TAMPA, Fla. -- When the New York Jets return from their bye week, the focus over the final six games shifts to coach Todd Bowles. Is he the right man to lead them beyond 2017?
It's a tough question to pose on this particular Monday morning, considering how poorly they played in their 15-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For the first time since Week 2 in Oakland, the Jets played down to expectations. Fortunately for Bowles, he won't be evaluated on one game or one month. His mandate from ownership is make sure the proverbial arrow is pointed up when the season comes to a close on New Year's Eve.
Bowles has the Jets (4-6) moving in the right direction, but he can't close the deal unless he shows Sunday's stinker was an aberration. If it starts a trend, he's in big trouble. Every coach is entitled to a mulligan, one of those no-show kind of days. This was one of those games, a 60-minute flop by the offense.
Afterward, Bowles gave a stunningly honest assessment, admitting, "We didn't show up." He offered the usual coachspeak/disclaimers, insisting they were prepared and they weren't over confident after last week's dominating win in prime time, but it was the initial reaction that spoke the loudest.
We didn't show up.
That's on Bowles, but he deserves some slack because it was really the first time in two months the Jets resembled the team everybody expected in the preseason. If this stinker had occurred in September, it wouldn't have shocked anyone. After all, they were supposed to be lousy on offense, with a journeyman quarterback and marginal talent around him. But they overachieved for the first nine games, raising the bar.
Then came Sunday, and they were victimized by a classic trap game. The Bucs had lost five straight and were without quarterback Jameis Winston and star receiver Mike Evans. Several Jets admitted they lacked emotion; the swagger from last week was gone.
"While I was on the sideline, I was saying, 'We're flat. We're not playing like ourselves,'" said cornerback Morris Claiborne, who left early in the game with a foot injury.
Clearly, the Bucs should be better than 3-6, so the game probably says more about Dirk Koetter's shortcomings over the first eight games than Bowles' failures in this game. He and his staff had done a terrific job with the offense, but they failed to camouflage their deficiencies on Sunday. The offensive line was overwhelmed by the Bucs' front, turning Josh McCown into a human pinata -- 14 quarterback hits, including six sacks.
Another red flag was the eight penalties that cost them 77 yards. That brings their season total to a ridiculous 81 penalties, the second-highest in the league. It's something that can be fixed, and yet it continues to undermine them. That's on Bowles, who has resorted to unconventional methods. To prevent holding penalties, the defensive backs practiced last week with tennis balls in their hands, according to a CBS report on the telecast.
Looking at the big picture, the Jets are a relatively young team, still learning to handle the ebbs and flows of a long season. Clearly, they still haven't learned how to handle prosperity, although linebacker Jordan Jenkins refused to buy that theory.
"We've played 10 games, so that young crap is out the window," he said. "We can't use that as an excuse anymore. We have to be consistent. We can't get to where we want to be if we keep going like this."
Unfortunately, the remaining schedule is difficult, starting with the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs, both 6-3. Bowles gets a bye week to figure out his plan for the homestretch. He can't afford to backslide at this juncture.