New York Jets  

 

Todd Bowles looking for a leader with Jets going 'to kindergarten'

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Now, let's have Jets coach Todd Bowles project the 2017 season by way of explaining why he might start 37-year-old quarterback Josh McCown amidst the team's drastic youth movement.

"Even when you go to kindergarten, somebody's got to be the teacher."

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For those far removed from kindergarten, here's a reminder that it can be silly and fun, and almost always ends with somebody cleaning up the mess.

You have to feel for Bowles, whose mess this will be to manage, facing his third NFL season with a roster that has just endured the most dramatic bloodletting in the NFL this spring. It is foolish to discuss job security in June, and certainly nobody around the team wanted to do it Tuesday. But when Bowles said Tuesday that his expectations are as high as always -- to get to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl -- it seemed for now a goal as distant and illusory as it has at any time since the Rich Kotite era.

Nobody is rooting for Bowles to go the way of Kotite. But the good news is, the Kotite era -- when the Jets bottomed out at 1-15 before hiring Bill Parcells -- ushered in a stretch of relative prosperity. That is what Jets fans have to cling to now, that the season they are about to absorb is merely a means to an end. There are those around the league who question whether the Jets are tanking. More likely, they have taken a clear-eyed look at their roster, know it cannot challenge Tom Brady and have decided to usher out older, high-priced talent that, while beloved, didn't deliver any more championships than the players of Kotite's time.

The Jets hang large black and white photos of players from their ring of honor in their cavernous fieldhouse, allowing the greats of their past to hover over the players of the future. The most recent players there are Curtis Martin and Wayne Chrebet -- Parcells' prizes -- and it was hard to walk by those portraits on the way to the locker room this week without thinking of the players who will someday join them, whose lockers have been emptied so recently that you expected to see the boxes still sitting on the floor.

Gone are some of the biggest names of the last decade -- Mangold, Revis, Harris, Decker, Marshall. The most recent exiles -- Eric Decker released Monday and David Harris last week -- were especially shocking for their poor timing, and because they laid bare what should have been apparent all along: The Jets are going to put such a kiddie corps on the field this year that even a player as loyal and admirable as Harris wouldn't have helped. It is dispiriting for fans -- the real sufferers here -- and it has left the locker room bereft of familiar faces and, more problematic, much experience. The Jets have just four players on the roster who are 30 or older, stunningly few. In their season opener against the Bengals last year, the Jets started six players who were 30 or older on offense alone.

That the Jets should probably have taken such drastic measures two years ago, when Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan first arrived, is beside the point now. McCown has been around enough -- this will be his 15th season, with the last two being spent with the Cleveland Browns -- to know teams often cycle through periods like this, and it is the job of the management to think big-picture and the job of the players to do what they are told.

With his one-liner, Bowles all but said McCown will be the starter when the season opens because he needs an elder to lead the offense (a similar argument could be used for why the Jets should have kept Harris, the defensive equivalent). That is the right decision at quarterback -- the Jets have to be able to function, and with so many new parts, there is no guarantee that anybody but a veteran could pull that off in the season's opening weeks.

Still, as the Jets convened for minicamp, figuring out if Christian Hackenberg is the quarterback of the future remains the only priority for 2017 that really matters. He looked capable on Tuesday -- there was a long stretch of completions in the team portion of practice before a Morris Claiborne interception -- but McCown is still clearly better. Whether Hackenberg will appreciably improve is anybody's guess. There is no room for sentiment in the NFL, but the nostalgia for the players of the past is rooted in a current reality: How well can you evaluate a quarterback when his No. 1 receiver (Quincy Enunwa) was No. 3 last season, and there is no veteran able to help bail him out, when his offensive line is in transition, when the tight end who might be his best safety net (Austin Seferian-Jenkins) has to prove he can take advantage of a second chance to re-start his career after off-field issues and just 10 catches in seven games with the Jets last season?

"Well, obviously yeah, to make a fair evaluation of a quarterback, you're as good as the 10 guys around you," McCown said. "If those guys are executing at a high level, then it's appropriate to be able to make a fair judgment. At the same time, you can still observe and tell if a guy is doing what he's supposed to do and if a quarterback, whether his eyes or his decision making, is going the right place for the ball. If you have young guys outside that aren't necessarily running the right routes, that's understandable and it happens, but it doesn't necessarily mean you can say it's not the quarterback's fault if that happens. You can still evaluate, and these reps are important for all of us, so yes, to your point, obviously it doesn't help, but at the same time, I think we're all in it together, and that's part of the leadership and bringing those guys along as a quarterback and no matter who you have in your huddle, getting those guys to play at the standard that we set."

That is the quandary the Jets will carry with them as they break for the summer and head into the season. They have an unsettled quarterback situation, precious few players of note, a roomful of kids and one very important decision to make. If this is, indeed, to be like kindergarten, the bar of success for the Jets will be set at something any parent could appreciate: teach a few lessons, while avoiding the meltdowns.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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