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Tanking, Guessing, Flailing, Bumbling: Rebuilding, Jets Style

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 8, 2017

New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles speaks to reporters during NFL football rookie minicamp, Friday, May 5, 2017, in Florham Park, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Before we get to the latest chorus of Jets lamentations, let's talk about "tanking" for a moment. 

In the wake of New York releasing linebacker David Harris and the pending release of receiver Eric Decker, there's a lot of talk about the Jets tanking in 2017 so they can build for the future. It sounds great over a couple of beers in June: get a top draft pick, select USC quarterback Sam Darnold (the coveted future prospect of the moment) and take the league by storm in 20XX, where "XX" is a number greater than 18.

But losing on purpose in the NFL doesn't work. Gutting the roster in the name of long-term rebuilding is dangerous under the best of circumstances. Haphazardly gutting the roster the way the Jets are doingshedding key veterans a few at a time, with a lame-duck coach and general manager taking the public fall for a meddlesome owner who is waiting for the POTUS to whisk him away to Europe—is catastrophic mismanagement.

"Tanking" is a great way to build a demoralized locker room full of inexperienced players. It's a proven method to ingrain bad habits and bad attitudes among young players as they try to compensate for each other's mistakes while slogging through a non-competitive autumn. It's also a way to earn kudos from sports-talk contrarians while losing concession, parking and memorabilia sales as the core fanbase evaporates in late September.

Gutting the roster is a brilliant tactic if you are Jimmy Johnson, it's the late 1980s and you have Herschel Walker to trade for a flatbed full of draft picks. It's fine if you are Reggie McKenzie three years ago, with a mandate for a hard Raiders reboot and a coordinated draft-free agency-fiscal plan. It's cool if you are the Browns, who just discovered Moneyball and have nothing to lose.

For the Jets, it's a flailing catch-as-catch-can Plan B for head coach Todd Bowles, general manager Mike Maccagnan, owner Woody Johnson and an organization that thought it would be a Super Bowl contender led by Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall and whichever quarterback prospect unseated Ryan Fitzpatrick by now.

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"[Tanking is] not our focus," Maccagnan said during an unscheduled press conference on Tuesday. There are many reasons to say that, of course, from personal pride to professional preservation to it being the truth. What looks like a tanking operation may well just be rationalized incompetence. 

Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan and owner Woody Johnson.
Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan and owner Woody Johnson.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press/Associated Press

Whatever the Jets are doing, it will provide no bounty of extra draft picks. It will improve their cap situation, but it's more like debt relief than a windfall. The gutted roster will almost certainly result in a gutted coaching staff, which is why Bowles looked like he had just eaten month-old coleslaw when explaining the Harris cut Tuesday.

That almost brings us to the latest chorus of Jets lamentations.

But first, let's review the previous chorus of Jets lamentations:

  • Second-year linebacker Darron Lee is under league investigation because of a video that shows teammate Leonard Williams physically restraining him after an altercation with a woman at a music festival.
  • Former second-round pick Devin Smith tore his ACL during the offseason and was placed on injured reserve.
  • The Jets tried and failed to trade Sheldon Richardson, an exceptionally talented young defender with a laundry list of legal woes, suspensions and missed team meetings.
  • Two young Jets players will be suspended at the start of the season for violations of the league's substance abuse policy: tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (two games) and receiver Jalin Marshall (four games). New York waived a third suspended player, defensive back Nick Marshall.
  • Former starting safety Calvin Pryor, demoted after the Jets drafted a pair of safeties in the first two rounds, skipped the start of OTAs and was traded to the Browns.

The Jets also lost scouting executive Rex Hogan to the Colts, and while there is no eyewitness evidence that quarterback prospects Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg are any better this year than they were last season, that feels like piling on at this point.

Let's give the Jets as much benefit of the doubt as possible about those bullet points. Lee's investigation may blow over, thanks in large part to Williams' intervention. Nick Marshall was a fringe player; Jalin Marshall is a role player. Seferian-Jenkins has been candid about his substance issues, so the suspension might help him regain the potential he showed in college. Pryor was on the outs anyway. Richardson can be a force when dialed in. And there isn't much coaches and general managers can do about torn ACLs during the offseason.

David Harris (right) stretching at Jets OTAs in late May.
David Harris (right) stretching at Jets OTAs in late May.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

With all of that out of the way, let's get real. Lee, one of the Jets' core young players, is making the wrong kind of news in OTAs. Smith would be the team's go-to receiver if the Maccagnan-Bowles administration was proceeding on schedule. Instead, he is entering his third season as vaporware.

A tanking-and-rebuilding team needs the competition that comes from having players like Seferian-Jenkins and the Marshalls healthy and available. What it doesn't need is a veteran like Richardson with a proven record of going into paycheck mode (at best) when the team is floundering.

A tanking team also should be trading valuable veterans for draft picks, right? The Browns stockpile draft picks the way a doomsday prepper stockpiles canned goods. But in exchange for Pryor, the Jets received veteran linebacker Demario Davis, who is in the final year of his contract. That's not how rebuilding works, guys.

So the Jets have gotten almost nothing but bad news about their young players while parting ways with their old, expensive ones. That's not an auspicious start for any demolition-and-renovation project.

Which brings us to the latest chorus of Jets lamentations.

The only surprising thing about Decker's release was that it didn't come when the team was sloughing off its Revis-and-friends financial burden before free agency. Decker is 30-year-old damaged goods; rebuilding projects usually start with the release of players like him rather than ending with them.

USC quarterback, and the object of Jets draft dreams, Sam Darnold.
USC quarterback, and the object of Jets draft dreams, Sam Darnold.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Then there is Harris, 33 years old but still effective, a team leader, elder statesman and final connection to a better time when the Jets beat the Patriots in playoff games.

Smart organizations are often forced to release players like Harris. But only foolish organizations do it the way the Jets did it: in the middle of OTAs, with Harris still on the practice field and the owner sequestered in some bunker, leaving Bowles to take the initial heat for a decision that was not his.

The timing of the Harris release reveals that the Jets are guessing as much as they are tanking. It's an old-fashioned "post-June 1 cap cut," except 31 other organizations have figured out they can release veterans much earlier, designate them as June cuts on the paperwork and spare them the trip to OTAs. It's how the Cowboys handled Tony Romo, for instance. Yes, surprise Jeremy Maclin situations pop up now and then. But adding multiple veterans to the 90-man roster only to release them in the middle of OTAs is a great way to lose credibility with players and agents.

Maccagnan knows all of this. As for Bowles, no head coach wants to lose as many veterans as he has lost this offseason. Indeed, the recent round of cuts have Woody Johnson's fingerprints all over them.

If anyone with actual decision-making power in an NFL organization is susceptible to "Suck for Sam" reasoning, it's Johnson. The Jets owner, who's been penciled in as the eventual U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, according to Gardiner Harris and Ben Shpigel of the New York Times, has also been the designated excuse for every bad Jets decision through three general manager changes. When Maccagnan blew the salary cap in 2015 on Revis-esque players in their last productive years, it was because Johnson made him do it. Now that Maccagnan is cutting and trading defensive stalwarts, it's because Johnson made him do it.

Johnson is expected to become the next ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Johnson is expected to become the next ambassador to the United Kingdom.Michael Adamucci/Getty Images

Here's something else bosses like Johnson do: They blame their subordinates, then go on firing sprees when their plans don't work out. That may be why Maccagnan has all but vanished and Bowles looks like he is biting through his tongue. Both know what comes next.

So, let's return to the concept of "tanking" for a moment. Jets fans, who suffer from the football variant of Stockholm syndrome, have talked themselves into a scenario in which the team goes 1-15, Darnold has the Heisman Trophy renamed in his honor and the Jets retain Maccagnan and Bowles to usher the franchise into a new golden age while Johnson successfully smooths over relationships with our allies or something.

Here is what will actually happen.

Yes, the Jets will finish around 1-15; the current Browns roster could mop the floor with them. Bowles will be fired, because coaches who win six or seven games in two seasons do not get a third one here on planet Earth. If the team retains Maccagnan, it's as a low-credibility yes man.

The Jets will surely draft some college superstar. They will then have to draft nearly everything else except defensive linemen and safeties, because adding a rookie quarterback to a roster this talent-poor is a recipe for ruining a rookie quarterback.

Gutting the roster the way the Jets have done is not starting over. It's scheduling "starting over" for next year. In the meantime, fans and players get subjected to a long season of hopeless football.

This is the point where we typically finish with a joke about how the Jets are always the Jets. But this is the Jets being worse than usual. It's sad. And justifying it as stinking on purpose makes it even sadder.

   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.