I won’t sugarcoat it. The Jets offense was historically bad in 2020. Each NFL offense is comprised of 4 complementary elements: quarterback, offensive line, skill players, and scheme. The Jets were weak in all 4 elements, creating a compounding effect that rendered them worst in the NFL in offensive performance by a comfortable margin.
Over the course of the 2020 season there were 30 offensive performances where a team with a healthy starting quarterback earned a SharpClarke Rating below 3.8. Sam Darnold and the Jets were responsible for 6 of them, more than any other team.
But Darnold does not deserve all the blame. In fact, I believe he could have been successful in a different situation. To start with, the offensive scheme lacked creativity and hindered any chance the Jets had. Predictably running up the middle on first and second down put Darnold in tough spots, often facing a defense that knew the pass was coming. Mercifully for Jets fans, Adam Gase has been fired and they can hopefully address this problem moving forward.
In addition, wide receiver quality (or lack thereof) played a massive role in limiting the Jets’ offense in 2020. The receivers weren’t great to begin with. Their best three-wide set included a capable slot receiver who has never topped 850 yards in a six-year career (Crowder), a limited route-runner who has never topped 650 yards in a five-year career (Perriman), and a rookie who came into the year injured playing a position with a notoriously steep learning curve (Mims). Even if these three had stayed healthy they would have been one of the worst starting receiver corps in the league. But they didn’t even stay healthy.
The Jets offense was notably better when all three were on the field. Regardless of whether Darnold or Flacco was throwing the ball, the Jets simply performed better with all their “weapons” available:
The green line in this chart tracks the Jets’ offensive Adjusted Rating in the seven games where all three receivers were healthy. The black line tracks the nine games where at least one of the three was injured. The Jets never once posted a positive offensive Adjusted Rating this season, but they got fairly close a few times when they were at full strength at wide receiver. If Darnold had been playing with all three for the full season the Jets may have been at least an NFL-caliber offense.
Darnold flashed in moments but has not put together any consistently good games. His mobility helped him outperform the statuesque Flacco last year, but not by much. Unfortunately when a good quarterback prospect plays on a bad team for a few years he typically loses confidence and establishes bad habits that make it near-impossible to salvage a good NFL career. I don’t think the Jets should give up on Darnold altogether but history is not on his side. Obviously they could (and probably will) look to upgrade at quarterback in the offseason. But if they don’t, Darnold may benefit if they bolster the offense with additional weapons and the new coaching staff designs a better offense.
Predictions about the Jets offense based on 2020 performance can only go so far. They have a decent amount of high-value draft picks, some cap space, and a new coaching staff. But looking back allows us to reflect on a missed opportunity. When a team is really bad it can take the sportsbooks a few weeks to catch on and assign the appropriate spread. There was tremendous value early on betting against the Jets, who were at their worst and simply could not keep up with any halfway decent competition.
Jets Early Struggles
It was obvious early on how bad this Jets’ offense was, particularly with the wide receiver injuries. A sharp bettor could have cashed in early by going against the Jets before the spreads got higher as the season progressed. A team that struggles to move the ball has a hard time covering the spread.
The 21st-ranked Jets defense was more competitive. Anchored by Quinnen Williams, the interior defensive line routinely disrupted the middle of opposing teams’ offensive lines. As a result, teams struggled to run up the middle against the Jets and quarterbacks that held the ball too long without escaping the pocket eventually ran out of time. But unfortunately for the Jets, this didn’t happen all that often. They were not able to get pressure or contain from the edge rushers and the outside cornerbacks simply couldn’t cover wide receivers.
As a result, opposing quarterbacks abused the Jets through the air, primarily relying on the two outside receivers because the Jets’ best corner (Brian Poole) played in the slot. And the Jets coaches did not help. They appeared to make no effort to take away opposing teams’ best offensive weapons. The Jets’ defensive performance improved steadily against teams that lacked one or two go-to guys on the outside because those teams were not as good at exposing the Jets’ biggest vulnerabilities.
This chart shows the Jets’ defensive Adjusted Rating against each opponent ranked by how much each team concentrated its passing game in its two best receivers over the course of the season. On the right, teams whose passing games were anchored through one or two top targets like SEA (Metcalf and Lockett), BUF (Diggs), and ARI (Hopkins) forced the Jets into very poor games defensively (-0.89, -0.77, -0.95, and -0.71). By contrast, the Jets had their best defensive games against teams that lacked strong outside receivers, such as MIA (+0.69), SF (+0.39), and LV (+0.43). In light of this breakdown, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Jets defense matched up extremely well against a Browns team that had to play without any of its top receivers due to Covid protocols and scored a (+1.36) Adjusted Rating.
The Jets were much better against the run. Only one player – Melvin Gordon – ran for over 100 yards against them, which is particularly impressive considering the typical game script of a 2020 Jets game. They were particularly good against traditional up-the-gut runners, but did get burned by some outside zone runs when backs were able to get the edge. Here is a complete list of every player who averaged 4.8 or more yards per carry on at least 4 carries against the Jets in 2020.
Successful Runners v. NYJ
Three of the seven players were quarterbacks. One method to combat a strong interior defensive line is to fabricate an additional blocker by using the quarterback as a running back on a designed run. Both Newton and Allen did this well and succeeded against the Jets. They also beat the edge rushers on scrambles. Similarly, several of the successful running back performances involved getting the edge. Mostert, as well as two players who just missed the cut – Chase Edmonds (3/36) and Jerrick McKinnon (3/77) – beat them with speed on outside runs. On the inside, the Jets’ rushing defense remained solid.
Overall, it was not difficult to beat the Jets defense in 2020. Teams were particularly successful when they used some combination of (1) funneling passes to outside WRs and (2) designing run schemes such as quarterback runs and outside zone runs to neutralize the interior. If teams did not (or could not) do either of these, the Jets posed a stiffer challenge.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, the Jets are fairly rated going into the offseason. They really were terrible in 2020. But they have replaced the coaching staff and have lots of draft picks and cap room to improve over the offseason. They may become underrated if these improvements are not factored in.
- If the Jets improve their skill players and implement a more creative scheme offensively, they could outperform on offense with healthy wideouts.
- Unless they significantly improve their edge rushers and cornerbacks, bet against the Jets when facing teams that feature one or two high-end wideouts.
- Favor the Jets when facing a team that relies on running up the middle and lacks a go-to outside receiver.
- Given how much may change in the offseason, be cautious about having strong opinions on the Jets early on.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Jets offensive players may be popular in fantasy under the narrative that players tend to improve after they move on from Adam Gase. But I rely on observation; not narrative. Without some major changes it is unlikely that this offense will be worth investing in for fantasy purposes.
- Even so, Chris Herndon makes an intriguing dart throw at tight end. He has the talent to be a productive player and could benefit from a change in coaching staff, particularly a change to the staff that coached George Kittle in San Francisco.
- Given the Jets’ defensive makeup, target player props on receptions and receiving yards for stud receivers against the Jets and fade rushing yards props on running backs who typically run up the gut.
- Given the Jets’ vulnerabilities to the pass and to quarterback runs, true dual-threat quarterbacks make good DFS plays against the Jets.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
Looking back on my bets this year I never once put more than 1 Unit on a Jets game – for or against. Instead of touting a big play I made, I’m forced to recall a big missed opportunity instead. When the Browns played the Jets in Week 16, Cleveland began as a 10-point favorite. Then a positive Covid test took all of the Browns’ receivers out of the game. On that news, the spread only dropped to 7 points. I avoided the game entirely. But I should have predicted that a power running team with no starting wide receivers would be completely unable to take advantage of the Jets’ defensive weaknesses. And on top of that, all three Jets wide receivers were healthy. This was the best spot all season for the Jets and I avoided betting them because I assumed they were trying to lose to lock up the #1 draft pick. This is the type of psychological angle I typically don’t put too much stock in. It turns out NFL players don’t care about tanking because the Jets won outright, 23-16.