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When 10 Wins Is a Bad Thing

The snakebitten, ne’er-do-well New York Jets have failed to resist the temptations of a decent season. Here’s what the team finally needs to do to get over the Patriots hump.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Bill Parcells is famous for saying, “You are what your record says you are.” Parcells hated hearing “If we made this field goal or if the referees didn’t kill us, we could have won at least two more games.” He called it “losers’ logic.” The perfect description.

But some organizations have taken Parcells’s literal edict with a little too much sincerity. Sometimes it’s necessary for teams to subtract wins from their records to understand what they really are. You read that right — “subtract.” Some teams’ win totals are misleading, and without an honest assessment of the team’s standing and candid evaluations of its roster, false confidence and unreasonable expectation is bound to contribute to an underwhelming next season and likely a top-five pick. Case in point: the 2015 New York Jets. The Jets won 10 games in newly installed general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles’s first season, a major improvement on a disastrous final Rex Ryan campaign. This was far from the first time the Jets made a coaching change which resulted in improvement the next year. In 1997, Parcells inherited a 1–15 team and went 9–7. In 2001, Herm Edwards took over for Al Groh and went from 9–7 to 10–6 and a playoff appearance. Eric Mangini took over for Edwards in 2006 and went from 4–12 to 10–6. When the Jets make a coaching change, a good Year 1 usually follows.

Bill Parcells (AP Images)
Bill Parcells (AP Images)

To the casual observer, the team’s 2015 record entering the final weekend of the season actually looked even more promising: A win in Buffalo in Week 17 would have been the team’s 11th and resulted in their first playoff berth since the 2010 season. The 2015 season spilled over into the first weekend of 2016, and in Buffalo it was a relatively warm winter day with temperatures hovering around 35 degrees. Coming off an overtime win against the Patriots in Week 16, the Jets were riding high on a five-game winning streak. Beating an injury-depleted, Rex Ryan–coached Bills team would have been a great start to the new year and a fitting coda to Bowles’s first season at the helm. Unfortunately, the Jets got colder than the weather and bombed big time. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three picks on his final three drives, and the Jets lost 22–17, scuttling their playoff hopes.

Lifetime Jets observers rated this loss as one of the worst ever — or at least on par with the Al Groh farewell game in Baltimore in 2000 when the team capped off a three-game losing streak to end their season 9–7 before Groh left to become the head coach of the University of Virginia. That’s right, the powerhouse football program at the University of Virginia. (In fairness, it is his alma mater.) Or the crazy 1997 Leon Johnson option pass in Detroit resulting in an interception, blowing a playoff chance, and cementing another 9–7 season. Even worse: At the end of the 1993 season, Bruce Coslet’s then-8–7 team imploded in the Astrodome, losing 24–0 while Oilers assistant coaches Buddy Ryan and Kevin Gilbride fought on the opposing sideline. Among a certain kind of myopic fanatics, there is a growing sense that these horrible end-of-the-year games seem to happen to only the J-E-T-S, Jets Jets Jets.

The loss in Buffalo was not a historically bad loss; but it was a revelatory loss. A loss that should have told the Jets ownership, front office, and coaches that they were not really a 10-win team. Benefiting from an easy schedule, playing the AFC South, the NFC East, and the Browns, the Jets played mostly mistake-free football. In games in which they had one turnover or less, the Jets won nine games. In Bowles’s first season, they rarely beat themselves. Then came Week 17.

Playing in a Jets uniform seemed to bring out the best in Ryan Fitzpatrick. But 2015 was an aberration for Fitzpatrick; likewise for Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, who averaged 8.7 yards per pass attempt — almost a yard and a half more than his career average. The Cards expected the same season in 2016, and what happened? Palmer reverted to his career average, just as Fitzpatrick did in 2016. And just like the Jets, the Cards had a poor season in ’16. This was, in the truest sense, a regression to the mean. In the NFL, they call it a misevaluation.

Sometimes, though not often, veteran quarterbacks have that one magical season that belies their talent and gets everyone excited that perhaps things have changed. Expectations — that dreaded word — begin to soar. Then the next season starts and everyone realizes that nothing has changed and wonders, what were we thinking?

Besides delaying the rebuilding process, the 10 wins forced the Jets to deal with expectations and ego. The two E’s can destroy any team. Expectations from the owner, the fans, and the media are hard to manage, and most importantly they impede progress. Those expectations make it hard for the GM or head coach to walk into the owner’s office with a rebuilding plan that can sustain success. Owners don’t want to hear the word “rebuild.” They can’t sell rebuild. They can sell change, hope, and expectations. So the Jets stayed the course for one more year regardless of the long-term cost.

Staying the course brings ego into play. Ego involving entitlement from previous success. The logic becomes: “Why not try to squeeze one more year out of this team?” Once you hear the words “squeeze one more year,” the end is already here. It’s the same problem plaguing the Los Angeles Clippers, who won 51 games in the regular season, secured the fourth seed in the West in the NBA playoffs, and then lost three home games to Utah before being eliminated. The Clips now believe they can “squeeze one more year out of this team.” They can’t let go. It won’t work — trust me. Being bad and old never works — just ask the Jets.

Ego gets in the way of making tough decisions, and the path of least resistance seems comfortable. The Jets fought hard not to pay Fitzpatrick for the 10 wins. Fitzpatrick thought he was entitled to be the starter and wanted to be compensated for his performance in 2015. The Jets held out as long as they could, waiting until the end of July before making a deal — a deal the team knew was going to hurt it. In reality, what other options did they have?

Because they had come so close to making the playoffs, the Jets’ brain trust thought they had to give it one more shot. In reality, had they understood that the 10 wins were a mirage, they would have started the rebuild. Finally, because of the obvious decay of their team, the Jets at last purged their aging roster this offseason. Nine of their 10 over-30 starters from 2015 are no longer on the team, signaling the birth of their rebuilding process. Memo to the Clippers: Start the rebuild now.

It hasn’t been easy being a Jets fan since Tom Brady entered the NFL in 2000. It’s been hard to be a Dolphins or Bills fan, too. Hell, it’s been tough on fans of every non-Pats team. But the Jets have the most playoff appearances for a non-New England AFC East team since 2000 with six; they’ve gone 138–145 and won one AFC East title since Brady left Michigan. They’ve been through five head coaches and five general managers over that span. Clearly, all the Patriots’ dominance forces a paralyzing sense of urgency every offseason. Instead of trying to establish sustainable values for their organization with a long-term strategy, they have gone all situational all the time, trying to do whatever it takes to win the next year.

Consider this timeline: Mangini wins 10 games in his first season, he’s dubbed “Mangenius,” and finds himself at dinner at Vesuvio with Tony Soprano. (Yes, I’m jealous.) When something like that happens, expectations soar. After that dinner, Mangini’s teams go 4–12, 9–7, and then he’s fired. Rex Ryan enters, has two remarkable seasons, loses twice on the road playing for the AFC championship. More expectations. After losing to Pittsburgh in the playoffs after the 2010 season, the Jets have not returned to the postseason. Ryan stayed on for four more years before he was fired and headed to Buffalo.

The Jets keep trying to take down the Patriots with one coaching hire, with one great draft pick, with a change at GM or a free-agent signing, or even a walk down memory lane (see: Darrelle Revis). What the Jets have failed to realize is that the only way to take down the Patriots is to become them — a sustainable organization. Build a better program and stop thinking short term.

The Patriots organization is a machine. They have a clear and remarkable ability to understand the roles everyone plays within the organization — and winning is the only thing that matters. They have one spokesman for the team, and the message is constant and clear. The Jets, because of all the changes in the front office and on the coaching staff, have never been able to develop or grow their own Jets culture fully. When teams evaluate short-term or measure themselves on the win-loss record after each year, they never develop a consistent product. They become like the adage, “We are lost, but making great time.”

Fireman Ed and most Jets fans will read this and say, “Look, all we need is a quarterback, and everything will be fine.” And to a degree, I agree. However, finding a good quarterback is just a part of the solution. Organizations make quarterbacks; quarterbacks don’t make organizations. Ask Archie Manning or Philip Rivers.

Before Bill Walsh drafted Joe Montana or traded for Steve Young, he wanted to build an organization around his standard of performance. The 17 principles found in The Score Takes Care of Itself guided everyone in the organization as they worked their craft. For Walsh, winning was not about doing one thing well or hitting a home run in the draft; it was about all things involving the organization. From developing players to coaches to staff, Walsh built something that was impervious to volatility. If he could get the organization to understand and respect his standard of performance, winning would soon follow.

Walsh once said, “Running a football franchise is not unlike running any other business: You start first with a structural format and basic philosophy and then find people who can implement it.” So when Walsh took over the 49ers, he approached it like he’d just been named president of IBM. He taught a class in these 17 principles every day to everyone in the organization, not just the players. These principles were simple, concise, and obvious, from being fair to being positive to prizing loyalty. His attention to teaching these details paid huge dividends. From Jerry Rice to the office assistants, they all knew commitment was the organization’s trademark.

When Walsh’s disciples left to become head coaches away from the infrastructure of the 49ers organization, they often failed in part due to not understanding the key to Walsh’s success. It wasn’t the West Coast offense, but rather the standard of performance. George Seifert couldn’t get it right in Carolina; Steve Mariucci couldn’t find success in Detroit; neither could Ray Rhodes in Philadelphia. They all ran the West Coast offense, without installing the standard of performance. Their teams looked like the old 49ers on offense, but not off the field. What most fans don’t understand is the engine that drove the West Coast offense was these principles — without them, all the Walsh disciples had was just a bunch of plays.

Chad Pennington (AP Images)
Chad Pennington (AP Images)

Ask yourself this question: Who was the second-best quarterback in the AFC East since Brady started playing? For me, the answer is easy — Jets quarterback Chad Pennington. Pennington was not a rare talent that could carry the team alone; he needed an organization to help him along the way. And from the time he was drafted until he left for Miami when Brett Favre arrived, the Jets had a solid organization — in large part due to what Parcells started to build. A solid organization meets a solid quarterback and produces a solid result. (For a current example, look no further than the Chiefs now with Alex Smith.) The Jets got close to consistently competing against New England with Pennington, but once again expectations and ego curtailed their success, and they dug up the roots.

Earlier this month, Jets owner Woody Johnson addressed the team’s expectations in 2017. “Really, the way I want to be judged this year, hopefully, from the fans’ standpoint is just watch how we improve during the year,” he said. “And look at each individual on the team and see how they’re getting better. And if they’re getting better, that’s a mark of progress.” This is progress. Johnson says he understands the need to look deeper than the win-loss record. That would be a revelation for the Jets.

Will it happen? Under Johnson’s ownership, the Jets have not had an identity. What Johnson also needs to do is call Maccagnan and Bowles to a meeting and tell them his vision for the future. Give them the blueprint — which should be short, sweet, and simple: We want the New York Jets to be a big, fast, well-conditioned team with high-character players who embrace winning over all else. Now is the time to borrow from the lessons of Walsh, to run the team like any other business and to set the principles Johnson believes in for everyone in the organization, from the players to the groundskeepers. The time is now to fix the Jets for the long term.

The answer to the Jets’ problem is simple: don’t look for that one magic year, look to build an organization from top to bottom that can last. Because if you can do that, then those 10-win season will be as Parcells said: “What your record says you are.”