Why the New York Jets Have Been So Bad for So Long

Blame decades of mismanagement by owners and coaches uninterested in long-term solutions.
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AP / Patrick Semansky

To paraphrase Georges Clemenceau on Brazil, the New York Jets are the team of the future—and always will be. In 1969 the Jets tossed the pro football world on its head when the AFL upstart Jets were led by Joe Namath to a Super Bowl victory over the NFL old-guard team Baltimore Colts. Since then, the Jets have accomplished nothing—despite intermittent reboots of team management and proclamations that the future will soon be brighter.

The team has never been back to the Super Bowl; four times they were one victory away and lost. That makes one Super Bowl appearance from 1969 till now. Only the Detroit Lions and the Arizona (formerly the St. Louis) Cardinals have a worse won-lost record among franchises that have been around at least half a century.

Why has the team been so bad for so long? Blame a persistent shortsightedness among its leaders over the year.

Much of the Jets’ history of futility can be traced to Leon Hess, an oil-company billionaire. Hess, along with Sonny Werblin and three other investors, purchased the franchise in 1963 and by 1984 had bought out the other investors to become the team’s sole owner. Hess was well liked, but fans complained in those years that the team didn’t seem to be run by “football people”—that is, management grounded in the strategy, tactics, and economics of the game. Hess seemed more interested in the prestige of owning a pro football team and treating his friends to a box-seat view than in building a solid franchise.

After Hess died in 1999, the Jets were sold for $635 million to Woody Johnson, heir of the Johnson & Johnson fortune. He has proved he knows as little about the game as Hess did. A September a headline in the New York Daily News called him “clueless,” one of the kinder descriptions of his football acumen.

This inept line of owners has resulted in a series of false starts for the Jets. Nearly every new coach hired over the years has brought with him the promise of a new day. Walt Michaels, after four seasons (1977-1980) without a winning record, took the Jets to a 10-5-1 record in 1980 before losing in the first round of the playoffs. One year later, Michaels was gone. In 1985, coached by Joe Walton, they were 11-5 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In Walton’s seven seasons he won just one playoff game. Pete Carroll grabbed a national championship with the University of Southern California and is currently having great success with the Seattle Seahawks, but when he came to New York in 1994 the best he could manage was 6-10. In 1995, Hess fired Carroll and announced he was hiring Rich Kotite because, “I want results now.” He got them, but not the kind he was looking for: The Jets were 4-28 in two seasons under Kotite.

In 1998 the Jets finally got a football man to head the team; Bill Parcells had won two Super Bowls with the Giants and in 1996 had coached the New England Patriots to the big game. Even Parcells could do no better in three seasons than a 29-19 with a 1-1 record in the postseason.

And so on. In 2009, with management once again impatient to win—Woody Johnson told the press, echoing Leon Hess, “I think our fans deserve a winner now” —Rex Ryan was hired to fill the head job. Rex had no head coaching experience but did have a great pedigree as the son of beloved NFL coach and one-time Jets defensive guru Buddy Ryan.

In 2009 and 2010, Rex went 20-12 and won four of six playoff games, losing the conference championships in both years in tough games. But in those losses the Jets showed enough heart for their fans to think that in this dawn the sun would surely rise. Since then, the Jets have won 19 and lost 24. 

In the October 22 Wall Street Journal, Kevin Clark, in one of those judgments a sportswriter would rather forget, wrote that Ryan’s “bone-shattering defense” was “back atop the football world, having stopped the New England Patriots in overtime.” That proved to be yet another false start: The next week, the Jets gave up 402 yards to the Cincinnati Bengals in a 49-9 loss. 

It was one of five times this year the Jets have followed a victory with a defeat. This week, according to USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin, the most reliable power ratings analyst, the Jets are the 30th-best team in the league, ahead of only the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jets defense, which is supposed to be their strength, has given up 287 points this season, making it 25th in the NFL; they have been outscored by 101 points, the second worst differential in the league.

In general manager Mike Tannenbaum, Woody Johnson and Rex Ryan found a front-office man whose shortsightedness matched their own. Instead of building a solid foundation for the team through drafts, trades, and free agent acquisitions, Tannenbaum never stopped believing that one star quarterback would turn everything around. Let’s call this the curse of Joe Namath.

In 2008, Eric Mangini’s last year as coach, Tannenbaum brought in a washed-up, 39-year-old Brett Favre, who lasted one season. In 2012, with Ryan as coach, the GM proved he had learned nothing from the Favre debacle and created yet another media circus by signing Tim Tebow, a quarterback apparently never intended to be used in any capacity. Tebow was dumped unceremoniously in April. The only benefit from these two moves was the extra money the team made from jersey and sweatshirt sales.

This year the Jets replaced Tannenbaum with John Idzik, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks. Idzik aped his predecessor by going after another hot-shot quarterback. It should have been a clue that the other 31 teams passed on Geno Smith in the draft before the Jets got to him, yet the Jets brain trust insisted that Smith was a franchise quarterback.  So far this year Smith—who has completed 55.2 percent of his passes for an average 7.0 yds/try and throwing 8 TDs to 18 interceptions—is having just about exactly the same success as the man replaced, the much-maligned Mark Sanchez.

But what’s a guy supposed to do, Smith would be justified in asking, when he gets lousy pass blocking and the defense is so bad that you’re always playing catch-up? Sanchez would have been right to ask the same questions. His passing numbers in 2011 and 2012, when the New York media roasted him and the fans nearly booed him off the field, were virtually the same as they were in 2009 and 2010, when he had the Jets just one game away from the Super Bowl.

The main difference between the 2011-12 Jets and the 2009-10 team is pass protection. On the 2011-12 team the Jets quarterback was sacked or knocked down twice as often and the Jets defense collapsed. In Sanchez’s rookie year the Jets were first in the league in fewest points allowed; the next year they dropped to sixth. In both 2011 and 2012 they were 20th. Now they’re 25th.  Does anyone see a trend here?

Every embarrassing Jets defeat spurs another round of debate over whether Ryan should be fired. But what difference will firing the coach make unless the entire team is rebooted under a new concept--where patience and sound judgment prevail over the concept of the quick fix?

“I want results now,” Hess said. Well, don’t we all? But until the Jets learn to plan for the future, they’re never going to have a present. 

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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