FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Two weeks ago, Todd Bowles went bold, promising in a radio interview that the Jets are "not going to be a terrible team." He promised a tough, scrappy team that will be competitive and "win more games than everybody ever expected."
Considering the way the Jets have systematically torn down their roster since last year, that was some really tough talk from an embattled head coach. It was an unexpected, though probably welcomed, show of brashness. But it begged the question:
Does he even believe what he said?
"You don't expect us to win any," Bowles said with a laugh on Wednesday. "So we'll be fine."
It is true that the outside expectations for this team are low -- comically low. There are more than a few predictions of a 1-15 season, some have even dared to project no wins at all. Most seem to be in the 3-4-win range. One Vegas book -- Bovada -- set the over/under at 4 ½ wins, which many believe is high.
But is there a chance -- any small chance -- that Bowles knows something the rest of the world is missing, that these Jets might be something other than "a terrible team"? Could they even be … competitive?
At the risk of raising the bar to a dangerously high level -- and for them, 5-6 wins could be too high -- there is a chance the Jets could exceed the low expectations. The cupboard isn't overflowing, but isn't completely bare either. There are at least a few reasons to believe this won't be an historically bad year:
1.Josh McCown is a good quarterback, if he's healthy
That's mostly true. Yes he's a 38-year-old journeyman/career backup who last started all 16 games in an NFL season … well, never. But in 2013 he threw for 13 touchdowns and just one interception while completing 66.5 percent of his passes in eight games (five starts) for the Bears. And in 2015 he completed 63.7 percent of his passes and threw for 2,109 yards with 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions in eight starts for the Browns.
Yeah, OK, those aren't his norms. But those are also two of his last four seasons. So it remains in the realm of the possible. Those are terrific numbers, too, so we all at least have to concede the potential for a non-disaster season is there. McCown is a savvy veteran. He's capable and confident. It's not like the Jets are turning this unproven offense over to a quarterback who has never taken a snap in an NFL game (at least not yet).
2.The defensive line can survive the loss of Sheldon Richardson
First of all, when he wasn't missing meetings or fighting with Brandon Marshall, Richardson had 1 ½ sacks last year. He had just five the year before. So it's not like the Jets are trying to replace J.J. Watt here. Also, they never really figured out an effective way to use all three of their dangerous defensive linemen. One of them was always going to be essentially an extra part.
They still have Mo Wilkerson, whom the Jets have always liked better, is still only 27, and had 12 sacks two years ago. And they still have Leonard Williams, whom the Jets like better than both of them and who had seven sacks last year in a miserable season for the defensive line. They can still be just as disruptive as expected, and definitely more disruptive (on the field) than The Big Three were together last year.
3.The Jets can run the ball, and that's still a good way to win
This is an increasingly pass-happy league so it's easy to dismiss the Jets with their old quarterback and inferior receivers. But most coaches will tell you that running the ball effectively is still important and a team can go a long way doing that. The Jets, with a decent offensive line -- especially in the middle -- and with good veteran running backs in Matt Forte and Bilal Powell, should be able to run. A lot.
Maybe this won't be the old Ground and Pound offense of the Rex Ryan years (although there are worse ideas). But their ability to run and dump off passes to the running backs could open up the passing game a little and will help the Jets move the ball more than expected. It won't be easy. They're not going set offensive records. But unless new offensive coordinator John Morton gets too pass-happy, the offense might not be the black hole everyone expects.
4.There is upside to this team, unlike last year
The Jets had a roster bloated last year with overpriced, older veterans who became absolutely miserable when things started to go wrong. Having veterans on a losing team that was expected to be good is the worst possible formula. Often, as the Jets proved, they look like they just don't care anymore as the season goes along.
That won't happen with a team this young. Even if they get off to a terrible start, there are enough young players -- Williams, the two rookie safeties and rookie receivers, most of the offensive line and linebackers -- who will feel a sense of building something.
For most of them, there is a next year here. That will keep their spirits up. It will keep them playing hard. And no matter how bad it gets, it will almost certainly make fans feel like they are not giving up.
Don't be surprised if that results in a few unexpected late-season wins, too.
5.The division stinks
The Jets will lose twice to the Patriots and it might not be close. But the Bills are have suddenly joined the rebuilding ranks this summer to the point where they are getting the same "tanking" questions as the Jets. They have a younger, better quarterback and a little more talent, but not by much. And the Dolphins may be more talented than both of them, but they're trying to regroup after losing quarterback Ryan Tannehill this summer. They're hoping Jay Cutler can step out of the broadcast booth and retirement, quickly learn the offense and not be as turnover-prone as he has been in the past. It takes a lot of blind faith to believe in all that.
No, the Jets won't win the AFC East. But in their first nine games they get the Dolphins and Bills twice each and they will have a chance in those games. They also face the Browns and Jaguars in that stretch. Could the Jets go 3-3 in those games? They'd still likely be sitting at 3-6 in early-November facing a brutal final stretch.
But remember, the bar is low. Even that would exceed expectations. And if they can pull off an upset or two after that, Bowles might be in the running for Coach of the Year.