The day after the season ended, and after coach Todd Bowles was fired, general manager Mike Maccagnan tried to put a positive, forward-looking spin on the sad state of the New York Jets. Speaking to reporters in a boardroom at One Jets Drive, he mentioned the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams as recent examples of teams that were able to go from bad to good (quickly) with a promising young quarterback and a coaching change.
Thing is, anybody can recognize a successful blueprint. (Hey, look, let's try that!) The hard part is executing it. For Adam Gase and Sam Darnold to become the 2019 version of Sean McVay-Jared Goff and Matt Nagy-Mitchell Trubisky, Maccagnan needs to do his job a lot better than he did from 2015 to 2018. That means bringing more talent into the building -- talent and "dogs," as Jamal Adams has said.
McVay, the Super Bowl-bound nouveau genius, inherited a team that had two of the top-10 players in the NFL, Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley. The Jets don't have any players who resemble Donald or Gurley. Nagy's general manager gave him a housewarming gift before the start of the season, Khalil Mack, who galvanized the Chicago defense. The Jets don't have any Macks on their roster, last time I checked.
So, while Maccagnan's Los Angeles/Chicago aspiration is perfectly appropriate, it's on him to make it happen. The talent hunt heats up this week at the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Alabama, where Maccagnan and his scouts will be evaluating some of the top seniors in the country. (In case you're wondering, Gase isn't in Mobile; he stayed in New Jersey to focus on his still-incomplete coaching staff.)
Maccagnan acknowledged that, yes, he feels pressure in Year 5 to build a playoff team, but he said every GM feels some degree of pressure. He's right about that, because it's a 24/7/365 league, but some handle it better than others. We'll learn a lot about Maccagnan by the manner in which he attacks the offseason.
"Our focus is to try to build this correctly," he said. "We're trying to be as competitive and successful as we possibly can. But we also understand that you have to balance that. You try not to mortgage the future. But we're all competitive. We're all motivated to go out there and be successful. We want to get to the finish line as quick as we can."
The Jets have been running this race for 50 years, and the fan base is tired of GM talk and coach-speak. It wants results now. Maccagnan was a toddler when the Jets reached their only Super Bowl -- January 1969 -- but he got a chance to feel the vibe Oct. 14 when the Jets hosted a 50-year reunion at MetLife Stadium. He saw the former players holding the Lombardi Trophy, savoring their long-ago championship.
"You realize what a truly special thing that was," Maccagnan said. "Anybody who could have the ability to be part of something like that, especially because it's in this city, with this team, and this history, that's something that motivates all of us."
That day, Maccagnan also witnessed what he hopes will be remembered as a passing-of-the-torch scene. When Joe Namath was walking off the field after the halftime ceremony, he had a brief encounter with Darnold, who was coming back from the locker room. Maybe it was nothing more than a chance meeting, but Maccagnan made a mental note of it.
Let's face it: Darnold is on the mind of a lot of folks in the organization. He factored into the hiring of Gase, known as a quarterback tutor, and his development will be the driving force behind the offseason plans. Maccagnan made that clear at Gase's introductory news conference.
"With the maturation of Sam, it's definitely an area we're going to focus a lot of our attention in the offseason," he said, referring to the offense.
Translation: Expect sweeping changes. Even without Darnold, they'd have to overhaul the offense. You can't expect an offensive-minded coach to stand pat when the unit he's inheriting finished 29th in total yards. The early hunch is they will use free agency to improve the offense (and maybe add a pass-rusher), saving the third overall pick to draft a front-seven player on defense.
Maccagnan likes to mention the Jets' favorable salary-cap position as if it will be a magic elixir, but we know there are no guarantees in free agency. Trumaine Johnson, anyone? It's also misleading to say they have an endless amount of cap space.
The number is $94 million, according to overthecap.com, but they have only 41 players under contract. (Only the Rams have fewer.) The Jets have 23 free agents who accounted for $59.8 million in 2018 cap space. If they simply replace those players at the same cost, it'll eat up two-thirds of their entire cap room. So their $94 million isn't as impressive as, say, the Cleveland Browns, who have $82 million with 60 players under contract.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Jets made the right move by retaining Maccagnan, who saved his job because he secured the biggest piece to the puzzle -- Darnold. That bought him a year's worth of collateral, but now it's time to upgrade the overall talent base. It's time to grade him on performance, not projection.
"We're excited about this," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done, but there are a lot of good things in place, especially with the young quarterback."