Dear Jets: There’s hope to be found in a winless season. Take it from someone who knows.
By Gillian R. Brassil
Only two NFL teams have gone 0-16 since the regular season expanded to 16 games in 1978: the Detroit Lions in 2008 and the Cleveland Browns in 2017.
It appears the 2020 New York Jets (0-9 heading into Sunday’s games) are making a run at joining them.
Yet here are some reassurances that fans should keep in mind: No team gives up, even in the face of injuries, smack talk or other adversity on and off the field. And no coach guides a team toward losing in order to gain a top draft spot, although some people have suggested that is the case with the Jets’ Adam Gase.
At least that is the view from someone who has been there, Hue Jackson, who was the head coach of the Browns during their 0-16 season.
“That was the best coaching job I’ve ever done,” he insisted in a telephone interview last week.
Jackson had to keep his team focused, ready and excited every week throughout a season with little hope of a win. That year, the Browns were the youngest team in the league.
“We could see that we needed to go get better talent to provide a winning opportunity for our players,” said Jackson, who was fired in October 2018 with a record of 3-36-1 over his 2 1/2 seasons with the Browns. “But we kept going by the grace of God, and belief in our players and selves as coaches.”
The Jets, after shedding some older players, are relying heavily on rookies, and Gase has said that the team is aiming to train younger players for the coming years.
Gase was 7-18-0 with the Jets heading into Sunday, and he might not be around for long if things don’t improve.
Mathematically, the Jets have no way of getting to the playoffs. But there is a good chance they will acquire Clemson’s dynamic quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, with the No. 1 pick next spring, assuming he enters the 2021 NFL draft and the Jets continue being worse than the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were 1-8 heading into their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Gase and his players have insisted they are not tanking. “Nobody’s talked about that,” Gase said in a call with reporters last Wednesday.
On Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, Joe Flacco was slated to make his fourth start at quarterback for the Jets while Sam Darnold continues to recover from a shoulder injury. The timeline for Darnold’s return is blurred; many fans and Twitter users have wondered if he will be out of a job by draft time.
“I have social media. I’ve seen some of the things,” Darnold told reporters last month.
Giving up on Darnold, though, would mean the Jets had already failed to convert a highly drafted quarterback into an NFL success. He was the No. 3 pick in 2018, the same year that the Browns used the No. 1 spot — the fruit of their 0-16 season — to take quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is often credited with helping to move the franchise toward respectability. In his NFL debut, in Week 3 of the 2018 season, Mayfield helped the Browns end their winless streak by defeating the Jets. Cleveland went 7-8-1 in his rookie year and 6-10 last year.
This season, the Browns were 6-3, tied for second place in the AFC North and vying for a playoff spot as they went into a game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
Throughout his time with the Browns, Jackson reminded players that nothing was over until the final whistle of the last game. Which, to some extent, could not come fast enough.
“People are not built to lose, especially when you’re a leader,” he said. “In order to continue to be your best, you have to keep those down feelings away from the players, your family, the office and even yourself.”
Boosting morale can be difficult in the face of steady losses and shaming by fans. In an “All Things Covered” podcast episode last week, safety Jamal Adams said that frequent losing had left him depressed for much of his three seasons with the Jets. After a 7-9 record last season and disagreements between Adams and the front office, he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks this summer.
Many of the current Jets have said they are hopeful about ending their losing streak.
“We just want to go out there and win. We don’t care about the draft,” offensive tackle Mekhi Becton said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
“Football is a game of love, so I can’t ever be that depressed,” linebacker Jordan Jenkins said Thursday.
The Jets were entering a four-week stretch of facing teams that currently have at least a 60 percent chance of reaching the playoffs.
Regardless, Jackson said the road through a difficult season can lead in several directions. Since 2017, he has built a foundation that aims to fight human trafficking, helped manage a tequila company and created an organization in Cleveland called Strangers 2 Changers, which helps bring together people from different backgrounds for community projects.
Jackson said he still hoped to take his expertise back to football, adding that he often summons memories of the scent of grass from the field.
Gregg Williams, the Jets’ defensive coordinator, was by Jackson’s side as the Browns’ defensive coordinator from January 2017 until he was appointed interim head coach in October 2018.
Gase brought Williams on in January 2019, and he coached the Jets’ defense to seventh place overall in the NFL last season, despite a 7-9 record. This season, the defense is ranked 28th in the league and the offense is at the bottom.
“One of the reasons I’ve been able to coach in the league for this long is because I’ve been a mentor: a life coach and a football coach,” Williams said in a call with reporters Friday. “And I like that challenge, having to start over with young people in that way.”
When you’re a Jet, looking for the bright side seems a prerequisite. And on Friday, Williams was no exception, saying: “We had one of best practices since I’ve been here in two years today.”