FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Christopher Johnson is trying his best to be "Ice Man" in the wake of the Jets' rousing Opening Night win. He believes the Jets can be "a team to be reckoned with" this season. He doesn't think the playoffs are out of reach.
And the truth is he's setting his goals a little higher than that.
"I'm always going to want to go to the Super Bowl," he said, surrounded by reporters at a conference table at the team facility on Wednesday. "Do I expect that? I want to be there. If you're in this league and you aren't trying to get to the Super Bowl - and that isn't your expectation from Day 1 - what the hell are you doing here?"
That's a fair point. But here's the more important point: The CEO of the Jets talked about his team going to the Super Bowl...and nobody laughed.
Obviously Johnson was dreaming more than predicting, and deep down he knows that with a rookie quarterback and a roster in the middle of a rebuild, the Jets are not likely to be a threat to play in Super Bowl LIII. But he loves the direction the franchise is headed, and promised they'll be aggressive in trying to get there - especially when they have more salary cap space to spend than any other team in free agency next year.
So, could the Jets be a contender in 2019? Could a run at Super Bowl LIV be something more than a far-fetched goal? They'll need some reinforcements, of course - some play-makers on both sides of the ball. The cap room they have next offseason will be key to getting that, of course, and right now, Overthecap.com projects them to have $107 million to spend (and it could be significantly more).
But it takes more than money in free agency. They need to sell the top players on hope and convince them the Jets really do have a bright future - that a Super Bowl sometime soon isn't just some distant dream.
And here's what has to happen this year to make sure that's exactly what they do:
Sam Darnold has to prove he's the real deal
So far, so good. But it's a long season. There will be bumps along the road. At some point, he'll have a terrible game. But he needs to have more ups than downs, and at some point, he has to show he's more than a game manager, that he can win a game with his right arm. NFL players know a quarterback is everything. Nobody wants to play on a team with a bad one. For the first time in a long time, the Jets look like they have a quarterback to sell.
They need to win, at least a little
Johnson believed the 5-11 Jets were better than their record indicated last season, and that they'll be even better this year. Maybe that's true, but 5-11 is still 5-11, and the Jets still haven't been to the playoffs since 2010. A losing culture is hard to shake, and all the promise in the world won't paint a great picture if the Jets finish with the same record again.
Their young stars need to step up
Free agency has never been a good way to build a team, and Jets GM Mike Maccagnan knows it. He needs the young players the Jets have added through the draft to become the stars he thinks they'll be. That includes defensive end Leonard Williams, linebacker Darron Lee and safety Jamal Adams - the core of the Jets' future defense, regardless of what players they may add. Darnold is obviously the key player on offense, but it would help if a receiver (Quincy Enunwa) or tight end (Chris Herndon) stepped up and became a legitimate pass-catching threat.
Embrace their stability
The Jets extended the contracts of Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles at the end of last season through 2020. That was a great move for a rebuilding team, because free agents don't like to come to unsettled situations. It's also good that Johnson has refused to give either of them a win-now-or-else or playoffs-or-bust mandate.
"It's highly counterproductive," he said. "I can't imagine why that would be a positive thing."
He's looking for a team to make "advances", whatever that means. But the truth is, no one is really sure how safe Bowles if the Jets' won-loss record doesn't improve. That's why, at the end of the season, Johnson needs to make it clear that Maccagnan and Bowles aren't going anywhere, so nobody can question that anymore. And if he's not sure about either, he needs to make a change as quickly and smoothly as he can.
Continue to be aggressive
They traded up in the draft for the chance to grab Darnold. Before that, they offered $90 million guaranteed to quarterback Kirk Cousins - more than he got from the Vikings. And they made what they believe was a strong bid for Khalil Mack before he was traded to the Bears.
All that is great. Players around the league take notice and they absolutely want to play for a team that shows it's aggressively trying to win. It doesn't even matter that they didn't get Cousins or Mack. The attempt shows that they'll be willing to try again if another significant player is available somewhere else.