitions.
The Jets flirted with playoff contention earlier in the season before collapsing under the weight of failed fourth-quarter finishes and an injury to quarterback Josh McCown, who had a career year at age 38 and provided a heaping and healthy dose of leadership for a mostly young team that responded to his guidance.
McCown most certainly isn’t a long-term answer at the position that is at the top of the list of must-haves, but if this ends up being his only year in green-and-white, he will have left a positive mark on this team. His can-do attitude and why-not-us mentality were infectious, and his young teammates will carry that forward as the process continues.
Make no mistake, there is plenty of work to be done to continue this team’s development. Important decisions need to be made at several positions. That starts at quarterback, where the Jets will have the opportunity to bid for a prized free agent such as Kirk Cousins or have a high enough draft pick to compete for one of the blue-chip passers available in the draft in April.
They might not be in position to draft presumptive 1-2 quarterbacks Sam Darnold of USC or Josh Rosen of UCLA, but if Maccagnan has a conviction about either passer, he will have some draft capital to make a move up the board. If not, Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma or Josh Allen of Wyoming could be available.
The feeling here is that the Jets should make a play for Cousins if he’s available, then draft Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to provide an instantaneous lift and long-term solution on offense.
Either way, the Jets absolutely must make a move to solidify the most important position on the roster, especially in light of the failed early run of Christian Hackenberg, who finally might get some snaps against the Patriots — albeit too late to make a case for himself as the solution in 2018 and beyond.
The Jets no doubt will move on from defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson, who simply hasn’t been worth the $86-million contract extension he signed last year. Wilkerson most likely will sit out a third straight game after being suspended for arriving late to a team meeting earlier this month, and the fact that he has been disciplined for tardiness for three straight years makes his ouster a foregone conclusion. He’s simply not worth keeping around, and the Jets won’t continue to throw good money after bad.
That Maccagnan has failed with Hackenberg and Wilkerson and still remained in the good graces of ownership is a testament to the other moves he has made, including his sweeping roster overhaul in the offseason. He shed aging, expensive veterans and brought in promising rookie safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye along with several other solid young players.
Maccagnan’s trade of Sheldon Richardson to the Seahawks in exchange for a solid possession receiver in Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick in 2018 was a terrific move, as was obtaining middle linebacker Demario Davis for underperforming former first-round safety Calvin Pryor. There’s no reason he can’t pull off some similarly productive moves to add to a solid nucleus that still needs to get to the next level with more foundation players.
There’s work to be done for both the general manager and the coach, but Johnson’s decision to give them that chance was the right move at the right time for a team headed in the right direction.