FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — The vibe is different around the New York Jets. Even with only four wins.
Yes, the franchise just completed another season without a postseason appearance, an NFL-worst drought of 11 straight years. And, yep, the Jets have just six victories in the past two seasons.
But a strange — yet realistic — sense of optimism is the main feeling heading into the offseason.
“Winning,” veteran offensive tackle Morgan Moses insisted, “is right around the corner.”
It’s a tough sell to Jets fans who have gone generations without a Super Bowl, the last — and still only — appearance coming with Joe Namath in 1969.
There has been a lot of hope and optimism during those 50-plus years, only to fizzle into disappointment. And for the past 11 years, frustration has been the predominant feeling.
But with Joe Douglas entering his third full offseason as general manager, coach Robert Saleh coming off his first season leading the team and quarterback Zach Wilson showing marked improvement down the stretch of his rookie year, optimism and hope are back.
“We’re not where we want to be, four wins, a tough season,” Douglas said Monday. “But today was a good day.”
Douglas spoke about the exit interviews with players, the work ahead in the offseason and the tone Saleh has set for the team.
“When we set out to find the right person to lead this franchise, some of the biggest things we were looking for was someone who could teach, who could inspire and who could lead — and we have that in coach Saleh and his staff,” Douglas said. “Fortunate to call him a teammate.”
Douglas praised the “monumental player development task” Saleh and his staff dealt with as the Jets were exceptionally young all over the roster, with rookies and second-year players such as Wilson, running back Michael Carter, wide receiver Elijah Moore, left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and cornerbacks Bryce Hall and Brandin Echols playing major roles.
That youth movement will continue this offseason with the Jets holding the Nos. 4 and 10 picks in the first round of the draft in April.
New York has plenty of salary cap space, too — likely between $50 million and $60 million — to plug holes during free agency.
“For me, I have to do a better job,” Douglas said.
Saleh called his relationship with Douglas “awesome” and the two are looking forward to working together to end the franchise’s playoff drought.
“The way Joe and I see football is identical,” Saleh said. “We believe that it starts in the trenches, we believe in the same character, we believe in the same type of player, we believe and see things very, very similar.
“His ability to challenge me from a coaching standpoint and my ability to challenge him with regards to being a GM, the conversations we can have without anyone taking it personal, I think is healthy. Very, very healthy. And because of it, there’s a lot of trust between Joe’s staff and the coaching staff.”
Wilson struggled through the first half of his rookie season, then sat four games with a sprained knee ligament. The No. 2 overall pick had a strong finish as he gained confidence in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s system.
Wilson didn’t throw an interception in his last five games, a streak no other Jets rookie QB has experienced.
“I saw a ton of growth from Zach this year,” Douglas said.
Wilson credited his receivers for stepping up around him and making plays. He also said there was a focus on eliminating mistakes.
“Saying, hey, if we’re turning the ball over, we’re not going to win very many games,” Wilson said. “So that was a big emphasis for me, just, how can you get rid of just the bonehead ones? There’s always going to be turnovers, there’s always going to be interceptions. How can you get rid of the ones that are never supposed to happen?”
STAY OR GO?
The Jets have several key players eligible to be unrestricted free agents, including Moses, wide receiver/return specialist Braxton Berrios, safety Marcus Maye, offensive linemen Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, defensive lineman Folorunso Fatukasi and running back Tevin Coleman.
Berrios and Maye might be the two most intriguing decisions for the Jets.
Berrios played to an All-Pro level as a returner this season, but also blossomed into a terrific receiver while finishing second on the team with a career-high 46 receptions. Maye was franchise tagged last offseason, but he faces a potential suspension after an offseason DUI arrest and is still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon that cut short his season.
“We have great flexibility to be aggressive in a lot of different avenues,” Douglas said. “We’re excited about attacking free agency, attacking the draft, attacking the combine.”
The Jets have some obvious needs, and plenty of them — on the offensive line, tight end, wide receiver, safety, cornerback, linebacker. It won’t be a quick fix, but being more competitive in an already tough AFC East will be on the docket for 2022.
“Four wins, it’s not good enough,” Douglas said. “Six wins in two years, it’s not good enough. We have to be better, specifically in the division. We have to win divisional games. We have a lot of work to do going forward. We need to get better across the board. I can tell you that our focus this offseason is going to be improving the team.”
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