The Jets are so young that Todd Bowles has to stop offseason practice halfway through for a 10-minute snack break. The players sit on blankets drinking milk instead of Gatorade, munching on chocolate chip cookies instead of energy bars.
Bowles’ kids are either going to get him a contract extension after this season or they are going to get him fired. He will either prove he knows how to develop a young team or leave Woody Johnson no choice but to move on and hire his sixth coach since Bill Belichick decided he didn’t want the job.
After two seasons, the Jets don’t have the answer to a very important question: Can Bowles be an elite coach in the NFL? He was 10-6 and barely missed the playoffs in his rookie season in 2015 after Mike Maccagnan drained Johnson’s salary cap surplus built up by John Idzik by signing Darrelle Revis and trading for Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall. The Jets were then swallowed up early last season by a murderous schedule and all the good will Bowles built up in year one was lost with a 5-11 season.
I advocated Johnson cut his losses and fire Bowles after last season. But now that he’s back, he deserves a fair chance with the full support and ample resources of the organization. The wins and losses should not be the only criteria. Bowles will earn another shot if the arrow is pointing up at the end of the season and the Jets are considered one of the best young teams in the league, even if they are out of the playoff race by Thanksgiving.
The most loyal members of Gang Green Nation knows this is going to be a rough season. The Jets are in transition. After trying a competitive rebuild the last two years with players at the tail end of their careers, Maccagnan received a do-over from Johnson and is now trying to build around the young guys.
Gone from last year: Revis, Nick Mangold, Marshall and Fitz. Together, that’s 44 years of locker room experience and leadership.
The best formula to win in the NFL is still to hit on draft picks and fill in the gaps with free agents. Once a decade, if even that often, big spending works, as it did with the Giants defense last year. Maccagnan couldn’t sustain success with his first approach. Now he’s trying the more conventional method.
Bowles is going into the third year of his four-year contract. That means by the end of the season Johnson will either decide he’s the right man for the job and give him an extension or that it’s time to move on.
It may not be fair to judge Bowles until he has a quarterback in place, but part of his job description is to develop one. Maccagnan has given him two and only needs one to emerge: Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg. I saw enough of Petty last year to believe he has the skills of a journeyman backup. After the preseason of his rookie season last year, we didn’t see Hackenberg at all.
There’s two ways for Bowles to prove he should stick around:
– If his new offensive staff of coordinator John Morton and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates do an incredible job with Hackenberg and by the end of the season he looks like he’s the guy and the Jets don’t have to use a high first round pick on a QB in the QB-rich class of 2018. It serves no purpose for the long-term to open the season with Josh McCown, who will be 38 on July 4. This season needs to be dedicated to Hackenberg right from the start.
– Even if Hackenberg stinks, if the rest of the youngsters, led by the last three first-round picks, defensive end Leonard Williams, linebacker Darren Lee and safety Jamal Adams, prove they are not only the foundation of the defense, but All-Pro talents, then things will be moving in the right direction. Bowles is a defensive coach and in his three drafts, Maccagnan has given him the best overall player twice (Williams, Adams) and a promising multi-use linebacker (Lee). If Hackenberg bombs, then Maccagnan must use a first-round pick on a QB next year.
I asked Bowles this week if it’s an adjustment for him coaching a team with so many young players.
“It’s a new offense so obviously whether it’s veterans or rookies on that side of the ball, it’s the same because nobody knows the playbook right now so everybody’s learning at the same time,” he said. “Defensively, we have some guys that have played and some new guys trying to fit in and learn as well. From a personality standpoint, it’s probably a little different, but other than that, no.”
Maccagnan has put a lot of pressure on Bowles by gutting the team of its veteran nucleus. That could wind up buying Bowles more time because it has lowered expectations. But if the Jets are 2-14 and the locker room is a dysfunctional mess, as it was in 2016, then Bowles will have failed with veterans last year and young players this year. His coaching future is at stake.
First, Bowles has to pace the players through training camp. The young guys need to be in bed by eight.