Everything started out promisingly for New York.
The Jets led the Bills 16-0 late in the third quarter of their season opener. One prized offseason pickup, C.J. Mosley, had found the end zone after intercepting Josh Allen. The other, Le’Veon Bell, hit paydirt not long after, hauling in a 9-yard pass from rising second-year quarterback Sam Darnold. For three quarters, New York’s rebuild was right on schedule.
Then everything came crumbling down. And, like a poorly stacked Duplo mountain, continues to crumble down. The Jets fell apart over the final 20 minutes of Week 1 to allow Allen to start his season 1-0 despite committing four turnovers in the first half. And, somehow, things have gotten worse from there.
The Jets’ 2019 already feels distinctly snakebitten
Mosley, who left that opening day loss with a groin injury before the Bills could rack up 17 unanswered points, missed the Week 2 game against the Browns. Same with Quinnen Williams, the beefy defensive tackle who New York made the third overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. He’s out with an ankle sprain.
Bell underwent an MRI to investigate the cause of a sore shoulder that played a role in a good, not great, debut. The results came back negative and he played in Week 2, but it will be something to watch in his first full season back since 2017. Quincy Enunwa, the team’s leading receiver three seasons ago, will miss the year with a neck injury.
These are all moderate, run-of-the-mill NFL maladies. And then there’s Darnold, who is out indefinitely with mononucleosis, as this Monday Night Football graphic so delicately reminded us:
Watch out Mono. Sam Darnold is coming for you. pic.twitter.com/augc9B1xre— Yahoo Fantasy Sports (@YahooFantasy) September 17, 2019
New York has no timetable for his return, presumably because this is the first time anyone on the training staff has thought about mono since high school. The team took drastic steps to ensure he’s the only one to deal with the energy-draining virus this fall.
Darnold will be "quarantined" at his apartment until Jets' medical staff feels it's safe to expose him to rest of team. He's already lost 5 lbs.— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) September 12, 2019
While Darnold has since re-joined his team, the Jets’ quarterback situation has only deteriorated further. Backup Trevor Siemian is out for the year after leaving the first half of the Browns game with an ankle injury. Luke Falk, who only recently received a promotion from the practice squad, is now the starting quarterback (and only healthy one).
Newly acquired Demaryius Thomas also left Week 2 with a recurring hamstring injury. The former All-Pro wideout is 31 years old and is coming off a torn Achilles suffered in 2018.
Even the healthy performers have issues. Robby Anderson, who has led the Jets in receiving the past two seasons, was the object of head coach Adam Gase’s scorn following that Week 1 defeat. Gase specifically called out his lack of effort late in New York’s comeback effort, and he’s not completely wrong:
Sam Darnold had Robby Anderson twice on the Jets' last drive.— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) September 9, 2019
First, Darnold underthrew off backpedal and Anderson waited instead of coming back to ball.
Second, Darnold just missed on an overthrow. pic.twitter.com/MlBXAjsePW
New York only needed one week to swap out kickers, canning Kaare Vedvik after he missed a field goal and extra point in a one-point loss and signing Sam Ficken — who had six career field goal attempts to his name — in his place. He’s the fourth kicker to cycle through the team’s roster since August. The good news is that Ficken made his first and only field goal attempt in his Jets debut. The bad news is those were the only points in the Jets’ 23-3 loss to the Browns.
Oh, and defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd, a 2018 third-round pick, is serving a six-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs.
The Jets tried so hard to escape football purgatory the past two years
New York is trying. Over the past two seasons, the franchise has made major investments to rewrite the story of a team whose post-1960s glory days were a product of Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez. The question the Jets are facing now is whether those moves were the right ones.
They paid a massive price to draft Darnold, shipping three second-round picks to Indianapolis to move up from No. 6 to No. 3 in the 2018 draft and select the USC star. That gave the Jets their first first-round QB since Sanchez and showed the team had learned its lesson by trying to force later picks on half-formed passers like Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. It also cleared the Colts to jump-start their own rebuild by gleaning players like Braden Smith, Quenton Nelson, Kemoko Turay, and Jordan Wilkins from the picks they received in that year’s draft, all of whom would have looked good in green and white.
The team offset that lack of draft capital by spending big in free agency last spring, but its two biggest signings, Bell and Mosley, lasted one week before showing up on the injury report. A third major target, Vikings four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr, agreed to terms in New York before ultimately reneging on the deal and staying in Minnesota.
Firing Todd Bowles after a 24-40 tenure appeared to be a smart move, but the club followed that up by hiring Gase, who had just been fired by a directionless Dolphins team. One of Gase’s first headlines as a Jet — at least one of the first not related to his eyes holding the intense gaze of a defeated Soviet diplomat — was to reportedly criticize the Bell signing. General manager Mike Maccagnan wasn’t around to defend it; he was fired in May, long after the draft and the league’s busiest portion of the free agent period had passed.
While Williams has been a hit both on and off the field, the rest of the Jets’ 2019 draft class has underwhelmed. Jachai Polite, who was selected in the third round, didn’t play a single game with Gang Green and racked up more than $100,000 in fines before earning his release. Only one other rookie — fifth-round linebacker Blake Cashman — made it into the box score in Week 1.
The Jets tried so hard to escape the fate they’d written themselves into throughout the 2010s, but the football gods have no interest in letting them escape their orbit of mediocrity. New York brought out its highest-caliber ammunition to shoot its shot the past two seasons, but the outcome on the field hasn’t changed.
Some of that can be traced back to questionable decisions and overspending to find the high-profile players Maccagnan wanted. Others, like a damn mononucleosis diagnosis, are a shakedown from an uncaring universe that’s made New York a prime target for its bullying. Well-constructed teams can break that cycle. That’s what the Jets want to be.
After their 0-2 start, they’re not there yet.