EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The record is bad -- 5-10 -- but coach Todd Bowles won't be judged on the record, according to his boss. Acting owner Christopher Johnson set modest expectations for the New York Jets, saying in September he had only one "p" word on his mind -- progress, not playoffs.
"It’s not going to come down to games [won]," Johnson said then. "It really won’t. It’s more about the play on the field. Are we getting better?"
It's hard to find evidence of that in recent weeks, because the offense is an absolute mess without injured quarterback Josh McCown. Still, the Jets have played competitively in almost every game. They lead the league in moral victories, the latest a 14-7 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. In an epic quarterback mismatch -- Bryce Petty versus future Pro Football Hall of Famer Philip Rivers -- the Jets somehow still had a chance to tie the game with three minutes left.
Johnson doesn't like losing -- he noted that too in September -- but if he judges Bowles on the ground rules he spelled out, the decision seems obvious: He'll keep the coach. If he fires Bowles, it'll be because he went from patient boss to bottom-line boss.
Owners are allowed to change their minds -- hey, it can happen when their team loses eight out of 10 -- but the sense around the organization is Johnson & Johnson want to give Bowles another shot in 2018. The ownership gutted the roster and handed Bowles a major rebuilding project. Bowles hasn't been perfect -- too many empty fourth quarters -- but he also hasn't botched the assignment.
The assignment was to build a cohesive team, improve the culture, develop young talent and set a foundation for the future. Bowles has accomplished that, albeit with some frustrating losses. If Johnson and older brother/owner Woody Johnson don't see it that way, it's because they got fixated on the won-loss record. From all indications, they're trying to focus on the big picture.
"You just keep your head down and just keep working," Bowles said of the two-month stretch of mounting loses. "We're in every game. We're not closing them out. We're not finishing them. For whatever reason, we're not making plays in the fourth quarter to finish these games. You keep working and you keep trying to find a solution."
On Sunday, Bowles showed some flair, starting the game with an onside kick, the first time the Jets have done that since 2012. Amazingly, it worked, as they recovered the loose ball. For the most part, the Jets played well defensively. Bilal Powell carried the offense, rushing for 145 yards, but it wasn't enough, because Petty -- limited and inexperienced -- struggled through a bad game. In the end, Bowles provided fodder for his critics with questionable clock management, but a closer look reveals that it wasn't as bad as it seemed.
Afterward, there were mixed emotions in the locker room. A frustrated Jermaine Kearse, tired of the moral victories, said, "Being competitive means winning ballgames, and that ain't happening. I don't know how long we're going to say, 'Oh, we're in the game.'"
Asked if he sees hope, Kearse said, "Winning games gives me hope."
On the other side of the room was Jordan Jenkins, young and optimistic.
"People will say, 'Same old Jets.' Nuh-uh," he said. "We're not having that."
Bowles' fate will be known in seven days, perhaps sooner. If he's fired, he could emerge as a candidate with the Arizona Cardinals, should Bruce Arians retire, as previously reported. Bowles was a popular defensive coordinator in Arizona in 2013 and 2014. If the Cards really want him, it could set up a fascinating tug-of-war, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Right now, it's the Johnsons' move.