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Are The Jets Tanking, Or Are They Just This Bad?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It’s Monday, and we still have three games remaining in Week 13. Such is life in the pandemic NFL. But the games that have been played so far were something else.

Let’s start by talking about bad teams doing some bad things. Yes, that’s right: We have to talk about the New York Jets.

It looked for all the world like the Jets were about to win their first game Sunday: With just under two minutes left in the game, they were up 4 points with the ball after stopping the reeling Las Vegas Raiders in the red zone. But they went three-and-out and gave the ball back to Derek Carr, and the Raiders did … this:

First things first: Did the Jets want to win that game?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The Jets did. If they had wanted to lose, they would have just quit when they were down 24-13.

Jets fans, on the other hand, did not want them to win.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I think the Jets did want to win. While that was a hyper-aggressive play call by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams — and a dumb one, since it put single coverage on the only deep weapon the Raiders really have in Henry Ruggs — they played well enough to win all game. The Jets had a higher expected points added (EPA) per play than the Raiders even when you include the game-winning Hail Mary.

Plus, Williams has nothing to gain from looking like a fool there.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): That being said, it was a uniquely bad play call. Literally unique:

Salfino: This is what Williams always does. The idea that this is “unprecedented” just comes from getting too specific with your search. The number of rushers was just a function of the number of receivers in the pattern. One guy was at the line waiting for the tight end to release. It was probably the first time ever there were three receivers in the pattern on a Hail Mary, too.

neil: I don’t think that’s an unreasonable definition of a Hail Mary situation, but even putting that aside — and let’s say that this play is his go-to call for that scenario — it just seems so unnecessary. Aggression makes way more sense when you are losing, not when there is only really one mistake you have to avoid in order to not lose.

Salfino: I agree that it’s too risky a call to make when the game is basically over. It’s what the offense would want you to do. And the Raiders clearly knew it was coming. But the bottom line is that from a Jets fan perspective, it was an awesome call and the Greatest Loss Ever. It turned what was one of the darkest days in Jets history (had they won) into another step down the Trevor Lawrence Highway.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Williams is not a good football coach for a whole host of reasons.

sara.ziegler: And in fact, he is no longer a football coach! We just found out that the Jets have fired Williams.

Salfino: Jets fans want to give Williams a statue right now. So this is super weird. Williams has obviously had a checkered past with Bountygate and now this, but I think generally he’s been a good coordinator over his 22 years, including coaching a Super Bowl-winning defense, and he was certainly a good coordinator in 2019.

neil: Our wonderful copy editor Maya Sweedler just slacked me to say Williams was “sacrificed on the altar of Trevor.” (She is a Jets fan.)

sara.ziegler: 😭

Salfino: The Jets are executing the Tank of the Century. Josh should be proud.

joshua.hermsmeyer: But what if Justin Fields is better than Lawrence, and being forced to get the second pick takes away the opportunity to make a bad choice? 😎

Salfino: Definitely could be the case, I stipulate.

sara.ziegler: This brings me to my next question: For these Jets players, should they have wanted to lose? I have to think the likelihood of going 0-16 on the season has to be weighing on them.

Salfino: Is 1-15 much better? The San Francisco 49ers were 2-14 in 2016 and then went to the Super Bowl three years later. I don’t think 0-16 is a big deal.

neil: It sucks for them because they are not going to be part of the Tank Endgame Masterpiece. They just put their bodies on the line for the tank with nothing to show for it, most likely.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, they were paid.

And I don’t mean to be flip, but being in the NFL is a special privilege. That said, some front-office people I respect absolutely hate tanking, even the analytics people.

neil: Touché, but we all know NFL players are in the most precarious situation of all major-league athletes, in terms of job security and (for non-QBs or stars) guaranteed salary. Add in the long-term injury factor, and there’s something extra icky about tanking in football in particular.

Salfino: Again, I don’t think the Jets are tanking. All tanks are happy accidents. And it’s only happy when there is a reputed generational QB prospect, as is the case this year. (Not that Lawrence will actually be that, but he’s clearly an extremely coveted player.)

As we sit right now, the Jets have a better expected future than at least 10 other teams, IMO. Probably more.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Ehhh

sara.ziegler: What

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, the QB part is a big piece, but where that QB ends up and the structure of that organization means a lot. And the Jets are a mess on that front.

Salfino: How is GM Joe Douglas a mess? On what basis?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, he is general manager of a winless team, for starters.

Salfino: This isn’t his roster. He’s had one draft. This is still Mike Maccagnan’s team.

He certainly hasn’t proved that he’s good, though. Of course I agree with that. But a mess? Nah. No way is there evidence of that.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If the only information you had on a GM was that he was in charge for one of the worst seasons in team history — and that’s really all we know of him — your opinion of him should shade heavily toward bad, IMO.

Because remember, they aren’t tanking. You get no points for the thing you aren’t doing.

neil: Their ownership isn’t exactly the best either. As a Mets fan, Mike, you should appreciate how much bad owners can seep into the DNA of a losing team.

Salfino: Neil, if they’re not making football decisions (and the Johnsons don’t) and are spending money (the Johnson do), I don’t care about them. I disagree with their organizational structure, where both the coach and the GM are reporting to the owner, but many teams do that.

neil: All I’m saying is there’s one commonality across the last 10 years of playoff-less football, and more broadly across the last 20 years of only sporadically competitive Jets teams.

Salfino: Well, the Jets have been “sporadically competitive” since they were formed.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: That’s fair. But let’s just say that the guy who did this probably isn’t building a good culture.

Salfino: That I agree with, but I guarantee I would not want to have a beer with 95 percent of NFL owners.

One last fun fact on the Jets and Raiders: Something similar happened to the Jets against Oakland at home 50 years ago to the day (with Daryle Lamonica in the role of Derek Carr):

sara.ziegler: OK, let’s move on to the other chief contender in the Tanking for Trevor Sweepstakes: the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jacksonville also very nearly won Sunday, forcing overtime with the Minnesota Vikings. You could make the case that the Jags need Lawrence more than the Jets do. Should they have just thrown in the towel in that game? Is that even really possible to do?

neil: They already made the decision to go with Mike Glennon as starter over Gardner Minshew, despite Minshew being healthy. What else can you do?

sara.ziegler: Great point.

neil: (I guess they could make Jake Luton permanent starter?)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I actually think Luton is a more exciting passer!

neil: I admit there’s something to be said for “fun QBs.”

Salfino: The Jaguars have been feisty. They were kicking the crap out of the Vikings in the first half, and then Kirk Cousins found something, even though his QBR for the game was trash. He’s been great in second halves all year.

joshua.hermsmeyer: This may be one of those games where Kirk played better than the numbers suggest. He threw an interception, but it happened because MVP candidate Dalvin Cook failed to turn around.

Salfino: Yeah, why was his Total Quarterback Rating so bad? Was it the fumble blame, which comes before the fumble shame?

sara.ziegler: He deserves all the fumble shame all the time, IMHO.

neil: And his net yards per attempt weren’t amazing after subtracting the 30 sack yards (a season high).

Salfino: I think one fumble was charged to Cousins even though Cook dropped the pitch.

sara.ziegler: That’s funny: When I watched that fumble, I thought it would be charged to Dalvin and said out loud, “That was Kirk’s fault.”

(Yes, I talk to my TV during Vikings games. A lot.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: 😂

Salfino: Sara is always looking to blame poor Cousins …

sara.ziegler: My priors are sound.

Salfino: The Vikings are in the playoffs as we sit, right?

neil: Yes, they would be the absolute last wild-card team. Getting in on the somewhat obscure “winning percentage in common games” tiebreaker.

sara.ziegler: Ugh, yes, which is so ridiculous. They are aggressively NOT a playoff team.

Salfino: I think the Vikings have a playoff offense, but their defense is trash. Mike Zimmer doesn’t understand this, which is the real problem.

I don’t even have the Vikings on my “worse expected future than the Jets” list. I actually think with Cousins and those receivers, they are dangerous in the postseason.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Who would you put in ahead of them, Sara?

sara.ziegler: Arizona, San Francisco … maybe Washington. Dallas, who beat them.

Literally the entire league, except Chicago. 😉

neil: Arizona certainly seemed better about a month ago.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I like the NFC West choices.

Salfino: Really, Josh? Arizona is stinking garbage right now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kyler Murray is hurt, hater.

Salfino: Teams are taking away the running game, and Murray has no Plan B. Granted, the Cardinals’ most recent loss was to the Rams, who have maybe the best defense in football, masked by the fact that they somehow allowed 28 points to Arizona.

sara.ziegler: You know who is a playoff team? The New York Giants! They’re the best team in the NFC East after beating a sluggish Seattle behind quarterback Colt McCoy. It was McCoy’s first win since 2014!

joshua.hermsmeyer: 😐

neil: You know who is not a playoff team? The Eagles. (These two things are related.)

sara.ziegler: What happened to the Seahawks in that Giants game?

Salfino: Russell Wilson was gross is what happened. How that happened, I have no idea. He’s been holding on in reality, but he’s been a fantasy bust for a month now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m afraid that Russ won’t ever be allowed to cook again if the Hawks don’t make the playoffs.

neil: The Giants’ defense did a fantastic job against him. Given the competition, this was their best game of the year.

Salfino: Totally agree on the Giants defense. The Giants are the Dolphins of the NFC. Or at least the NFC East. The Belichick Tree may finally have a couple of branches.

neil: Lately the Giants are either winning or they’re losing a squeaker. The last time they lost by more than 3 points? Oct. 4.

Salfino: And I think, gasp, we may owe Dave Gettleman an apology.

sara.ziegler: Take that back.

Salfino: I know, I hate myself.

neil: I mean, most of those games were still against either the NFC East or Joe Burrow-less Bengals-type teams. So let’s not get too carried away.

But they are in the division driver’s seat for sure now.

Salfino: As a New Yorker, I hate the other city team. But the Giants have been very feisty all year. I’d be proud of the team if I was a fan.

neil: And once they’re in the playoffs, I’m looking forward to them pulling some kind of wild 2007- or 2011-style run. The Packers will be right there, offering the chance for yet another soul-crushing home upset loss to the G-Men.

Salfino: Also right now the Giants would play Seattle. In the Meadowlands.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was interesting: Wilson threw an incredible pass through the linemen in front of him — basically a no-look sidearm pass. And it went right through Chris Carson’s hands for an interception. Patrick Mahomes made a similar pass Sunday night, and everyone fell all over themselves to say how unique his skill set is. Mahomes is undeniably great, but I’m not so sure some of the things he does are that unique. He just seems to get away with them more than others. (Pro Football Focus has him with quite a few turnover-worthy plays this year.)

Salfino: Man, the Chiefs are in some weird company now; are Mahomes and their offense just off?

sara.ziegler: It’s gotta feel great for the Chiefs to still be winning even when they’re not playing their best ball.

neil: I don’t know whether to be worried about the Chiefs or not, though. Since Week 9, they are 4-0 despite winning by a grand total of 15 points combined.

Mahomes has racked up a ton of yardage, but it has not been vintage, pretty or convincing K.C. football.

sara.ziegler: The other big surprise of the week for me was New England’s 45-0 dismantling of the Los Angeles Chargers. What did you guys make of that game?

neil: The win certainly did wonders for their yards-per-point number, usually a Bill Belichick hallmark. They scored 45 while gaining less than 300 total yards, one of the only times a team has ever done that.

(They still rank just 19th in yards per point this season, though.)

Salfino: I observed that if you gave each coach the other team and had them play in a month, the Bill Belichick Chargers would beat the Anthony Lynn Patriots probably 60-0. Lynn may be having the worst coaching season I have ever seen.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Justin Herbert looked like a rookie for perhaps the first time this year, so that was notable.

Salfino: Also, I love him, but Herbert was seeing ghosts.

neil: And the Patriots D reminded us of last year’s dominating version for one of the only times this year, too.

sara.ziegler: If the Patriots were in the NFC, I’d pick them over the Vikings for the playoffs, too.

neil: Well, we know you would.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.