The way of sports is the same, no matter which side of the stadium you’re on: The players and coaches on the field want to win, the fans want to see the team win.
In recent weeks, at least as it pertains to the New York Jets, those things have been at sharp odds.
When this month began, the Jets were seemingly on an Acela train headed full-speed toward an 0-16 season, especially after Gregg Williams’ bananas Cover 0 blitz call in the final moments of a Week 13 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
While the ignominy of a winless season could last years, it would have come with a gilded gift: the No. 1 pick in the draft and one Trevor Lawrence.
Only the Jets beat the Los Angeles Rams on the road two weeks ago, and they won again on Sunday, beating a receiver-depleted Cleveland Browns team desperate to end its playoff drought.
The win against the Browns meant the Jacksonville Jaguars got the No. 1 pick. “Tanking for Trevor” was a bust.
Jets fans don’t seem to be happy. It’s understandable, to a point. Assuming he declares for the draft, Lawrence has long been considered the top quarterback in this year’s class, and Sam Darnold — at least under Adam Gase’s tutelage — hasn’t been the star they were hoping he’d become when he was taken third overall in 2018.
If you’ve ever been in an NFL locker room though, players know one thing: their film is currency. How they play, even in games that don’t matter, is what general managers and coaches look at when deciding whether to keep them or sign them.
Current ESPN analyst Damien Woody was a Pro Bowl center with the New England Patriots and won two Super Bowls before signing a free-agent contract with the Detroit Lions in 2004. During the 2006 season, the Lions narrowly missed out on the No. 1 pick, beating Dallas in the finale to finish 3-13, a game better than the Raiders.
“I think a lot of this noise [around the Jets] is because people think Lawrence is a generational talent. I didn’t hear reporters back then talking about, ‘Why did you guys win a game?’” Woody said. “People were trying to find a way to win a game and finish the season off and get the hell up out of there. Maybe because the draft has gotten so much more notoriety, but I don’t remember that type of noise.”
As for now, Woody broke down the rift between Jets fans and Jets players like this:
“‘Fan’ stands for fanatics, and a lot of times fans are irrational; they don’t think with a clear head sometimes,” he said. “Players don’t care about the future. Players live in the here and now, each minute, each meeting, each practice, each game. They don’t care about the draft and next season, they’re concerned about doing what they can to put out the best tape possible, especially when you’re on a bad team.”
In a league where the average career lasts roughly three and a third years, expecting Jets players to play their worst and jeopardize their own careers in order to hand the top pick to a franchise they might not be part of in four months is unrealistic.
No NFL player worth his salt is going to deliberately play poorly. Not if he knows doing so will negatively affect his employment status.
“When you’re on a bad team, roster turnover is usually huge. With these Jets a new head coach is [likely] going to come in, and the new head coach is going to look at the roster and say these are the players I don’t want,” Woody said. “Every coach does that, they want their type of guys. So the roster turnover is going to be substantial.
“… Playing in Detroit, we were terrible. My last year in Detroit I was playing guard, I got benched. Then they moved me to tackle just on seeing what I was doing in practice. I started the last six games at tackle and because I did so well at tackle, that opened up new opportunities for me in free agency, all because of that move. And to me that’s a prime example of putting stuff on tape. Fans sometimes they get caught up in the draft talk and who’s the next hot prospect, players don’t give a damn about that.”
And it’s not as if New York was playing teams in similar positions the last two weeks. The Rams were 9-4 and in a fight for the NFC West title when they face-planted against the Jets, and Cleveland is battling to make it to the postseason in a strong AFC North.
It was the job of the Rams and the Browns to win, and they didn’t get it done. That’s on those teams. New York players should not have laid down for them.
But take solace, Jets fans: In recent history, the No. 1 pick hasn’t quite been the Golden Ticket it’s portrayed to be. Since 2000, a quarterback has been taken first overall 15 times and only one — Eli Manning with the New York Giants — started and won a Super Bowl for his team. And even that’s sort of a technicality, since Manning was drafted by the Chargers and traded to the Giants.
Two others, Cam Newton and Jared Goff, got their team to a Super Bowl but lost. Heck, the Browns had the No. 1 pick in 2017 and 2018 and still haven’t gotten to the postseason yet.
The Jets may have lost out on Lawrence, but it’s not like there aren’t other quarterbacks in this draft they could have success with. Or hire a better coach and maybe Darnold will flourish.
Either way, the players can’t be knocked for winning.
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