When people ask me for some simple tip that will help them understand how life in the NFL works, I usually suggest five things:
- Focus on points, not yards.
- Pay attention to player ages– remember that the average NFL career is 4 years and most players are washed up at 30.
- If a player doesn’t fit the team’s scheme, he won’t play as well as you expect.
- Negative plays (penalties, sacks, run stuffs, fumbles and interceptions) matter a lot
But usually most important factor for a team is the NFL scheduling system. One of the best things the NFL has done for fans is to rotate the opposing teams on a fixed schedule. Every season, teams will play:
- Four games against every team in one of the divisions in its conference
- Four games against every team in one of the divisions in the other conference
- Six games (home and away) against the other teams in its division
- Two game against the teams who finished in the same position (first, second, third, last) in their division
For decades, the scheduling system the NFL used seemed to be random. To name one example, Archie Manning played for the New Orleans Saints from 1971-81. In those 11 seasons, the Saints played an uneven number of games against all three AFC divisions:
- AFC Central (14 games): 4 games against Cleveland and Houston, but only 3 against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh
- AFC East (11 games): 3 against New England and the Jets, 2 against Miami and Buffalo and 1 against the Colts (who were in Baltimore all that time)
- AFC West (11 games): 3 games against San Diego and Oakland, 2 against Denver and Kansas City, 1 against Seattle (that’s explainable– they were an expansion team who began play in 1976)
None of it made sense. The rotation system they use now does. It also ensures that fans get to see stars on other teams (unless they get hurt the year they’re on the schedule). But because the divisions aren’t equally strong, the formula can play havoc with the record.
In 2014, Mike Pettine got to play the patsies in the AFC and NFC South. He went 4-4 against them and seemed to be making great progress. In 2015, the divisional opponents were the much-stronger AFC and NFC West– and the Browns went 1-7 against them.
Every year, teams that play the weak divisions will see their win totals jump. The following year, they’ll play a stronger schedule– and games against teams who ranked higher in their divisions– and the win totals will plummet.
With which, we can turn our attention to the 2016 New York Jets. In 2015, they played:
- The AFC South, which produced a 3-1 record
- The NFC East— also 3-1.
- The last-place teams in the AFC North (they beat Cleveland) and AFC West (they lost to Oakland)
New York went 7-3 against teams not in the AFC East, ‘improving’ from 4-12 to 10-6 and jumping from last to second in the AFC East. This year things got much harderthey play:
- The AFC North: They’re 1-2: a win against Baltimore and losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati
- The NFC West: They’re 0-2 so far, losing to Seattle and Arizona
- The second place teams in AFC South (Indianapolis, which hasn’t happened yet) and AFC West (Kansas City, who beat them)
It’s a reasonable guess that New York will (SPOILER ALERT) beat the Browns and 49ers, lose to the Colts and Rams and invert their 2015 non-division results from 7-3 to 3-7. If they go 3-3 against AFC East opponents again, they’ll wind up at 6-10.
As a result, GM Mike McCagnan and Head coach Todd Bowles are up against it. Some of that abuse seems unfair– others entirely deserved.
1. In 2015, they signed 30-year-old CB Derrelle Revis to a 5-year, $70 million contract, with $39 million guaranteed (his 2015 and 2016 salaries and $6 million of his 2017 pay). Like almost every corner over 30, Revis’s performance has plunged. The only reason he is still on the team, I would guess, is that they still have to pay him $14.5 million.
2. In 2015, they also signed CB Antonio Cromartie (who was 31) to a 4-year, $32 million deal. He got hurt and played badly. Since that contract wasn’t guaranteed, they cut him.
3. Unsurprisingly, the Jets found themselves at the cap (remember, they gave CB Buster Skrine $25 million over 4 years too), so they began asking veterans to take big cuts or restructure their deals. Skrine obliged, but LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson simply retired. They had to trade for Denver’s injury-prone Ryan Clady.
4. Even after RB Chris Ivory crossed 1,000 yards, the Jets didn’t seem interested in bringing him back. When Jacksonville offered him $32 million over five years (an insane deal), they had to pick up 31-year-old Matt Forte at $12 million over three years/ Naturally he’s gone evebn further downhill.
5. For financial reasons, the Jets didn’t offer one of their best players (DE Muhammad Wilkerson) a contract. Instead they made him a franchise player– then signed him to a five-year, $86 million deal. Naturally the money didn’t wipe away the hurt feelings, so they have a highly paid– and very unhappy– player.
6. In 2015, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick gave the Jets what Brian Hoyer gave the Browns in 2014. Rather than be happy they got a good year and look elsewhere, they offered a 34-year-old journeyman a 3-year, $21 million deal.
Fitzpatrick’s agent pointed out that a three-year contract for a starter is work about twice that; the Jets balked. He ended up with a one-year, fully guaranteed $12 million deal. Of course he has turned back into a pumpkin– bad enough that Bowles went back to Geno Smith (a poor man’s Robert Griffin). The only reason the Jets don’t have a quarterback derby is that Smith just went on IR and Fitzpatrick played OK when he went back in.
A year ago, the Jets made a draft-day deal to get QB Bryce Petty in the fourth round. This year they drafted State Penn’s Christian Hackenberg with the 51st pick. I have no idea why neither player is being tried, other than to guess that Bowles is channeling Marty Schottenheimer.
The bottom line is that the 11th-best offense (24.2 points a game) and ninth-best defense (19.6) in 2015, has turned into the 30th-best offense (17.0) and 23rd-best defense (25.7). With the New York media screaming for blood– owner Woody Johnson had to give them a vote of confidence, less than half a season after a 10-win season, for God’s sake– the Jets are in chaos.
Forte (3.5 yards a carry) is still playing in front of Bilal Powell (5.7 this year; 4.0 or better the last four years). 32-year-old WR Brandon Marshall‘s production is down, and nobody is sure if that’s the quarterbacks or age. It’s easy to see what’s wrong with Eric Decker— he’s on IR. The smart play would be to see if Quincy Enunwa (a sixth-rounder in 2014) can do more than he has this year (32-409-2), but nobody is thinking clearly.
The only good news is that DT Leonard Williams, the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft, already has six sacks and two forced fumbles. If they could get Wilkerson and world-class headcase Sheldon Richardson (whom Rex Ryan burned the 13th pick on in 2013) all on the same page, they’d have a pretty ferocious pass rush
The Jets are a team that could easily be upset. The question is whether they are playing a team that can do it.
I’ve given up trying to reason with people about Josh McCown. If you think a rebuilding team should play a 37-year-old with:
- A career passer rating below 80
- A career won-lost record of 18-40 (1-8 in Cleveland)
- 75 career TDs and 65 career INTs
- 174 career sacks on only 1,989 attempts (that’s 8% of his attempts)
- As a result of the sacks, a history of injuries
- A line with substandard players at three of its five positions– which couldn’t buy him enough time to throw a year ago when it had two good players
Then vaya con dios, pendejo. You couldn’t be more wrong. Since Cody “Trust Me” Kessler has a concussion, the Browns can’t very well play him….
Assuming that he has one, of course. This is the franchise that lied about Johnny Manziel last year.
I’d still go with Kevin Hogan, because he looked like a quarterback at points last week. The first rule of rebuilding is “Play the people who might have a future.”
But that’s not what Hue Jackson wants to do. After he took to the job, I spoke to a writer who covered Jackson’s 2010 season as head coach of the Raiders, who warned me what to expect:
“Jackson has no intention of waiting two or three years to rebuild,” he said. “I’d bet anything he’s decided he can go 8-8 this year and make the playoffs next year. That’s why he signed Griffin.
“Jackson always thinks his line is good enough, because it will be running his scheme– and his backs will be OK in his scheme. But he knows his receivers are awful and that’s why he took so many of them.. No matter what he says, he’s expecting to be a .500 team– like Marvin Lewis in his first year– and god help the players if that doesn’t happen.”
That seems substantially accurate. Look at the amount of playing time 27-year-old Terrelle Pryor (who hasn’t signed an extension and is unlikely to, unless he gets an annual salary over $10 million) and 30-year-old Andrew Hawkins and 31-year-old Gary Barnidge. Or the veterans on the line.
Jackson was playing Corey Coleman a lot– but when he got hurt, it took a long time to move to the draft picks.
His defense still hasn’t allowed less than 25 points (Baltimore; week 2) or less than 301 yards (Washington, week 4). The offense is a little below average on turnovers (it has 10, good for 18th) but the defense has forced only 8 (20th). It doesn’t get sacks (it’s 23rd), doesn’t (unless Joe Haden is in the game) cover well, force turnovers or knock down passes. Its run defense is erratic at best (it’s actually 27th in rushing average, which is “bad”).
And there is absolutely nothing “special” about the Special Teams.
Bowles will almost certainly remind his players that the Jets and Browns met a year ago– and the Jets won 31-10. They held the running backs to 46 yards on 20 carries, sacked the quarterbacks three times, and held them each to a rating below 80.
There isn’t any reason they can’t do that again– McCown (who knocked himself out of the game doing a faceplant into the turf) is a year older and has been injured three more times. Hogan isn’t as talented as Manziel– and has had so little work that probably doesn’t know the playoff much better.
There’s an excellent chance McCown will be out of the game by halftime, that Hogan might follow him and the Browns might end up with Pryor under center.
And, no, don’t expect the running game to help. The Jets are having enormous trouble in coverage (opposing QBs have a 104.3 rating, with 13 TDs and 4 INTs), but they have allowed the third-lowest rushing average (3.3 per game) in the NFL.
The Jets have been bad running the ball because they keep imagining Forte will turn back the clock. If they simply use him to receive and on short yardage runs– and let Powell carry the ball (he had 62 yards on 12 carries a year ago)– they’ll gain yardage.
The passing game has been anemic– but with CB Jamar Taylor “questionable” and Haden still struggling with an injury (he’s listed as “probable”, but often he leaves the game quickly), people will be open. Unless Carl Nassib takes a step up as his hand heals– and Emmanuel Ogbah can put pressure on the quarterback again, while playing much, much better on rushing plays– the Browns won’t be able to put enough pressure on Fitzpatrick to keep him from finding the open man.
I can see Cleveland winning. The game is at home. New York has scored 17 points or less in four of Fitzpatrick’s last five starts. Skrine and C Nick Mangold are listed as “doubtful” (75% chance of not playing. Richardson, Wilkerson and Revis are all “questionable,”– and none of them has ever shown a willingness to play hurt. Marshall, Forte and Powell are dinged up too.
But New York beat Baltimore last week– with most of those issues– and the Browns aren’t nearly as tough as the Ravens. And (as my postseason baseball predictions show) I don’t bet optimistically.
This will define “winning ugly”: Jets 23 (on one offensive TD, a defensive score and three field goals) and Cleveland 10 (with the TD probably being on a gadget play or a return).