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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – It’s hard to imagine a more miserable year than the Jets endured in 2020. It was bad enough that it was played in the shadow of the pandemic, with a constant fear of COVID, difficult restrictions and virtual meetings that kept the players mostly apart. For the Jets it was obviously worse than that.
They were playing for an embattled coach everyone knew was on his way out. They lost their first 13 games in every conceivable fashion and finished with two wins – just enough to cost them the first overall pick in the draft.
There are still 51 players left from what will be remembered as one of the worst teams in franchise history. But they have a new coach in Robert Saleh, a new quarterback in Zach Wilson, and a new feeling of togetherness as the NFL has begun to lift restrictions so they can work with each other again.
The combination is refreshing. The energy in the building is palpable. It’s hard not to notice that things just feel … good.
“You feel like that weight has lifted,” said Jets guard Greg Van Roten, “and hope has come back into your building.”
It is only spring, when optimism is always high, but there does seem to be something different about these Jets this time around. They’ve done a lot of rebuilding and resetting in recent years, going through four coaches, four general managers and 12 starting quarterbacks since their last trip to the playoffs 10 years ago. There’s always an initial burst of energy when there’s a major change. It’s only natural.
But several people who’ve worked with the Jets through many of those transitions swear it’s never been quite like this.
And for that, they mostly credit Saleh and his infectious, relentless energy. That was a big part of why he was hired, and it’s reinvigorated the players – especially those who endured the ugliness of last year.
“I can definitely say the atmosphere is different,” said receiver Jamison Crowder, who didn’t get to feel it until Tuesday since he had skipped the offseason practices before that. “The attitude is different. Different feeling, different atmosphere. The energy is a little different. There’s just a different pop to it, if that makes sense.”
It does make sense, and in some ways it’s not surprising. These Jets are desperate for success and the players were desperate for a leader they trusted. Saleh makes that easy, both from his presence to his resume. His players loved him in San Francisco and nearly every NFL stop he’s been. Clearly, at least for now, it’s the same thing with the Jets.
And those who remained from the two seasons under Adam Gase may be a bit scarred, but they’re not beaten. They’re even more eager to follow a leader who can help them win again. And they’re more motivated, which is something Saleh insists he could see from Day 1.
“You look at what they went through a year ago, and just the struggles of not having a good enough year,” Saleh said. “The character of these individuals and just overall their mindset, their buy-in … it’s a tremendous group of characters. They have a tremendous drive, a tremendous want-to, and they’ve been putting it out on the field every single day.
“They’re doing it the right way. They’re made of the right stuff.”
Saleh actually said he could tell that late last season after the Jets lost a heartbreaking home game to the Las Vegas Raiders in the final second and then went out to Seattle for a 40-3 beating that left them at 0-13. How they responded late in the year caught his eye.
“Then they have to fly all the way back for a week’s worth of practice, and then go all the way back out to the West Coast to play the Rams who are a playoff team -- and this group of men win,” Saleh said. “That is probably one of the hardest things to do in football, to have that type of travel after the consecutive losses that happened to them, to have the character, the resolve to bounce back against a playoff team playing for a division. And then to come back home and beat Cleveland, another playoff team (the following week). It just speaks volumes to the resolve of the people that were in this locker room.
“So when we did get here that resolve showcased itself immediately. These men want to work. They’re very receptive. They’re easy to work with. We feel like we’ve got men of great character.”
Maybe that’s true. And maybe the Jets even have more talent this year, especially after loading up on offensive skill players in free agency and the draft. Of course, it’ll be hard to really tell until the games start for real, until the Jets get their first taste of some actual difficult times.
“The true character of all individuals showcases once you hit adversity,” Saleh said. “But as of now, everything’s been fantastic.”
Yes it has, for the coaches, the players and management alike. Even the most beaten down of Jets fans have to feel at least a twinge of optimism now. Like Van Roten said, the weight of last season has been lifted. Everything feels new again.
It’s true that “new” hasn’t always meant “better” for the Jets, especially over the last decade. But Saleh has them believing that the reasons for optimism are real this time.
If nothing else, they are buoyed by the reality that there’s nowhere to go but up.
“Right now everyone’s undefeated and everyone has the same shot at making the Super Bowl,” Van Roten said. “That’s all you can ask for is a fresh start in this league. There’s no one happier than the Jets to get that opportunity to start, Page 1, ‘All right, let’s write this year’s chapter now.’”