NEW YORK — The New York Jets have already won more games than most expected.
That’s good news to some — and bad news to others.
At 4-6, Todd Bowles’ bunch has been one of the NFL’s early season surprises. Sure, the Jets have lost four of their past five and blew a chance at heading into their bye-week break with a .500 record.
But this was a team that cleared its roster of several high-priced veterans with big contracts and entered training camp with few stars, particularly on offense.
The “tank” was on, many assumed, to land a top quarterback in next year’s NFL draft. Then, a funny thing happened: Somehow, this rag-tag group of veterans, castoffs, youngsters and no-names pulled off a few wins and sacked the narrative that had been raging beyond the walls of the team’s facility.
“I mean, we thought we’d be better than this, despite all of the outside talk,” defensive end Leonard Williams said.
“We’re not happy that we’re 4-6 just because people thought we were going to have zero wins. We still knew who we were and still wanted to achieve greatness this year.”
But now the Jets are in the middle of the pack — some might say no-man’s land — when it comes to the playoff picture, as well as draft positioning.
New York currently would have the No. 11 pick, likely out of position for one of the top college quarterbacks expected to be selected.
So, the winning now might be fun, but it has also become a midseason dilemma: Could more victories just simply end up hurting the team’s future in the long run?
“We’ve lost some close games and we’ve won some close games,” general manager Mike Maccagnan said. “We feel good about where we’re at. We feel we have a vision for where we want this team to be. We feel like we’re making progress in that direction.”
That’s the overwhelming big-picture message for the franchise.
Bowles is still likely coaching for his job and needs the Jets to remain competitive as they play out the final six games. But what he has accomplished as the overseer of a complete culture change can’t be overlooked.
He has preached team unity since the offseason, and the motivational messages and odes to franchise history printed all over the walls of the Jets’ facility are physical examples of that.
It has played out on the field, too, from the entire organization — including acting owner Christopher Johnson — linking arms before every game during the national anthem to the defense busting out their dance moves during a recent game.
“Todd does a good job of laying the vision, the plan out for us,” quarterback Josh McCown said. “And then for us as a group, veterans and young players, listening to veterans, being wise enough to do what they’re being asked to do, I think that’s the chemistry that we seek out. And we’re seeing that unfold and I think that’s what keeps us in ballgames and keeps us competitive.”
McCown has also played a key role in that. The 38-year-old journeyman is on his 10th team in 15 NFL seasons, and was looked at as a mere placeholder at the position for youngsters Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty.
Instead, McCown is having perhaps his best season with a career-high 14 touchdown passes while also providing a calming presence in the huddle and the locker room.
“He’s just been a great leader, a great teammate,” center Wesley Johnson said.
No, McCown is not the future for the Jets at the quarterback position, but his play has New York thinking about wins and a possible playoff run instead of just throwing the inexperienced Hackenberg and Petty into the fire to see what they can do.
“My role right now is to serve this team as the starting quarterback, and I’m going to do that as best I can,” McCown said. “And if that changes, then I will help as best I can in any way.”
Maccagnan has made some shrewd moves over the past year that have helped put the Jets in this position: Taking a chance on tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who has become an inspirational comeback story; trading Sheldon Richardson to Seattle for wide receiver Jermaine Kearse; drafting safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye with the team’s first two selections; signing No. 1 cornerback Morris Claiborne; re-acquiring linebacker Demario Davis from Cleveland for safety Calvin Pryor; and bringing in key under-the-radar contributors such as defensive lineman Kony Ealy and tight end Eric Tomlinson.
But the Jets also have plenty to work on, including an offensive line that has struggled at times in run blocking and pass coverage.
“It’s not just them, it’s everybody,” Bowles said. “That’s why we’re 4-6. It’s been inconsistent up and down.”
Penalties have also been a huge problem, with the Jets ranking second in the NFL in total calls, accepted penalties and penalty yardage. Being unable to hold on to late leads has also kept New York from having six or even seven wins.
Those are all the marks of a young, inexperienced squad that’s learning how to win.
“We’ve got six more games left,” Kearse said. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, and we’ve got an opportunity to finish strong.”