The unlikely alliance was born of necessity, a partnership between an itinerant assistant coach ready to gamble with his career and an aging journeyman quarterback looking for one more chance.
John Morton knew he was taking a risk by coming to the Jets, a team in disarray after a 5-11 season with its coach on the hot seat. But if the 48-year-old position coach was ever going to break through to the next level, this was his chance.
An overachieving former receiver who made it to the NFL from his humble beginnings at Grand Rapids Community College, Morton embraced the challenge, even if it might end up in failure.
“Opportunity,” he said of the new job. “I’ve been a position coach for almost 19 years, and I feel I’m ready.”
At 38, Josh McCown was down to what might have been his last opportunity. Having played with eight different NFL teams and even a year for the Hartford Colonials of the United Football League, there was only one potential starting job available in a league that much prefers younger prospects, not aging backups with limited starting experience. Especially a quarterback who had won only two of his last 22 starts.
But there is an unmistakable chemistry between the two, and they somehow have found a way to defy the early expectations of doom to give this unlikely Jets team a fighting chance in a season that most gave up for lost before it even began.
Morton brought his West Coast offense to the Jets, McCown brought his grit and football smarts, and they’ve given the Jets the one thing that can carry them through a challenging rebuilding process: hope.
That hope is now in the form of an astonishing early-season matchup against the Patriots. Before the season, you might not have found five people outside the Jets’ locker room who would have believed that when the AFC East rivals met on Oct. 15, first place would be on the line. Not after the Jets cleaned house in the offseason and got rid of nearly every big-name player on the roster. And not after the Patriots, coming off a fifth Super Bowl championship run, loaded up in free agency and the draft.
Where there once was talk of a winless Jets season, there also was talk of an undefeated Patriots season. Some thought the Patriots might win more games than the Jets, Bills and Dolphins combined.
But here they are, both 3-2 heading into Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium.
The Jets still are heavy underdogs, but if the Morton-McCown alliance continues to impress, who knows? In a season in which McCown was expected to be little more than a caretaker for an offense that he presumably would hand off to a blue-chip prospect as soon as next year, his late-career renaissance may have changed the calculus — or at least delayed it.
For the first-year play-caller and the aging quarterback, at least there’s a chance.
“I guess the best analogy I can say is everybody likes different kinds of music, and for some reason you like that genre versus this genre, and I think for me it’s just this type of offense, just the way it’s structured is kind of how my brain sees football, and so it makes sense to me,” McCown said of Morton’s system. “There’s all different kinds and they all work. You look at every system out there and there’s an example of success with that system on some level, but for different guys, it works for different people.
“There’s plays and players and coaches that fit best in different systems, and they gravitate toward those things,” he said. “So I just think in this case it’s just me and how I see football and how this system is structured that makes sense to my football brain, and it’s different for everybody else. I’ve been in a lot of them — I’ve been in pretty much all of them — and so this one just seems to make the most sense.”
Soon after Morton took over from Chan Gailey, whose two-year run ended unceremoniously after last year’s clunker that followed a 10-6 record in 2015, he studied the list of available quarterbacks and saw something in McCown that clicked. It was from McCown’s time as the Bears’ starter after Jay Cutler got hurt in 2013.
McCown had five starts that year, going 3-2, throwing 11 touchdown passes with only one interception and completing a career-high 66.5 percent of his passes.
The performance earned him a starting job the next year with Tampa Bay, but he fizzled on a Bucs team in disarray. He played the following two seasons with the Browns before joining the Jets this year.
“When we studied him and when he was in this type of offense with [the Bears], he had a high completion percentage,” Morton said. “The offense fits what he does. He’s been really consistent in everything that he does. As long as you’re consistent and do what you do, that helps us win ballgames.”
McCown has thrown for 1,020 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions and has completed an astounding 71.4 percent of his passes.
Said McCown, “Going back to Chicago, just the people that taught [the West Coast offense] to me, the teachers, those people maybe connected in a way that made it make sense, and Johnny Mo [Morton] does a good job of that, and [quarterbacks coach] Jeremy Bates, so it’s a combination of all those things.”
Now the two will combine forces and try to defeat the mighty Patriots and Tom Brady, the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history.
“What he’s been able to do is nothing short of remarkable and to a degree, it’s special to go against him because he’s widely regarded as the best to ever play,” McCown said. “To get to play against him and to get to go against him, it’s part of it that when you’re done with your career, it’s a cool thing to look back on.”
Brady vs. McCown — not to mention Morton vs. Bill Belichick — isn’t a fair fight when it comes to the body of work already put forth by both quarterbacks. But McCown and Morton have all they could ever ask for as they prepare to face the greatest ever: a chance.
Offensive coordinator, Jets
Born:Sept. 24, 1969, in Auburn Hills, Michigan (age 48)
Colleges: Grand Rapids CC, Western Michigan
College position: wide receiver
2002-04 Raiders I Off. assistant
2005 U of San Diego I WRs
2006 Saints I WRs
2007-10 USC I Off. coordinator
2011-16 Saints I WRs
2017 Jets I Off. coordinator