FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The offensive numbers are ghastly: three games, 36 possessions, 172 plays and only one touchdown. It hasn’t been this bad to start a season since, like, never.
In the 6o-year history of the New York Jets, this marks the first time they have had only one touchdown from scrimmage after three games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The previous low was two in 1976, when coach Lou Holtz — straight out of the college ranks — tried to install the veer offense with an old and wobbly-kneed Joe Namath at quarterback. Holtz, best remembered for making the team sing fight songs, quit before the end of the season, Namath’s last in New York.
The current Jets are singing, too — in the rain, as dark clouds once again have gathered over this star-crossed franchise. They weren’t expected to be a playoff team in Adam Gase’s first season, but they figured to make significant improvement on offense because of the coach’s background. Nothing screams “hopeless” louder than an offense that can’t score, but that summarizes the state of the Jets (0-3) as they search for answers during their bye week.
The organization had no idea that One Jets Drive, the address of the team facility and the title of its in-house internet program, would describe the offensive production after three weeks.
There’s anger, shock and confusion in the locker room, as players come to grips with personnel issues and schemes that aren’t working. Gase, for his part, has put most of the onus on the players and injuries, expressing confidence in his ability to find a way out of the wilderness.
“Well, the good thing is I’ve actually been in this position before,” said Gase, a gallows-humor reference to his time with the Miami Dolphins.
Elder statesman Ryan Kalil, who played on bad teams and great teams during his 12 seasons with the Carolina Panthers, says he can tell the difference between no-talent bad and underachieving bad — and he insists this isn’t a talent issue. He also said the problems aren’t scheme-related. If it’s not scheme and it’s not talent, then what is it? Let’s call it the perfect storm, a combination of illness, injury, new system, lack of preseason work and tough competition.
Here’s a closer look on why the offense, which was supposed to be revitalized under Gase, has sunk to an embarrassing level:
1. The quarterback calamity: Enraged fans don’t want to hear this because they would rather blame someone (see: Gase) as opposed to something, but facts are facts: The Jets have played six-plus quarters with a former practice squad quarterback. Luke Falk was cut by three teams in 12 months, including the Jets, who added him to the practice squad after every other team in the quarterback-hungry NFL determined he wasn’t good enough to roster. He was overmatched against the New England Patriots, who toyed with his mind and pounded his body.
No, Sam Darnold and Trevor Siemian didn’t play well in Weeks 1 and Week 2, but we later learned Darnold already was in the throes of mononucleosis. Siemian didn’t get much of a chance because his left ankle was turned into a pretzel by Myles Garrett, tearing ligaments and ending his season before his first halftime.
The Jets became only the sixth team in the Super Bowl era, excluding the 1987 strike season, to use three different starting quarterbacks in the first three games. The last two teams to do it combined for a 3-29 record, including a 1-15 season for the 2016 Cleveland Browns.
Ownership hyped Gase as a quarterback whisperer, as did Peyton Manning, but you can’t expect the whispers to work if he’s coaching marginal talent at quarterback. Like it or not, Gase deserves an alibi until Darnold returns, which could be next week against the Philadelphia Eagles. That will be the true test of his abilities as an offensive architect and playcaller.
“It would be nice to get 14 back,” Gase said. “That always helps things because he makes some bad things go away.”
2. Lack of cohesion on the offensive line: There was a play in the New England loss that epitomized the struggles up front. On a jailbreak pass rush, left guard Kelechi Osemele and Kalil got spun around like tops, resulting in a collapsed pocket. When Falk tried to spin away from an eventual sack, it almost resembled a choreographed routine, with three players doing 360s in succession — a terrible look.
You knew there would be some early season hiccups because the starting five never played together in the preseason, but what we’ve seen is far worse. The numbers are bad — 29th in sacks allowed, 26th in pressure percentage — but the how is more disturbing than the what.
Four of the 13 sacks allowed were recorded by an unblocked rusher — two on safety blitzes, two on line stunts. A free rusher conveys the same message as a wide-open receiver: Someone screwed up. Again, it’s a bad look. More often than not, it’s a blown assignment or an ill-conceived call. For the offensive line, which is struggling with stunts, it shows a lack of communication.
The starting five has 35 years of combined NFL experience, so we’re not talking about a bunch of newbies. They should be able to recognize fronts and communicate adjustments, and yet there have been consistent breakdowns in the passing and running games. The Jets have 22 negative plays (sacks and runs for loss), more than half their number of first downs (36) — an atrocious ratio.
Gase said “our techniques and fundamentals just were not there” against the Patriots. Let’s be real: It’s a poorly coached unit right now. Either the players aren’t buying in or the methods aren’t being taught properly. Gase and line coach Frank Pollack are working together for the first time, so you wonder if they’re having trouble melding their systems.
“It’s on me as the coach, number one, to get us on the same page and play better,” Pollack said.
The line, running backs and secondary are the only units that haven’t been affected by injuries. There are no excuses. So, yes, this is more than a quarterback issue. Darnold, on the verge of taking over the hot mess known as the Jets’ offense, is aware of that.
“Obviously, we just need to fix some details at other spots as well. We’re not blind to that,” he said. “So it’s just about going out there and going out at practice and in the meeting rooms and walk-throughs, being able to fix all that stuff and not being shy about it, either, not worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s about getting this stuff right and we’re going to get it right. It’s just a matter of time.”
3. Wasting Bell’s talent: Remember in training camp, all those questions about whether Le’Veon Bell‘s distinctive running style would mesh with his new offensive line? Players and coaches downplayed it, insisting it would be an easy transition because football is football, regardless of style. Well, the numbers suggest otherwise.
Bell is the same patient runner he was with the Pittsburgh Steelers, per NFL Next Gen Stats, except now he doesn’t have much production to show for it. He’s averaging 2.92 seconds behind the line of scrimmage (eighth among 43 running backs with at least 20 carries) and 8.04 mph when he reaches the line (42nd), marks that are close to his final season in Pittsburgh — 3.09 seconds and 8.20 mph.
The difference is he’s not finding consistent daylight, which explains why he’s off to the worst start of his career (2.9 yards per carry). Bell is a special talent, but he can’t do it alone. The man is averaging only 1.50 yards before contact, and the scariest part? The Jets aren’t seeing a steady diet of eight-man fronts. The average is 6.55 defenders in the box on his rushes (26th out of 43). That means defenses aren’t selling out to stop Bell, but they’re stopping him anyway because the line can’t block.
Publicly, Bell has remained upbeat and positive, but you wonder if there’s a tipping point.
4. The game plans: Without Darnold, tight end Chris Herndon (suspension) and wide receiver Quincy Enunwa (season-ending injury), Gase is down three of his top six skill players. That would have an effect on any coach, but that doesn’t mean he gets a free pass.
Except for a handful of Wildcat plays — which haven’t worked — Gase hasn’t tried anything creative to generate a spark. After boasting all summer about Bell’s versatility within the system, he hasn’t used him in different positions to create mismatches (only 13 snaps outside the backfield). The lone offensive touchdown, it should be noted, came when he was lined up as a wide receiver and caught a pass from Darnold in Week 1.
Nine of the 13 sacks occurred with only five players (the line) in pass protection, the third-highest total in the league, per ESPN Stats & Information research. That’s only two sacks behind the Arizona Cardinals, whose new coach, Kliff Kingsbury, doesn’t give a damn about protecting the quarterback in his Air Raid offense. Why doesn’t Gase use a tight end to block? Why not max protect to keep the quarterback upright?
Gase needs to fix that. Otherwise, Darnold’s return will be short-lived.
“There’s no point in sitting here and beating each other up, pointing fingers — that’s not going to do anything,” Gase said. “We’ve got to go back to work and we’ve got to get things fixed.”