On the first day of free agency, the Jets gave a $30 million contract to a reserve offensive lineman while some of the other top players they were eyeing signed elsewhere. They went to bed knowing they had a lot of work to do to emerge as winners in free agency.
Then they woke up and found out they had already won.
The news that Tom Brady is leaving the Patriots, which he announced on social media on Tuesday morning, did what no amount of free-agent money could possibly have done for the Jets, Dolphins and Bills. It opened a door that has been nailed shut for nearly two decades. It cleared a path for one of those three teams to win the AFC East.
That's not a guarantee, of course. Never underestimate the genius of Bill Belichick, who by the way went 11-5 with Matt Cassel as his quarterback in 2008. Of course, the Patriots didn't win the division title that year. With Brady at the helm, the Patriots had won the AFC East 16 straight times.
That's ridiculous. The Jets haven't won it since 2002, which was Brady's first full season as an NFL starter. They also needed a tie-breaker that season after they finished 9-7, same as the Dolphins and Brady's Pats. The Dolphins last won it in 2008, when Brady missed the season with a knee injury. Before that, they have to go back to 2000 to find a division flag. And the Bills haven't won the AFC East this century. Their last title was 1995, when Brady was a freshman at Michigan at the age of 18.
But now, they all have a chance -- a real chance. And it almost doesn't matter what the Patriots decide to do to replace their legend. Whether they go with second-year pro Jarrett Stidham, or sign a free agent like Teddy Bridgewater or Andy Dalton, or even Phillip Rivers, the truth is that without Brady, things just won't be the same.
Maybe that's why at least half of the division seemed to be in a go-for-it mode when the market opened on Monday. The Bills made a monster deal for receiver Stefon Diggs, giving quarterback Josh Allen the kind of weapon that every young quarterback needs. The Miami Dolphins kicked their rebuilding effort into high gear, particularly on defense, signing the best corner on the market, Byron Jones, along with linebacker Kyle Van Noy and edge rusher Shaq Lawson.
The Jets? Clearly they still have work to do.
But at least now they can do it knowing there's not a big, brick wall between them and the ceiling. They now have the longest-tenured quarterback in the division in Sam Darnold, and if he progresses this year in the way he couldn't last year after his early bout with mono, he also might be the best.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams worked miracles with the Jets defense last year, and it should be better just with the return of a few healthy players. And presumably Jets GM Joe Douglas is going to add a few more offensive linemen and receivers, too.
And if the Jets, who were 7-9 last year, are better -- just a little better -- there will be hope. Hope for the playoffs, in an expanded field. Hope for a division title and their first home playoff game since 2003 -- back when they were still playing in old Giants Stadium. And that hope is bigger than any big free-agent signings. It's something no amount of money could have bought.