It ain’t easy changing a losing pro football team’s culture, and it’s nearly impossible when the team keeps losing.
It’s been over a decade since Rex Ryan’s swagger pushed the Jets to consecutive AFC Championship Games before the former Head Coach proceeded to devolve into a caricature. Ever since, New York has spun the wheel in search of culture changers on the field and in the front office but has yet to land on a winner.
General Manager Joe Douglas and Head Coach Robert Saleh will complete their first season together on Sunday as fodder for a Bills squad that needs the game to clinch the AFC East. Another Jets defeat would set their record at 4-13, the seventh time in the last 10 seasons where they suffered double digit losses.
Heading into the offseason, the organization will surely aim to turn over a significant portion of the roster. However, if they’re serious about setting a new tone for the franchise, how about—for a change--keeping certain players who have performed at the higher levels?
This team has a habit of moving out productive players. Sometimes, like with the trade of safety Jamal Adams, you could argue that the management decisions were based on sound team-building theory. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of others—wide receiver Robbie Anderson, linebacker Demario Davis, and kicker Jason Myers, to name a few—who weren’t deemed priorities because the opinion was that they could be replaced with cheaper options.
Except these guys were rarely replaced with capable players. I know Anderson didn’t have a great year in Carolina, but how much extra bang did the Jets get for giving Corey Davis $27 million guaranteed to post the NFL’s second-highest drop rate this season (minimum 50 targets), per ProFootballFocus.com after placing their bet last season on Breshad Perriman?
An exception to the above rule was when Douglas’ predecessor Mike Maccagnan allowed Andre Roberts, a return specialist who made First Team All-Pro in his only season in New York, to walk out the door as a free agent in the 2019 offseason. Though Roberts continued to excel during his next two seasons in Buffalo, the Jets found a younger and less expensive player they could develop off the New England cut list.
After two seasons of leading the league in nothing but fair catches, Braxton Berrios turned it up this season. Berrios, 26, was stiffed out of his rightful place on the AFC Pro Bowl roster (he is first alternate) in favor of Baltimore’s Devin Duvernay, who is miles behind conference-leading Berrios in PFF’s return grades. Duvernay has a one-yard edge over second-best Berrios in punt return average but there’s no competition on kickoffs, where Berrios leads the league by over 1.5 yards per return (and nearly 6 yards per return better than Duvernay) and boasts a 102-yard touchdown.
Berrios’ value to the Jets this season has gone beyond returning kicks. He has also scored two touchdowns each receiving and rushing, becoming the first Jets wide receiver in franchise history to get one of each type in a single game during Sunday’s heartbreaking 28-24 loss to the Bucs. If not for the coaching staff’s incompetence with their failure to emphasize to rookie quarterback Zach Wilson that the crucial fourth-and-two play inside two minutes should not have a sneak option and was supposed to go to Berrios on an end around, the Jets might have pulled off an amazing upset of the defending Super Bowl champs.
That play should have resulted in Berrios’ fourth first down in 6 rushing attempts this season to go along with his 22 first downs on 46 receptions. Still, the combined 25 first downs place him fourth on the team, not too shabby for a backup slot guy who has played only 37.5% of the offensive snaps. Chalk that up to the developing chemistry between Berrios and Wilson, who trusts the 5-foot 9 receiver because he has been dinged by PFF with only one drop this season.
Of course, this ascension is coming in Berrios’ walk year, as he will be a free agent after he trudges off the hideous Highland Stadium field in Buffalo on Sunday (assuming he plays—he has yet to practice this week due to a quad injury).
Berrios most likely won’t be the biggest name you’ll hear about internally and externally when Douglas navigates this coming offseason, but how his situation is handled should be monitored intently. To me, this is exactly the setting where Douglas plugs some numbers into his laptop and comes up with an offer of “X,” and then when Berrios counters with “X plus Y percent,” Douglas says, “Too rich for our blood. We’re out.”
That would be outrageous considering the relative immateriality of the amounts expected to be negotiated. Berrios is currently in the final season of a 4-year, $2.6 million rookie deal after the Patriots selected him in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Since the Jets claimed him off waivers, they were obligated to pick up the remainder of that contract, which called for an $850,000 salary for 2021.
The Jets will already be saving money when starting slot receiver Jamison Crowder ($5 million salary cap hit this season) comes off the books as a free agent, with impressive rookie Elijah Moore perfectly suited to move into that role going forward. From the comparables I’ve seen on other sites, it shouldn’t take much more than $2 million per year, with a significant amount guaranteed, to get this done.
A large part of developing a culture is rewarding those who have bought in and performed to a standard. You have to bring those guys back, even if it costs a tad more. How the Jets deal with Berrios this offseason will tell us a lot about how serious they are about changing the negative perception that has engulfed this franchise since the early Ryan years.