For the New York Jets, the numbers on the scoreboard this Sunday do not matter.
In fact, for the entire 2013-14 season, winning is a secondary priority.
As the Jets enter full rebuilding mode, this season is more about evaluating which players are worthy of being a part of the future than outscoring opponents. In other words, how the Jets play is more important than whether or not they are able to pull out a certain amount of wins.
Yes, fans will always have a vested interest in whether or not their team is victorious on a weekly basis—and rightfully so. They are the ones spending thousands on tickets, jerseys, hats, etc. and deserve at lease some semblance of competitiveness week in and week out.
For the long-term prognosis of this franchise, however, evaluating talent is more important than how successful Rex Ryan’s game plan was that week.
There is a very good chance that the Jets will lose around 10 games, drawing a lot of negative attention to the franchise and perhaps even leading to Rex Ryan’s dismissal as head coach. As unpleasant as this year could be for the franchise, it is all a part of the natural growing pains that are associated with changing a regime.
The NFL Life Cycle
When the Jets were at the peak of the Rex Ryan era in 2009 and 2010, the NFC West was considered to be the worst division in football by a significant margin. Alex Smith was a bust, the Seahawks were changing coaches on an annual basis, the Cardinals were still trying to win with Matt Leinart and the Rams were picking first in the 2010 draft.
How have things changed so quickly?
While there are plenty of outlying factors that led to the rise and fall of these teams, this is a product of the organic life cycle of NFL teams.
After spending so many years picking high in the first round, the 49ers and Seahawks have been able to build juggernaut rosters, aided by progressive thinking from their relatively new head coaches. After all, if the 49ers were a playoff team in 2010, they would not have been able to select Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick in the same draft, both players who are now young cornerstones of the franchise.
The Jets were the beneficiaries of favorable draft position not long ago. From 2006 to 2008, the Jets had tremendous success in the first round that led to their golden years in 2009 and 2010 when their building blocks blossomed into star players.
However, because they fumbled the 2009 and 2010 drafts and made a catastrophic error at the quarterback position, those poor decisions are starting to rear their ugly head now.
The teams that were successful in those drafts, such as the 49ers, now have star players to beat up on players like Mark Sanchez and Vladimir Ducasse.
The length of a team’s cycle in the realm of failure or success is directly related to stability and performance at the quarterback position. The Patriots have sustained an incredible amount of success because of their Hall of Fame-caliber signal-caller, Tom Brady.
Brady allows the team to overcome bad drafts and poor free-agent signings, which teams without quality quarterback play, like the Jets, are unable to do.
Dating back to Mike Tannenbaum’s first season as general manager in 2006, the Jets have been successful in spurts—a direct reflection of how they have handled the quarterback position. Since 2006, the Jets have had six different starting quarterbacks, and they will field a new one this upcoming week.
Averaging a new quarterback every year is no way to sustain long-term success.
The Sacrificial Season
This type of organizational instability is exactly what got Tannenbaum fired. While his three trips to the playoffs are not a disastrous resume by any stretch, the unpredictability of the team on a week-to-week basis—never mind a yearly basis—gave the team no organizational direction.
Bringing in a new general manager to build from the bottom up may have been the responsible thing to do, but by no means is a regime change a quick fix. It is a slow, methodical process.
Superstars are traded, veterans are let go, rookies are taken off scholarship and coaches are fired.
More often than not, the team loses a significant amount of talent very quickly. It takes an entire season, if not longer, for a team to rid itself of undesirable contracts as the new general manager brings in his own handpicked pieces to start the rebuilding process.
The Oakland Raiders are set to enter their second rebuilding season under Reggie McKenzie. After a dismal 4-12 season, general manager Reggie McKenzie continued to trim the fat on his roster, parting ways with Carson Palmer, Michael Huff, Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Now, the Raiders are set to enter the 2013-14 season with the NFL’s worst roster.
McKenzie will take a lot of heat for fielding such a talentless team, but in reality, he is still scraping off the dried paint from his easel before he has had a chance to paint on it.
While he has a bit more talent to work with to at least win some games, 2013 will serve the same purpose for John Idzik as it will for McKenzie. The top priority will be to evaluate and develop the rookies and weed out disposable veterans to determine exactly how far away the team is from being competitive again.
The Seattle Seahawks had their “sacrificial” seasons in 2010 and 2011, John Schneider’s first two seasons as general manager. Although they earned a fluke playoff appearance in 2010 with a 7-9 record, the Seahawks hardly approached those seasons as if they were going to contend for a Super Bowl trophy.
Using two stopgap veteran quarterbacks, Matt Hasselbeck and Tarvaris Jackson, to hold down the fort while they built up the rest of the roster, the Seahawks are now poised to make a championship run in 2013 after spending big in free agency and trading draft picks for current stars like Percy Harvin.
Although their rebuilding process was catalyzed by Russell Wilson’s emergence, they still had to sit through growing pains like every other team.
Finding a Balance
The Jets have created a bit of a predicament for themselves in the somewhat unique way in which they have initiated their rebuild. John Idzik was brought on under the assumption that Rex Ryan would keep his job at least for the 2013-14 season.
While the Jets are not setting a precedent with this structure (the Carolina Panthers kept Ron Rivera as head coach after hiring Dave Gettleman as their new general manager this offseason), it does create an element of conflicting agendas that could make it difficult to engineer a “true” rebuilding season.
If Rex Ryan is going to have a chance to keep his job, he needs to prove his worth by winning. Unfortunately for Ryan, Idzik, looking out for the long-term health of the team, has dismantled some of the few pieces he had in place, including his best player in Darrelle Revis.
Rex is in an even more difficult spot because not only does he need to win a decent amount of games, he must show that the arrow is pointing up on the organization and that relieving him of his duties could upset that trend.
Naming Geno Smith the starter on Wednesday, albeit by default, was the first step in giving Ryan a sense of direction.
Even if Geno Smith was not the starter on opening day, the Jets had to eventually give the keys to Smith before season’s end. Not only does this give Rex’s coaching staff something to build around and show promise, it allows John Idzik to determine whether he needs to be in the quarterback market once again in 2014.
Of course, the Jets need to know more about their team than just one position. They must find out if they can trust Dee Milliner to be their No. 1 cornerback or if they will need to eventually extend Antonio Cromartie. Austin Howard, working on a one-year tender, will need to prove that last year’s breakout season was not a fluke if he wants to land a long-term extension.
Idzik will also need to figure out if he needs to bring in another guard next offseason, extend Vladimir Ducasse or put his trust in third-round pick Brian Winters.
There are a handful of veterans auditioning for jobs next year as well. Because of their bloated contracts, Santonio Holmes and David Harris are likely on one-year tryouts. Dawan Landry and Kellen Winslow are likely looking for some long-term security as well.
Ultimately, the onus will be on Rex Ryan to build a depth chart that both gives him a chance to win and keep his job while appeasing the needs of his superiors.
Rebuilding can be a frustrating process for fans, especially in a city like New York where “rebuilding” is not a part of their vocabulary.
Based on somewhat delusional thinking, New Yorkers tend to believe that their teams are above the “normal” process required to win (in every sport), just because New York is, well, New York.
Still, as much negative press as they receive in the media for making certain decisions, the Jets must approach this season with making proper evaluations of their roster and coaching staff as the top priority over winning games.
Thus is the life of a rebuilding team.
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