Much of the Jets’ problems have come down to bad luck. They dominated the Broncos game and still lost. They played well enough to beat both Oakland and the Patriots on the road earlier this year but didn’t. They’ve had a difficult first half of the schedule and have faced teams (like the Raiders and the Broncos) right when they were peaking. But that ineffable “luck” is precisely what has always been on the Jets’ side over the last two years. You don’t go from a wild card to the AFC Championship Game two straight years without having luck on your side. (If you want to call luck “slight statistical aberrations,” you can do that too.) Ryan’s trick has always been mixing luck and bravado, like he knew success was going to happen the whole time. He didn’t look like that after the Tebow touchdown.
There is also the issue of the quarterback. The Jets had done so well with Mark Sanchez at the helm over his first two years that his deficiencies—accuracy, arm strength, his tendency to stare at his intended receivers—were often overlooked, particularly when he was often playing his best football in the fourth quarter. But his critical, crushing interception against the Broncos made more people believe that Sanchez, in his third season, isn’t progressing. He might actually be getting worse. Ryan even had to give Sanchez the dreaded vote of confidence last week. Sanchez’s one job is to not make mistakes, and in his third year, he just keeps making more. The man is not a lost cause; his career statistics so far compare favorably to Eli Manning’s over his first three seasons, and one shouldn’t forget how terrific he was in the second half of the title-game loss to the Steelers last year. But still-unrealized potential does the Jets no good right now.
You can make an argument that the last two years have been a bit of a Jets bubble, a curious confluence of circumstances that led to irrational exuberance. After all, the Jets still haven’t beat the Patriots for the division title, and if they somehow right the ship and make the playoffs this year, they’ll have to do so running the same wild-card, road-game gauntlet they did the last two seasons. This was supposed to be the year the Jets made the next step. To believe in the all-healing powers of Ryan, the continued upward trajectory is essential. We all have to believe. It’s pretty difficult to believe right now.
Now, true, the Jets have been in tougher spots than this one. Two years ago, they were 4-6 after ten games, and they made the AFC Championship Game that year. But one gets the sense that the Jets have used up too much of their magic, that fate has smiled on them long enough. Ryan seems to sense it himself. That’s the scariest part of all of this.
Hey: Maybe this is setting up for another crazed run from the wild-card spot, another goofy postseason confluence of circumstances, the loony Ryan-Jets kismet that has brought the team to those two consecutive AFC Championship Games. Maybe this column will end up as much a relic as Ryan’s statement two years ago, when, thinking his team had already been mathematically eliminated, he said, “We’re obviously out of the playoffs.” Maybe this is just one more big Jets setup and Ryan and his charges will emerge triumphant, and as un-Jets-like as one could imagine, once more. It’s possible.
But if it isn’t, and the Jets end up missing the playoffs and spending the offseason wondering what went wrong, the knives will be out and the Ryan mystique will be officially shattered. He’ll just be a loudmouth guy who couldn’t get the Jets where he promised us they would go. I want him to be more than that. I want him to juggle cars. I want him to flip off Bill Belichick. I want him to make more foot-fetish videos and then just laugh about it in that barrel-chested, uninhibited, genuine way. No one has been more fun than these Jets and Rex Ryan. But it might be time to say good-bye. It might be that, after all, these really are the same old Jets.