PITTSBURGH -- Todd Bowles was right about one thing: The blame falls on him.
He wasn't solely responsible for the Jets' 31-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, of course, and no double-digit loss can be pinned on one bad decision or two. But the Jets head coach, who built up so much optimism with a 10-win season in his rookie year, is the one responsible for this current 1-4 mess. He has a mistake-prone team and a bunch of cranky players crying out for leadership.
It was his job to keep them out of this hole that's so deep it may already have engulfed their entire season. It's his responsibility that his team -- especially his defense -- has dramatically underachieved.
"I take all the blame," Bowles said. "I'm the head coach. We'll go where I go. We're 1-4. That falls on me. As I lead, they follow. I need to do a better job of leading these guys and getting them prepared. You can put it all on me."
It's not all on him, of course. Some things are -- like a couple of wasted timeouts and a hard-to-defend decision to punt late in the game with the Jets near midfield and staring at a fourth-and-2 (more on that in a moment). And it's really hard to overlook how many areas in which this team is playing worse than it's supposed to play. He has a ton of talent on the defensive line, yet after a seven-sack outburst in Week 1, that pass rush has all but disappeared. On Sunday, the Jets were credited with just one quarterback hit. One. It's no wonder Ben Roethlisberger was able to pick them apart for 380 yards.
Meanwhile, this is Week 5 of the ongoing saga of the Jets' miscommunications in the secondary, likely made worse by the absence of the embattled Darrelle Revis. Again, the Jets were burned for a big play when Revis' replacement, Marcus Williams, ended up in one-on-one coverage on Sammy Coates with no safety help on the third play of the game and was burned for a 72-yard touchdown. And again, there were painfully obvious miscommunications, like when Steelers tight end Jesse James stood all alone in the end zone with no Jets near him to catch a one-yard touchdown pass late in the first half.
The solutions to the disappearing front and the disappointing back may not be obvious, but Bowles is a defensive coach who needs to figure it out -- just like he needs to help the offense out while quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick tries to work through his struggles with Eric Decker dealing with a shoulder injury. It likely didn't help that they threw the ball more than twice as much as they ran it, or that they only ran the ball five times in the second half in a game that wasn't really out of reach until the end.
And those coaching struggles were compounded by two wasted timeouts, including one with 1:51 remaining in the game with the clock already stopped because the Jets either had too many men on the field or couldn't get their defense settled. And it really didn't help that Bowles made a questionable decision on that fateful fourth-and-2.
At the time, the Jets trailed 24-13 and their offense had just gone three-and-out on three of their first four drives of the second half. There was 7:36 remaining, the Jets were at their own 46, and Fitzpatrick threw an incomplete pass on third down. Bowles thought there was plenty of time for his defense to pin the Steelers and for the Jets to get the ball back.
But he ignored that on each of the two previous drives the Steelers had ripped through the Jets' defense with ease, scoring a touchdown on one and losing the ball on a fumble at the Jets 14 on the other. Even if the Jets' defense stopped them, there likely would've only been five or so minutes remaining. But one or two first downs and the Jets risked not getting the ball back at all.
In the end, it didn't matter; the Steelers scored a touchdown on a 5-minute, 43-second drive. Bowles' decision left the Jets with no shot at all.
"Anytime something doesn't work out in life it's a mistake if you look at it that way," Bowles said. "I don't think it's a mistake when we were getting three and outs before that and getting off the field.
"I stand by that decision."
That's fine. There have been worse and more costly decisions by coaches in the past. But this one was compounded by the fire that's burning around him. And now his locker room may soon be an issue. A moody Muhammad Wilkerson, who has 1 1/2 sacks on the season, barely spoke after the game, answering a slew of questions with, "They made more plays than we did." A cranky Sheldon Richardson, a whole half sack to his credit, channeled his inner Bill Belichick, answering mostly "Preparing for Arizona" before (falsely) accusing reporters of "trying to get me to fingerpoint" and getting into a testy confrontation with one.
To be fair, many of the Jets' other players, including the delusionally optimistic Brandon Marshall, showed some accountability. But Richardson and Wilkerson are supposed to be the leaders of Bowles' underachieving defense. It's up to him to get a handle on both of them -- and the rest of the team -- now.
"Being frustrated is part of everyday life," Bowles said. "You have to let it go and rebuild and reload. This league is week to week. You can be a Super Bowl contender one week and getting buried the next week. Right now we are getting buried."
Yes they are. And the high bar they set for themselves after last season makes everything look and feel worse. Bowles was a genius a year ago. Now? Not so much. That's the way it is in this league of mood swings. But the man in charge is the one responsible for everything.
If the Jets have any hope of escaping this darkness at any point this season, Bowles is the one who'll have to find the way out.