The math says the New York Jets can still make the playoffs. Reality says otherwise. The best way to approach their last four games is not with an eye on this year's postseason, but with an eye on what directions to take to contend in the years to come.
Two factors make reaching the 2013 playoffs a long shot at best.
First of all, the Jets must win their last four games to contend. That would give them a 9-7 record. Unfortunately, they haven't generated much offense since their bye week, despite facing only one top-10 defense: Baltimore's. It's hard to imagine the Jets doing much better against the top-five defenses of Carolina and Cleveland.
Second of all, the Jets must win the sixth seed outright. Their losses to Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Baltimore cost them the head-to-head tiebreaker. Their 2-7 conference record is the AFC's worst. They need almost every contender with five or six wins to fall behind them.
Miami is an exception. Here's why.
Suppose the Dolphins are 9-6 and the Jets are 8-7 when they meet in their regular-season finale. If the Jets win, the head-to-head tiebreaker would be even at a game apiece. The division record tiebreaker would be even at 3-3. However, against common opponents, the Jets would finish 7-5 against the Dolphins' 6-6. That tiebreaker would give the Jets second place in the AFC East.
That scenario assumes no other contender finishes better than 8-8. It may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, since the 6-6 Ravens and Dolphins are the only sixth-seed contenders with .500 records.
What's really hard to imagine given the Jets' performances of late is that they can capitalize by winning their last four games.
That's not to say they shouldn't try. But they should do so smartly. Instead of mortgaging the farm to achieve short-term results, the Jets should remember that the 2013 season was supposed to be the first phase of a long-term reconstruction.
That they threatened to exceed, and may still exceed, many experts' expectations for 2013 should be cause for celebration, unless it deters them from developing and evaluating the personnel who could form their long-term nucleus.
In that spirit, here are four priorities the Jets should stress as they close out 2013.
Let the young safeties play
The Jets signed Ed Reed to help their defense against the long ball and to add a takeaway threat. Neither has occurred.
It's time to get Antonio Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett back on the field.
The Jets could have taken two directions with Reed. They chose the wrong one. Reed commanded respect as a future Hall of Famer. As such, his contributions to younger players' development off the field might have outweighed his physical limitations on the field. However, Rex Ryan and the Jets treated Reed as if he could save the secondary by himself. He has not.
Reed's contract is a one-year deal. Assuming he doesn't return and that he's not contributing as expected, it's time to return the young safeties to action. Give them four games to show what they can do before management starts making plans for 2014.
Let Reed make his chief contributions where he should have all along—in team meetings and practices. Josh Bush was eager to shadow Reed, follow every move he made in preparing for a game. If Bush, Allen and Jarrett tap Reed's football knowledge and apply his work ethic to their games, the results could pay dividends long after Reed is gone.
Stick with Milliner
Geno Smith isn't the only high draft pick to come under fire this year. Dee Milliner, the Jets' No. 1 pick, has also drawn the ire of fans and coaches alike. Rex Ryan has benched Milliner as many times—three—as he has Smith.
It's not that Milliner hasn't conceded big plays or missed tackles. He has. But he may also be the victim of unrealistic expectations and hype.
How many times, for example, have you heard that Milliner was drafted "to replace Darrelle Revis"? Visions of "Milliner Island" must have danced in expectant fans' heads. They saw a future full of interceptions, passes defended and frustrated receivers.
They didn't get that. Instead, they got the growing pains of a rookie cornerback who seemed to take two steps back for every one step forward.
The fact is, Revis' heir apparent is Antonio Cromartie, not Milliner.
Cromartie is supposed to take on opponents' best receivers and leave them shaking their heads in frustration. He was a Pro Bowl cornerback in 2012. Alas, injuries have inhibited his play in 2013.
In fact, injuries are probably the key to understanding the Jets' current cornerback issues. Cromartie's hip problems reduced his effectiveness. Milliner's shoulder, calf and hamstring problems impeded his development. His rehabilitation from a shoulder injury cost him snaps in rookie camp, OTAs and minicamp. Subsequent injuries cost him the final preseason game and three regular-season games.
Milliner may not deserve a free pass for his performance in 2013. But it's too early in his career to declare him a bust. Let him finish the season and experience the full brunt of the Jets' offseason preparation for 2014. Then, evaluate him in his designated role: not that of Revis' heir apparent, but that of a No. 2 cornerback who covers opponents' "other" wide receivers.
That should yield a more realistic portrait of Milliner's potential.
Develop a quarterback strategy
The Jets don't need to commit to Geno Smith or Matt Simms as their franchise quarterback yet. However, they need to determine if their future franchise quarterback is already on their roster.
If not, they'll have to decide if signing a free agent, making a trade or using the draft is their best course of action.
Mark Sanchez's return is probably not an option, despite public statements to the contrary. The Jets will probably free themselves of that contract to free cap space.
That brings us back to Simms and Smith.
To begin the process, it's only fair to give Simms at least one start. More would be better. But Rex Ryan has already committed to starting Smith against Oakland. One start may be the most Simms can expect.
This isn't because Simms is this year's miracle worker. He didn't do much better against Miami than Smith. However, the Jets need to assess Simms' potential to lead them against first-string competition.
His preseason work showed he could be more than a strong-armed but inaccurate thrower. But neither his preseason appearances nor his regular-season relief efforts have provided a true test of his starting potential. That requires the Jets to declare him one game's starter, design a game plan around his strengths, give him a full week of practice with the first team and put him to work.
Should Simms do well, that would put him on the inside track in 2014's quarterback competition. However, during both offseason and preseason, Simms and Smith should get practice snaps with the first team. Each should start one of the first two preseason games. The competition's winner would start the third.
That strategy assumes that either Smith can overcome his 2013 growing pains or Simms shows an ability to lead that Smith lacks.
Should the Jets' coaches and management decide that neither is true, the Jets must consider other options.
There doesn't appear to be an "All-World" quarterback available in the free-agent market. Of the available free agents, Jay Cutler comes closest. He's the only candidate who might be worthy of assuming the starter's role unchallenged. He also might be expensive.
Free agents like Josh Freeman, Matt Cassel or Michael Vick all have issues. Vick is 33 years old and injury-prone. Freeman has struck out with two teams; the Jets don't need that kind of project. Cassel might be the best option. He made the Pro Bowl in 2010, leading Kansas City to a 10-5 record. But Cassel is 31 years old. He wouldn't be the long-term solution the Jets thought Smith could be.
Those complications make drafting a quarterback sound attractive, especially if the Jets either "earn" or obtain a single-digit pick. They'll count on the reputation of this year's quarterback class that includes promising candidates like Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and LSU's Zach Mettenberger.
That would set the stage for a three-way competition between Simms, Smith and the draft pick.
Then again, the Jets could hedge their bets and bring a free agent and a draft pick to camp to compete against Simms and Smith. The resulting four-way competition would bring the circus atmosphere back to Florham Park.
Unless the Jets offense revives this year, that possibility looms large.
Evaluate Rex Ryan
It's hard to believe that after Week 9's upset of the New Orleans Saints, the Jets were 5-4 and in command of their playoff destiny after completing the most difficult part of their schedule. Rex Ryan's name was part of Coach of the Year conversations. Many endorsed his immediate retention through a contract extension.
Three straight losses later, Ryan is almost a lame-duck coach again. He's again being portrayed as a glorified defensive coordinator who lacks the strategic acumen to coach on both sides of the ball. His miscues, starting with inserting Mark Sanchez in the third quarter of preseason Game 3, are taking center stage.
Ryan's job security doesn't depend on the Jets securing a playoff berth. Instead, it depends on his ability to make the whole team look interested.
In the last three games, the defense and special teams have come to play while the offense has gone through the motions. Or so it seems to the average viewer.
At the beginning of the season, I felt that fielding an entertaining, competitive team week in and week out was a more important goal for the Jets than achieving a specific win total or making the playoffs. It was important for the Jets to build the solidarity in the locker room that eluded them in 2012 and maintain it through the season's end.
They achieved that goal, at least for the season's first nine weeks. That's when the Jets were a whole that was truly greater than the sum of its parts.
If the players want to save Ryan's job, they must revive the us-against-the-world, backs-against-the-wall spirit that served them so well in defying expectations and becoming contenders. If their play in the last four games of 2013 exemplifies that spirit, Ryan will be back.
Otherwise, it will be time to find his successor.
Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid.