FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- As he walked off the field, an excited Robert Saleh jumped into the arms of general manager Joe Douglas. A former offensive lineman, the burly GM lifted the coach a couple of feet off the ground and held him there for a few seconds. It was quite a moment for the New York Jets' leaders.
This was a highpoint for the Saleh-Douglas regime. It was Oct. 15, and the Jets -- without star injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers (torn left Achilles) or their starting cornerbacks -- had just stunned the previously undefeated Philadelphia Eagles, 20-14, at MetLife Stadium. The Jets were 3-3, looking like a team that had figured out how to win without their future Hall of Fame quarterback.
"Yeah, man, it definitely looked like we were going places," said cornerback D.J. Reed, looking back.
They were going somewhere, all right. They just never imagined it would be the same place as last season -- an offensively challenged team, lost in the quarterback abyss and fighting the perception of dysfunction. They finished 2022 on a six-game losing streak, and now they own a five-game skid.
That Philly Special was only 53 days ago. It's amazing how quickly a season can get razed. The losing streak didn't start immediately after that -- they had a bye week, followed by a 13-10 overtime win over the New York Giants -- but the paint started peeling and the sheetrock started falling off the walls in that Giants game. The Jets held them to minus-9 net passing yards, and still needed a miracle finish at the end of regulation to pull it out.
Since then, they're 0-5 with a minus-77 point differential, tied with the Washington Commanders for the worst in the league over that span. The Jets have scored only two -- two! -- offensive touchdowns during the losing streak, treating the end zone as if it's a roped-off area at a national historic landmark.
"It's like a bad dream," tight end Tyler Conklin said of the five-game slide and the offensive struggles.
The ineptitude begat controversy, with rumors swirling around quarterback Zach Wilson and his reported reluctance to get back into the huddle -- a bad optic for all parties. Rodgers fueled the firestorm during his Tuesday appearance on the "Pat McAfee Show." In defending Wilson, Rodgers blasted the organization for a pattern of "chicken s---" leaks to the media.
On Wednesday, Wilson was named the starting quarterback again.
How did the Jets go from a promising 3-3 to a seemingly hopeless 4-8?
"We've seen what we can look like when we're clicking, playing great ball, playing with field position, defense getting turnovers, offense capitalizing, special teams making plays," linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "And we've seen the ugly about it."
Musical quarterbacks: They went from Rodgers to Wilson to Tim Boyle to Wilson in the starting role, with a relief appearance by Trevor Siemian sandwiched in there. Only one change was dictated by injury -- Rodgers in Week 1. The rest of the moves were performance-related.
Quarterback instability is the quickest path to a team's demise.
Truth is, the Jets tailored so much around Rodgers (the system, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, even acquiring a handful of former teammates such as receivers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb) that the infrastructure crumbled when he went down.
"You build a system for one person, you're trying to make changes, and players are in and out of the lineup because of injury," Saleh said. "It's hard."
Football is the ultimate team sport and building a program around one player defies that tenet. That can work in rare cases, but the Jets simply weren't equipped to absorb the blow.
They masked the issue for six games, using an opportunistic defense to pull out wins over the Denver Broncos and Eagles, but Wilson's flaws were eventually exposed, and the offense went into a deep freeze. We're talking Antarctica -- only three touchdowns in their last 74 possessions over the last six games.
"It's been pretty bad, huh?" Conklin said. "Pretty bad. Pretty stagnant."
Since the Eagles game, the Jets are 31st in Total QBR (18.4) and tied for last in touchdown passes (three).
Disappearance of Breece Hall: The Jets were hopeful that a healthy Hall in the backfield would keep the offense afloat after the Rodgers injury, helping them avoid a repeat of last season's collapse -- which, by the way, coincided with Hall's ACL tear in his left knee. This time, his big-play prowess would force defenses to overplay the run, creating easier reads and better matchups for Wilson in the passing game.
Or so they thought.
Hall got off to a fantastic start, rushing for 387 yards through the first five games, but has only 198 over the last seven. He scored the go-ahead touchdown against the Eagles, with under two minutes remaining, and he broke a checkdown pass for a 50-yard score the following game -- and he hasn't reached the end zone since.
What happened? Is he wearing down? No doubt, inconsistent blocking has contributed to his decline as the Jets rank 29th in run block win rate (68.8%). But Hall has accepted some blame, saying he's making uncharacteristic mistakes because he's pressing. Saleh called him out, saying he wants Hall to be more physical and to look for the "grimy yards."
The coaches liked Hall's aggressiveness in last week's loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but it wasn't reflected on the stat sheet: 16 yards on 13 carries.
Ever-changing offensive line: The Jets have started 12 different linemen and nine different offensive-line combinations, creating constant flux in the position group that requires the most continuity. Only one player is in the same place since the season began: left guard Laken Tomlinson.
They could make a spoof of the old Abbott & Costello "Who's on first?" routine: Who's at right guard? For the record, six different players have started there.
Nearly every team has line issues. Some have plug-and-play replacements. Others, like the Jets, can't keep up with the number of injuries. The biggest loss was guard/tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker, who tore his Achilles against the Broncos. An underrated loss was center Connor McGovern, who went down with a knee injury in the Giants' game. His cerebral approach was an asset. Rookie Joe Tippmann shows promise, but he doesn't have McGovern's savvy yet.
The Jets allow a sack every 10 dropbacks, the second-highest rate in the league.
Not maximizing a supreme talent: Garrett Wilson, the 2022 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, must feel helpless at times. He's the seventh-most targeted wide receiver (120), but his reception rate (55.8%) is only 68th out of 78 qualified wideouts.
Translation: They're trying to get the ball to their No. 1 playmaker, but they can't do it on a consistent basis because of deficiencies at quarterback.
In last week's loss, Wilson was open downfield on a handful of occasions, but he didn't get the ball because Boyle threw to someone else. Boyle was cut Tuesday. These weren't isolated instances. Wilson has the fifth-highest "open" score among all pass-catchers, according to ESPN Analytics, which uses player-tracking data and NFL Next Gen Stats to evaluate players.
Somehow, Wilson has managed to bottle up his frustration.
"My legacy is on the line," he said. "My family's legacy is on the line every time I take the field -- every rep, that's how I look at it."
Wilson has only one touchdown in the last 10 games, and that was a garbage-time score in Week 12.
A look ahead: The Jets -- with less than a .01% chance of making the playoffs, per ESPN Analytics -- are on the verge of missing the postseason for the 13th consecutive year. It's the NFL's longest active drought. The only thing they can salvage is respectability, but that won't be easy with a historically bad offense. Their remaining schedule is ranked 21st in difficulty, so maybe they can steal a couple of wins as they try to fight the gloom and doom.
"You lose one game in this league and it feels pretty s---ty, so to lose five in a row or whatever it is, I mean, you can only imagine how crappy that feels," Conklin said.
The Jets have a lame-duck quarterback -- Wilson likely will be playing elsewhere in 2024 -- and an offense that needs upgrades at receiver and the line. Soon, the focus could shift to the job security of the GM and coach.
The Douglas-Saleh partnership has produced a 15-31 record, though the prospect of a healthy Rodgers in 2024 certainly boosts the chances of the regime returning intact. Rodgers, who wields considerable influence, has publicly endorsed the current leadership.
It all looked so promising on Oct. 15, when Saleh jumped into Douglas' arms and they celebrated a win that seems even more improbable nearly two months later.