Young Jets will need plenty of patience from fans
Robert Saleh was the first to warn us.
Then Joe Douglas followed.
Don’t expect too much.
Saleh, the Jets rookie head coach, and Douglas, in his third year as the team’s general manager, did everything but rent billboards on the Jersey Turnpike messaging Jets fans about setting low expectations for the 2021 season.
As enthusiastic as Jets fans are about the energetic and uber-positive Saleh and Zach Wilson, the rookie quarterback with the dynamic release and “it factor’’ moxie, the Over/Under win total (six) Las Vegas set is real.
If Sunday’s season-opening 19-14 road loss to the Panthers and Sam Darnold serves as any tangible evidence for what’s to come this season, the Jets look like a pretty good bet for the Under.
That’s what Saleh and Douglas have begged for from Jets fans.
But that’s a lot to ask considering these faithful souls haven’t tasted playoff nectar since the 2010 season and yet they still travel to road games in droves with hopes packed into their suitcases, duffel bags and backpacks.
There were a lot of people clad in Jets green jerseys milling about the streets, bars and restaurants in Charlotte on Saturday and filling seats inside Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
I met a friendly crew of them on a golf course in the Charlotte area on Saturday. They were drinking Miller Lite with the cans wrapped in green Jets-logoed koozies and chirping about their team.
They were down from North Jersey, long-time season-ticket holders who went on Stubhub and bought seats in the second row behind the Jets bench at an aggressively inflated price. They came to see the latest version of the assembly line of new beginnings their team has rolled out to sell to its fans.
Other than the toughness Wilson showed by not being carted off the field on a stretcher after being sacked six times and hurried at least twice that often, it’s difficult to imagine those North Jersey guys flying back to Newark Airport on Monday morning very satisfied by what they saw.
We figured the defense was going to struggle with its young and inexperienced secondary and compromised pass rush. But it was the play of the offensive line, which failed both in protecting Wilson and getting any consistent push in the running game, that was most disappointing.
So, too, was Elijah Moore, the rookie receiver who looked like draft-day larceny with his impressive training camp. Moore, in his first NFL game, dropped a key long third-down pass in the first half that, if caught, could have changed the momentum of the game. He finished with one catch for a loss of 3 yards.
The key words there, though, are “first NFL game.’’ Moore should neither be judged nor defined by his first game as a pro. He’ll get better, because he’s talented and he’s got a good head on his shoulders.
It’s just that Wilson and the Jets needed him to be better on Sunday. But that can be said about a lot of his teammates, too.
When I spoke with the North Jersey guys about the team on Saturday, I said this season may be defined more by the way the team loses than by the actual won-loss record. If Wilson is showing progress and the team is losing games by, say, 27-24 or 35-28 with the kid quarterback displaying the dynamic skills the team drafted him for, Jets fans can stomach that.
Sunday in Carolina was not one of those games. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s offense looked a lot like Adam Gase’s offense the previous two years in that it showed little imagination. Wilson was running for his life, and the running game was nonexistent.
Is this too harsh an assessment of Saleh’s first game as an NFL head coach and Wilson’s maiden game? Perhaps. It’s almost certain to get better — much the way the Jets got a little better in the second half on Sunday.
“I thought overall in the first half what you saw was a young team trying to find its footing,’’ Saleh said Monday. “There were so many small little errors that were made throughout offense, defense, special teams, even from coaching decisions.
“We got to the locker room, talked through it all, made the adjustments that needed to be made — from player, coach, all of it — and you saw a better second half. Offensively, we moved the ball a lot better and defensively we were able to get more three-and-outs and create a little pressure on Sam.
“The first-game jitters … I don’t want to say we expected it,’’ Saleh went on, “but I’m not surprised.’’