It used to be easy for Robert Saleh to separate himself and his players from the long, undistinguished library of folly and ineptitude the Jets have curated for more than a half-century. While there were some in the building who had lived through those more recent difficult times and thus felt the burden of them, just about everyone else on the team and the staff arrived with or after Saleh and had nothing to do with the propensity for spectacular failure that seems embedded in the organization.
They didn’t have the “scars” of the past, Saleh often would say. The beaten-down pessimism that comes only from a lifetime of being closely associated with the Jets as a fan or member of the franchise? That wasn’t their milieu. That wasn’t their problem. Their hearts and their complexions and their resumes were unblemished.
Well, welcome to the club, fellas. You may have been winners before you came here, but you’re all officially Jets now.
Friday’s 34-13 loss to Miami, which included yet another never-seen-that-before way to flop on the field — a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown on a last-second heave into the end zone on the final play of the first half — was the final step in an initiation process that began a year ago with the collapse from a playoff-oriented team to yet another winter of postseason bystanding.
It began just about a year ago, on Nov. 20, 2022, with the punt returned for a game-winning touchdown by the Patriots just five seconds before the teams almost surely were heading for overtime.
It continued when Mike White, the one competent quarterback on the team, finally was given the reins of the offense and suffered a rib injury that essentially ended his ability to function properly.
It reached its apex in September when Aaron Rodgers, the high priest of quarterbacking brought in to exorcise the curse, instead succumbed to the demons.
And then there was this most recent incident which, we all know, won’t be the last.
What makes this twist so cruel is that it not only cost the Jets another season — they currently have less than a 1% chance of making it to the playoffs, and it isn’t even December — but also might be tainting their future.
The Jets’ greatest asset is their remarkable stockpile of young star players. Breece Hall, Garrett Wilson and Sauce Gardner, all of them in their second season, should be the nucleus of this team for the foreseeable future. Already, though, their frustrations with the Jets are becoming palpable. It’s fair to start wondering if they’ll want to remain here longer than required, only to have their talents wasted in season after season of this mess.
“I don’t know what I could tell you all. I don’t know what I could tell the fans. I don’t know what they’d want to hear,” Wilson said after Friday’s game. “I’m out. I can’t think of anything. I wish I could. We want to get this thing rolling, we’re going to keep grinding, we’re going to keep doing it, but as far as giving you all a sound bite or something to keep the faith, I don’t know. I’m not even going to try this week.”
Hall, meanwhile, was reduced to grousing about the decision to attempt the Hail Mary pass that every coach in the sport would have called every single time.
“I take pride in being one of our ‘A’ players and try to be perfect, but it’s been hard,” Hall said. “Part of me feels like I’m in a box a little bit.”
In a couple of weeks, Hall, a second-round pick, will be halfway through his rookie deal with nothing to show for it. First-rounders Wilson and Gardner have three seasons remaining after this one, assuming the Jets pick up their fifth-year options. Throw in the financial cost of trying to keep the band together and there is a pretty good chance that by 2026 or so, at least one or two of this Core Trio will be playing elsewhere. And that doesn’t even include other would-be, should-be cornerstone players such as Alijah Vera-Tucker and Jermaine Johnson.
The Jets’ past is creeping into the Jets’ present. The Jets’ present is imperiling the Jets’ future.
Saleh on Saturday morning addressed some of the anger the young players are feeling as they navigate the reality of being Jets.
“The frustration that’s building does nobody any good,” he said.
It was only a few months ago that Saleh was strutting around talking about what he and general manager Joe Douglas had built in their short time together, extolling a culture so enticing that it attracted a Hall of Famer like Rodgers and all of the peripheral players and coaches who tagged along with him to come to Florham Park. They were the Eden of the offseason, the go-to destination.
The reality turned out much different from the brochure.
Even Rodgers, the Master of Manifestation and Professor of Positivity, was left shaking his head with the disbelief of a bamboozled sucker after the Dolphins’ 99-yard pick-6.
The best thing that can be salvaged from a season that has gone so far awry would be some progress at convincing those young stars already here that it’s worth sticking around. That there is hope. That just because the Jets seemingly have always been doomed doesn’t mean they always will be.
It’s a much harder sell than it was, though.
They have their scars now. All of them. They are visible and they are ugly and they will never go away.