This was just minutes after the Jets had lost to a Browns team that hadn’t beaten an opponent in the previous 635 days, and Jermaine Kearse needed to know why.
Why had the Jets frittered away a 14-0 lead after it seemed they had the game well in hand?
Why had they committed the kind of penalties that can crush a team’s soul?
Why had they not fought back more effectively in a hostile environment when fighting back was the only way out?
Why couldn’t they finish a game after coming so close so often last year, only to lose at the end?
There were no good answers.
“That’s tough and it keeps happening,” the veteran wide receiver said after Thursday night’s 21-17 loss at FirstEnergy Stadium. “We’re still dealing with the same issues of not being able to finish, especially when we’re up. We’ve got to find a way. If we want to be a great team and get where we want to go, it’s something we’re going to have to fix and start fixing now.”
Three games into the season, and the Jets already are at a crisis point. After a resounding 48-17 Monday night victory over the Lions to start the season, the Jets were beaten by the Dolphins and Browns to complete a three-games-in-11-day stint that now has them reeling. With a road game next week against the Jaguars, who feature one of the NFL’s top defenses, it soon might get even worse.
“I think we have a lot of growing up to do in terms of being able to handle a lead and being able to be composed when adversity hits,” Kearse said. “It’s frustrating, because it’s something we’ve been dealing with, and it’s something we have to really push the pedal on.”
Kearse is uniquely qualified to assess the Jets’ situation and knows that a quick turnaround is essential if they are to make anything of this season. After all, he has one ring and went to another Super Bowl while with the Seahawks. He saw that team go through the growing pains with a young quarterback in Russell Wilson, and he knew the painstaking attention to detail required to get to the top.
He doesn’t like what he’s seeing from the Jets as they try to develop their own young quarterback in rookie Sam Darnold.
“It’s not just on him,” Kearse said of Darnold, who has five interceptions in his first three games, including two in the fourth quarter on Thursday. “It all comes down to the offense as a whole. We can’t put too much on him and worry about what he’s doing. We’ve got to do our job, too. That’s the best way to help him out is to do our job, be where we’re supposed to be, block who we’re supposed to block. That’s what it comes down to.”
There isn’t a sense of panic from Kearse, nor any of the other players. They know it is simply too early to write off the season, even if many fans frustrated by the slow start might feel as if 2018 is a lost cause. But they must begin to show signs that there can be more games like the one in Detroit and not simply a continuation of the mind-numbing losses to the Dolphins and Browns in a five-day span.
That’s where Todd Bowles comes in.
Many of the items on the list that Kearse detailed are directly attributable to the coaches as well as the players. When a team isn’t disciplined, when a team commits penalties like the unsportsmanlike-conduct fouls by running back Isaiah Crowell and cornerback Trumaine Johnson, that’s on the coach.
Bowles shouldered the blame for the loss in Cleveland.
“I’m taking the whole ballgame,” he said. “This whole ballgame falls on me.”
But he insists that the Jets will find their way out of this early-season funk.
“We’re going to have a good football team,” he said. “We do some good things. We just have to be consistent.”
A growing number of Jets fans have had it with Bowles and want to move on after three-plus seasons. That won’t be happening in the immediate term, mostly because CEO Christopher Johnson already has shown patience with his young team and last December demonstrated his commitment to Bowles by giving him and general manager Mike Maccagnan two-year extensions.
The addition of Darnold to the team, and the fact that a 21-year-old quarterback will need time to grow into his role as the starter, surely will convince Johnson that now is not the right time to make a move. In fact, it would be a major surprise if Johnson does anything before the end of the season.
But if the Jets are to come to grips with the list of ills Kearse so eloquently stated after the Browns game, then Bowles needs to right the ship quickly and get this team playing up to its capabilities. He needs to be better. He needs to get his players to be better — players supplied by Maccagnan with some smart moves during the last two seasons of a major roster makeover.
Bowles doesn’t endear himself to fans because he’s unwilling to put on a charm offensive with the media the way Rex Ryan did. His players see a different side of him behind closed doors — funny, sarcastic and serious when he must be — but Bowles plays it straight before the television cameras and in the news conferences.
He’s a solid football man with a Super Bowl ring of his own as a player with the 1987 Redskins, and he continues to have the respect of his players. But he needs to get more out of those players on game day. Penalties and discipline are on him. So is the loss of composure.
Bowles needs to remember the lesson imparted by his mentor, Bill Parcells, who always told his coaches they had to give their players a chance by figuring out the right plan to win each game.
Bowles did a credible enough job with a mostly young team last year to earn Johnson’s trust with a modest contract extension, but he’ll have to raise the bar now. It’s no small task with a rookie quarterback just learning the ropes. But Kearse knows what must be done, and while he wouldn’t pin any of the blame on Bowles, it’s up to the coach to address the issues brought up by the veteran receiver and straighten out his team before it’s too late.
He still has the benefit of time and the trust of his players. But patience has its limits.
It’s up to Bowles to turn this team and this season around.
Before it’s too late.