EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The simple truth is that the Jets were not ready for this. They weren't ready for the reset expectations, the competitive games or a playoff race in late December. They have proven they are far better, far more advanced than anyone expected three months ago.
But they are just not ready to win.
They'll get there (probably) but they're not there yet, as they showed again by throwing away yet another game in the fourth quarter. This time, they did it with the usual array of turnovers, drops and penalties, and they even threw in a punt return for a touchdown. In the end, they ended up losing 35-27 to the Carolina Panthers in another game they seemed poised to win.
It was much like their 24-17 loss to the Patriots on Oct. 15, or their 31-28 loss in Miami one week later, or their 25-20 loss to the Falcons two weeks after that. Throw in their inexcusable, no-show, 15-10 loss against Tampa Bay two weeks ago, and that's five losses in six games for the Jets. Three times they led in the fourth quarter. Three or four of them, they probably should've won.
So what's missing? What's keeping the Jets from getting over the winning hump in so many games? Experience and maturity, to be sure. But Jermaine Kearse, who won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks a few years back, said these Jets are also missing something else.
"Grit," Kearse said. "That's just being able to persevere no matter what's happening out there, no matter what circumstances, what play is overturned, what plays went bad. It's just being able to move on and persevere through that adversity."
Obviously, the Jets have been unable to do that. They proved that again on Sunday. They were on the verge of taking a 24-18 lead early in the fourth quarter when a touchdown catch by tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was reversed on replay. They had to settle for a field goal, but after their defense forced a three-and-out by the Panthers they were still up 20-18 with about 12 minutes left and the ball in their hands.
That's when things began to unravel. Josh McCown tried to throw the ball away rather than take a sack, which led to a fumble and a return for a touchdown by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Then the Jets went three-and-out and gave up a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown to Kaelin Clay. The Jets actually responded with a touchdown that cut their deficit to five and were about to get the ball back with about two minutes remaining when defensive tackle Mike Pennel roughed the passer and ended any Jet hope of winning the game.
"Self-inflicted wounds," Jets head coach Todd Bowles said. "You can't play three quarters of good football and (then) give away two touchdowns. We had a sack fumble and somebody missed a block, and special teams gave up a touchdown up the middle. We jumped offsides two times on defense in crucial situations. All of this was in the fourth quarter. You're not going to beat a good football team like that."
"It's growing pains," Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson said. "It's not how you start, it's how you finish and that's where we're lacking."
That's not surprising, but it is frustrating because everyone in the Jets organization -- and many people on the outside -- reset their expectations after the Jets' 3-2 start. The summer was littered with predictions of 1-15 or even 0-16. Almost no one had the Jets finishing better than 4-12. But when they got to 3-2 and it was clear they were a better team than anyone had given them credit for being, eyes widened at the possibilities in the mediocre AFC.
Based on what everyone thought this summer, these Jets -- even at 4-7 -- have exceeded expectations. But even they can't help but look back and wonder what might have been.
"Early in the year, in different games, you know when you're trying to make a playoff run there's games that will come back to haunt you," McCown said. "That's why every game is so important, and that's why you have to put everything in for that week and only that week. I believe Coach Bowles is sending that message. I believe we're driving that home.
"(But) I think sometimes if you look at a long season, I think guys are like, "Oh, we'll make it up later," and sometimes if you don't handle right now, there is no later."
Maybe there's truth to that idea: that these relatively young Jets just assumed if they stayed competitive, the wins would eventually come. But they haven't. They haven't developed that "grit." And they're not really sure why.
"It's something that you're going to find within yourself," Kearse said. "You can lead people to it, but at the end of the day it's going to come down to that individual to find it and have it."
Truth is, that takes time. The Jets are young at key positions all over the field, with the notable exception of quarterback. They are a new group, coming off a ton of offseason changes. They've grown unexpectedly fast, but they still have plenty more growing to do.
They will get there. They have shown plenty of promise. For as disappointing as this season has become, the end result figures to be plenty of promise, potential and maybe even some excitement about next year.
But this year? The young Jets arrived at competitive football too soon. They were good enough to be in position to win almost every game this season, but not quite good enough or ready to consistently execute.
In many ways, this whole season has been one big tease.
"It just sucks," McCown said. "It's frustrating. Everybody processes it differently, but when you go home, you'll be watching the game tonight or something and it'll come back to you and you get really mad and frustrated. That's part of playing this game. It hurts really badly.
"To be up in the fourth quarter and not finish it, we've got to find a way to execute that and be better. We're still trying to do that. Like we said all year, we're a young team. We'd love to get over that hump."
They will. Just not in time to realize all their dreams this year.