FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The most disappointing loss of the Todd Bowles era came against the Buffalo Bills. It was the last game of his first season, 2015, and all the New York Jets needed for a wild-card berth was a win over their injury-ravaged opponent. Afterward, the Jets were so crushed that players actually cried in the locker room.
Nearly three years later, Bowles has another critical date with the Bills, except this time the stakes are entirely different. This one is about preservation, not playoffs. If Bowles can't beat the Bills, one of the most offensively inept teams in the history of the sport (we're not exaggerating), the Todd Watch will commence.
The Jets would be 3-7 at the bye week, battling a four-game losing streak and staring at a "twin Bill" -- two matchups against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots -- over the final six games. Now you're talking about double-digit losses for the third straight year.
Jets CEO Christopher Johnson likes Bowles and wants to make this work, which is why he gave the coach a two-year contract extension (through 2020) after last season. But Johnson also wants to see the team trending upward as it goes into the pivotal 2019 offseason. That would be a tough chore if they can't take care of business against the hapless Bills (2-7), the first team in 41 years to have as many touchdown passes as pick-sixes through its first nine games. They've started three different quarterbacks, none of whom can shoot straight.
"I think it’s huge," Bowles said of Sunday's return to MetLife Stadium, which figures to be half-empty. "It’s our next game. It’s a division rivalry. We let a couple of them go, especially this tough one we just lost. ... Winning takes care of a lot of problems and a lot of issues. It’s important for us to win the next ballgame.”
Nobody expected the Jets to have a winning season, especially with a rookie quarterback and an incomplete roster. This is the bridge year, linking the 2017 teardown to the 2019 playoff push -- or at least that's what the blueprint says. Bowles knows he would have a better record with Josh McCown at quarterback, but he's taking one for the team by playing Sam Darnold, whose growing pains have become acute -- and that affects the rest of the team. The anti-Bowles crowd conveniently forgets about that.
Bowles' supporters will say it's unfair that he's on the hot seat, and there's some validity to that. But the NFL is a big-boy business and billionaire owners -- the same guys who preach patience and understanding in the preseason -- have a tendency to change their minds when they see two things: the standings and empty seats, not necessarily in that order. There could be another variable in this situation. Some in the league wonder if Bowles has the full support of general manager Mike Maccagnan, who has Johnson's ear. Remember, Maccagnan didn't hire Bowles; it was an arranged marriage by ownership. His lukewarm assessment of Bowles in last week's sit-down with reporters was noticeable.
If ownership bases its decision on the bottom line, Bowles is in big trouble. Starting with the 2015 finale, the Jets have won only 13 of 42 games -- a .310 winning percentage. Only two teams have fewer wins in that span -- the San Francisco 49ers (11-31) and Cleveland Browns (3-38-1). Historically, this is one of the worst 42-game stretches for the Jets. They're only six wins behind their dark-ages period -- a 7-35 record in the Pete Carroll/Rich Kotite era, 1994 to 1996.
On the positive side, Bowles is developing some key young players, namely Jamal Adams, Darron Lee and Jordan Jenkins on defense. That certainly helps his cause, and he'll be in even better shape if he and his offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, can fix the slumping Darnold. The problem is, the overall product looks bad when a team can't score, and the Jets have managed only one touchdown in their past 27 possessions -- six of which ended with Darnold interceptions.
An offensive-minded coach might appeal to ownership, but that's hardly a cure-all. The Jets "don't have a lot of pieces on offense that can make it go, so you kind of expect this," one AFC scout said last week. Any person with a modicum of football knowledge would agree, but that doesn't excuse bad decisions. The latest was leaving Spencer Long in Sunday's game for as long as Bowles did.
The veteran center had no fewer than seven bad shotgun snaps, yet Bowles waited until there were 4 minutes, 21 seconds remaining in the contest before yanking him. His explanation only exacerbated the matter. Essentially, Bowles said he would've left Long in the game if he hadn't re-injured his snapping hand.
"We were fine," Bowles said, inexplicably.
Bowles also made a curious comment about the defense, saying, "We have to get turnovers and do a little more." In truth, the defense played magnificently, keeping the Miami Dolphins out of the end zone. Remarks like that can backfire on a coach. Bowles can't afford to lose the locker room -- and I don't think he will -- but I bet some players will look at him sideways after hearing that.
The potential for an offense-defense fracture is real, evidenced by the postgame tension. Perhaps sensing it, tackle Kelvin Beachum began his session with reporters by saying he wanted to commend the defense before taking questions. He's a savvy veteran.
“If we start dividing now, if coaches start dividing from players or players from players or coaches from coaches -- any type of division in this organization -- it’s only going to hinder us,” defensive end Leonard Williams said Monday.
Every comment and every decision gets scrutinized when a team is going bad, especially in the New York market. Whether he likes it or not, the coach influences perception by how he handles himself publicly. Bill Parcells was the master. That is not one of Bowles' strengths.
But as Bowles said, winning solves a lot of problems -- and he needs a win in the worst way.
Don't lose to the Bills.