FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The national conversation around the Jets has long been one of foolishness and folly, a tale of ineptitude that boils down to a three-word phrase baked into the franchise’s DNA: Same Old Jets.
Handed down from team to team like a faded old jersey, the legacy of failure eventually takes down every coach who promises to change the narrative. The current architect, Robert Saleh, was barely through his first season at the helm when he stepped right into line, like clockwork, drawing ridicule for a comment after a lopsided season-opening loss to the Ravens in September.
“We’re all taking receipts on all the people who continually mock and say that we’re not going to do anything,” Saleh said the day after that loss, as if ignoring his career 4-14 record to that point. “I’m taking receipts and I’m going to be more than happy to share them with all of you when all is said and done.”
As with Rex Ryan insisting he wasn’t here to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings, or Eric Mangini trying to do his best say-nothing Belichick impression, the comment evoked laughs. Same Old Jets.
The season may be far from done, but those receipts are suddenly looking pretty good. Six weeks later, the Jets are 5-2 and riding a four-game winning streak. The rise of the moribund franchise has been nothing short of shocking. And with their annual tormentors the Patriots arriving in town Sunday, the Jets are the ones on the rise, while the Patriots, with their un-Belichick-like quarterback follies and their no-show Monday night loss to the Bears, are the ones scuffling.
How have the Jets done it? Start with those receipts. A comment that felt so foolishly misplaced at the time, a defiant stance that by insider accounts opened Saleh not only to criticism from his bosses but to ridicule from local talk radio and social media, looks entirely different in hindsight, revealing what was brewing in his locker room.
“We all knew it was going to change,” center Connor McGovern insisted. “You don’t take receipts if it’s not going to change. Everybody believed it was going to change. You could feel that it was going to change; we just needed that first win to kind of spark it.
“You find out sometimes, especially with social media, that people don’t realize what they’re saying. When it does hit home, it’s rare for someone to keep pushing when they get called out, and for [Saleh] to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to remind you of what you were saying when we weren’t winning when we start winning,’ we loved it.”
They’re backing up the coach’s words, and as McGovern said, “having a lot of fun doing it.”
It starts with defense
Statistically, the Jets have turned things around on the strength of their defense, starting with wrecking ball tackle Quinnen Williams, with a heaping dose of help from rookie cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, two players on track for the Pro Bowl.
Williams, with five sacks and 13 quarterback hits, is anchoring a defense that has put the Jets in position to own the fourth quarter, where they lead the NFL in point differential, 74-20.
On both sides of the ball, there’s been a foundation of physicality, an offensive line grading the road for a running game that was led by rookie Breece Hall (463 yards) until he tore an ACL last week in Denver.
The front office’s answer — immediately trading with Jacksonville for James Robinson — speaks to a team that believes it can win now. It’s a flip of the script for a team that was embarrassed this time last year by the Patriots, 54-13. A reversal of fortune for a team heading into the matchup with a better record than New England for the first time since Week 12 of 2001, a.k.a. Tom Brady’s 10th career start (according to ESPN Stats & Information).
The Jets haven’t beaten the Patriots in the last 12 tries, not since Dec. 27, 2015, when Ryan Fitzpatrick was their quarterback. No player on the current roster has played on a Jets team that beat the Patriots.
And yet this time feels different.
“I think first and foremost it starts with a mentality,” said tackle Duane Brown. “Guys are playing with a lot of confidence, trust in each other, trust in the system, trust in our preparation.
“It started out rough the first couple of weeks, but we’ve been finding ways to win, in particular on the road. The defense has been playing phenomenal.
“There’s a lot of resiliency, no matter what ups and downs the game brings. In the fourth quarter, we kind of lock in and make it happen in all facets.”
Capitalizing on breaks
For what feels like the first time in decades, the football gods are smiling on the Jets. Two touchdowns in 90 seconds to beat the Browns in Week 2. Facing the Steelers when Mike Tomlin decided to switch to rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett for the second half. Drawing the Packers in the midst of their own identity crisis. Going to Denver and not facing Russell Wilson but Brett Rypien instead.
That being said, Jets teams of the past couldn’t cash in on those kinds of breaks. This one has. Perhaps that is the most surprising element, given their recent history with the Patriots: It starts with Belichick resigning as “HC of the NYJ” and goes downhill from there, with Mark Sanchez and the infamous buttfumble, Sam Darnold seeing ghosts, and Wilson throwing four picks against zero touchdowns as a rookie at home last season.
The entire historical picture of the Jets is not pretty. Memories of championship grandeur are still tied to Joe Namath, and there has been no escape from the long shadow of failure since Broadway Joe’s shocking 1969 win. Not for head coaches ranging from a dour former Patriots assistant in Mangini to a brash outsider with his family’s NFL pedigree at his back in Ryan, a respected but quiet defensive whiz in Todd Bowles, or a supposed offensive guru in wide-eyed Adam Gase. Not for quarterbacks either, from the days of high draft picks Sanchez and Geno Smith to retreads Josh McCown and Fitzpatrick, to first-rounders Darnold and Wilson.
No matter who, no matter where, the Jets have consistently ended up in the same place — on the butt end of every NFL joke and the bottom rung of nearly every AFC East ladder.
Until now. Until now? With the Patriots coming their way Sunday, it’s the Jets who are in the playoff conversation (they haven’t made it since 2010) and the Patriots looking to right their ship.
“It’s a huge challenge to play an organization that is used to winning and used to doing everything right like them,” Williams said, “but I feel like we’re here to try to get that way and we’re on our way to getting that way.”
Said Saleh, “I acknowledge that Bill is arguably one of the greatest coaches to ever coach in this game. I’ll honor that forever. He’s given so much to this game, and he’s done so much for this game you’d be remiss not to acknowledge that. New England, you’d be remiss not to acknowledge they have dominated this game for 20 years.
“But at the same time, it’s a championship moment and a championship game, no different than last week was and no different than next week will be. We’ve got to keep the main thing, the main thing and focus on this moment.”
At this moment, it’s the Jets who are on the rise.