FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Wash off the sunscreen and pack away the Hawaiian shirts. The honeymoon is over for the New York Jets -- specifically, general manager Joe Douglas and coach Robert Saleh. Now it's time to win some football games.
After a 4-13 season devoted to player development and culture building, the Jets have to raise expectations in 2022. From this point on, the team can no longer be judged by its competitiveness (look, close games!) and week-to-week progress. Those were 2021 standards. Their tortured fan base, which hasn't seen a playoff game in 11 years, can't be expected to withstand another year of rebuilding.
When does it end?
Clearly, the Jets have a lot of work to do -- they finished five games behind the third-place Miami Dolphins in the AFC East -- but there's no reason they shouldn't be a contender in 2022. No one is saying it has to be playoffs-or-bust, but it would be a failure if they're not playing meaningful games in late December. Look at the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals. They were 2-14 and 5-10-1, respectively, in 2019, and now they're in the playoffs. So are the Philadelphia Eagles, who were 4-11-1 a year ago.
"Who goes on a two-year honeymoon?" a longtime personnel executive said with a hint of sarcasm, commenting specifically on the Jets. "You get one year for a honeymoon. That's it. This is the NFL. If you don't see progress in Year 2, you're going sideways at the starting line."
It's Year 2 for the Douglas-Saleh partnership, but it's offseason No. 3 for Douglas, who is 6-27 in his two full seasons as the football boss. (He was hired in June 2019, too late to significantly impact the 2019 roster.) His winning percentage is .182, which pales in comparison to that of his failed predecessor, Mike Maccagnan (.375).
On Monday, Douglas was asked whether it will be a failure if the team doesn't compete for a playoff spot in 2022.
"In the world we live in, everyone wants instant gratification and they expect some of these young guys to come out and be All-Pros," he said, giving an answer that would've applied last year, not this year. "Look, we're going to do the best we can to develop these players, these young players."
To be fair, Douglas inherited a bad roster and an organization in turmoil. Instead of going for the quick fix, Douglas, armed with a six-year contract, opted for the slow, steady approach with regard to remaking the roster. He has provided direction, but not tangible results.
There's a difference between slow and steady and glacial. One more losing season, and we will be calling it the latter.
After trading off assets, creating cap space and planning for the future, Douglas has reached the fruit-bearing stage of his tenure. Clearly, he has enough resources to make the team a lot better this offseason. They have nine draft choices, including four in the first two rounds -- specifically, picks 4, 10, 35 and 38. The last time they had that much frontloaded draft capital was 2000, when they cleaned up with four picks in the top 27.
Without having to use any of his top picks on a quarterback, Douglas is in position to find four immediate contributors, as long he doesn't pull a 2020. That draft -- his first -- has disappointed. It has produced one starter (cornerback Bryce Hall) and a lot of question marks, none bigger than tackle Mekhi Becton, whose future will be a hot topic in the offseason. Wide receiver Denzel Mims, who has yet to score a touchdown, has been a huge disappointment.
"At this checkpoint in their race, it's probably not where it needs to be as a group," Douglas said of his 2020 class.
Douglas rebounded in a big way in 2021, drafting six starters, none more important than quarterback Zach Wilson. Statistically, his rookie year was poor, as he finished 30th in Total QBR, 31st in completion percentage and 28th in touchdown-interception ratio out of 31 qualified passers.
Wilson's improvement at the end of the year (five straight games without an interception) provided enough evidence for the organization to stand behind him without eyebrows being raised. To close the gap on the rest of the division, Wilson must accelerate in 2022. You can't win the division with the fourth-best quarterback and fourth-best defense.
Douglas also has $56 million in cap space, sixth most in the league, according to Over the Cap. That's enough money to make a couple of splurges in free agency, perhaps to help the 32nd-ranked defense, which yielded more points (504) than any in franchise history. If they find two or three starters in free agency, then augment them with three or four starters from the draft, the Jets should double their win total. Douglas hinted he might be more aggressive than usual.
Saleh got a free pass in 2021 because ... well, there were no expectations. Did anyone really think they would win more than four or five games? He did a nice job of committing to the youth movement and building a positive culture amid hard times -- no easy task. But now he must grow as a coach in '22.
A defensive-minded coach, Saleh has to take a hard look at the unit and determine whether the problem was personnel, scheme or coaching -- or all of the above. Does he take over the playcalling? On Monday, he publicly committed to retaining his offensive and defensive coordinators, meaning Jeff Ulbrich gets another shot with the defense. Saleh, in Year 2, will have to raise internal expectations and the level of urgency.
It's winning time.