If you ever wondered whether professional football players would tank a season, you need only have watched the New York Jets in recent weeks. Despite their astounding assortment of foibles -- we're looking at you, Gregg Williams, and your fondness for zero blitzes -- the players were trying. On Sunday, safety Marcus Maye broke up a Los Angeles Rams' fourth-down pass attempt, the punter made a tackle. These things don't happen to teams that are tanking. You play to win the game, as Herm Edwards said in what still stands as one of the high points in a Jets history that has precious few of them.
But it's complicated. Three minutes after the Jets had stunned the Rams, 23-20, for their first victory of the season, which dropped them behind the Jacksonville Jaguars for the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and the presumptive top prospect, Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, the postgame show on the Jets' local affiliate, SportsNet New York, seemed more deflated than elated. Or maybe just shocked. The three-man crew parsed what the Jets should do with Sam Darnold now. And they channeled what so many Jets fans were thinking: Why couldn't the Jaguars, whose lone win came in the first week of the season, have just won a few more games, so that this victory over a nine-win team didn't come with more ambivalence than jubilance?
"Not getting Trevor Lawrence, it hurts," said former Jets linebacker Chad Cascadden on SNY, before adding that maybe this is the way the Jets are supposed to go.
Maybe. Maybe the Jets will somehow manage to get back to the first pick in the final two weeks of the season. Maybe Lawrence will stay at Clemson. Maybe he isn't the generational talent that every evaluator has believed he is for at least the last two years. Maybe Ohio State's Justin Fields -- another highly touted quarterback prospect -- will be just as good a pick (should he declare for the 2021 draft).
In the long, often mind-boggling history of the Jets, few things have come easily or clearly. Avoiding becoming just the third team in history to go 0-16 is merely this year's chapter. The players and coaches deserve credit for not folding, particularly after the final-play, gut punch of a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders just two weeks ago. Williams was fired after that debacle, which was a deck-chair-off-the-Titanic move if there ever was one. The Jets coaching staff is almost certainly going to be cleaned out in a few weeks, and there will surely be significant roster turnover, too. But despite some embarrassingly lopsided results earlier in the season, the Jets were still playing hard, as even Rams head coach Sean McVay told Adam Gase in an early-morning phone call last week. Gase, who last week stated that he felt he had let team chairman Christopher Johnson down, said he was paying close attention to the Jets going into victory formation for the final snaps Sunday as the clock wound down. It was the kind of attention to detail that has been too often absent this season, but no coach wants a winless record on his résumé, particularly when it seems clear that he'll need it for a job search soon.
"Been a while since we've been in that," Gase said after the win. "I'm just happy for the guys. They've done such a great job of how they've worked, been through a lot of adversity. It's been too long for us to remember what a win feels like almost."
That is likely no balm for Jets fans, who had already endured a miserable season and had long ago cashed in any hope, to only now lose the prize that had seemed firmly in their grasp. Jets fans are intimately familiar with disappointment and missed opportunities. The franchise has been so star-crossed that the conversation had already turned to whether Lawrence might choose to stay in school, and eschew the NFL's riches, rather than be drafted by the Jets. Or, in the conspiracy theory corner of the internet, whether Bill Belichick hated the Jets so much and would so want to torpedo their chance to get Lawrence that he would try to lose to the Jets in the regular-season finale two weeks from now. Nobody here has forgotten that the Jets have already had near-misses with franchise-changers like Belichick and Peyton Manning, who elected to stay at Tennessee after the 1997 season, when the Jets had the first overall pick. Or that Mark Sanchez and Darnold were supposed to be Joe Namath's rightful heirs, too.
The fans' conflicted emotions about the team's fate -- now on full, vivid, sometimes off-color display on social media -- are as understandable as the relief of Jets coaches and players, whom Gase said were lively in the locker room after the game.
"Our job is to try to go out and win every week," Gase said, when asked about the mixed feelings of a fan base that had long ago, and with plenty of justification, turned on him.
If the first overall pick remains out of reach, the Jets' offseason decisions become much more complex. Does general manager Joe Douglas forsake Darnold for Fields or another top QB prospect as easily as he almost certainly would have for Lawrence? Is it at all harder to attract whoever their top coaching candidate will be without the prospect of Lawrence's arrival to use as an enticement? Did the Jacksonville Jaguars -- with a trove of draft picks, a ton of cap space and now, possibly, Lawrence -- just become an NFL dream job for a new general manager and whoever that person wants as a head coach, be it the incumbent Doug Marrone, or someone else?
Those are questions for another day. For now, the Jets, unintentionally, have given their fans a bit of a headache. So, despite a feel-good moment for the players, not much changed Sunday after all.