Can the NY Jets defy the odds and become contenders in 2021?

NY Jets, Robert Saleh
NY Jets, Robert Saleh / Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

One of the very few benefits of winning two games like the NY Jets did last season is that the following season carries lowered expectations. The New York Jets, as a franchise, have nowhere to go but up because they hit rock bottom in 2020.

For the first time in a long time, the Jets fan base has genuine optimism going into a season. The Jets franchise appears to be headed in the right direction.

Jets general manager Joe Douglas has the team in great cap shape moving forward and has built up a war chest of draft ammunition at his disposal.

The hiring of Robert Saleh as head coach has galvanized the Jets faithful. A mostly favorable offseason coupled with a draft that has received universal praise has many feeling good about the team's long-term future.

The question is, can the positive outlook on the green and white translate to positive results sooner than many anticipate?

Depending on which sportsbook you rely upon for projected team win totals, most oddsmakers have the NY Jets winning only six games in 2021. And understandably so. It's a reasonable projection, not just because of last year's results.

After all, the entire Jets franchise is in transition. They have a completely new coaching staff, a new offense and defense, a first-time head coach, and a first-time offensive coordinator.

To top it all off, they will most likely be trotting out a rookie quarterback in Zach Wilson when the season starts.

The NY Jets also have the fifth-youngest roster in the entire NFL, with only three players over the age of 30. The average age of the Jets roster is 24.8.

On top of that, the team is expected to start multiple first and second-year players in 2021. Because of these factors, it's reasonable to assume that there will be growing pains right out the gate for the Jets players and its new coaching staff.

The entire 2021 Jets season figures to be a year of transition and growth.

So with all these reasonable factors playing against the Jets' favor in 2021, it would be foolhardy to suggest that they can be playoff contenders this coming season. Or would it?

Can the NY Jets actually make the playoffs in 2021?

NY Jets fans have seen this movie before.

You don't have to dig too far in the team's history to find instances where the green and white have exceeded expectations in year one of a new coaching regime or even with a rookie quarterback at the helm.

Back in 1997, the legendary Bill Parcells took over a one-win Jets team and, in his first year at the controls, led the green and white to a nine-win campaign where they were on the brink of making the playoffs in Detroit on the final weekend of the regular season.

Even though the Jets made the playoffs in 1991, they did so with a .500 record. 1997 was the Jets' first winning season in nearly a decade since 1988.

Parcells took over the Jets franchise at one of its lowest points, which had only won 4 games total in its two previous seasons. And within two years, the Jets were knocking on the door of a Super Bowl.

All thanks to 'Tuna' paving the way and changing the franchise's losing culture. That's something that the fan base of Gang Green hopes happens with Robert Saleh.

As a result of Parcells changing the teams' culture, the Jets, from 1997-2011, would experience only three losing seasons.

Along the way, the franchise would make seven playoff appearances, win division titles, and multiple playoff games with three AFC Championship Game visits.

From 1997 to the present day, six Jets head coaches have experienced winning seasons or made the playoffs in their first year with the franchise. Bill Parcells (9-7), Al Groh (9-7), Herman Edwards (10-6), Eric Mangini (10-6), Rex Ryan (9-7), and Todd Bowles (10-6).

Some of the head coaches during that run greatly exceeded expectations from the year prior.

Eric Mangini took over a last-place four-win Jets team, won 10 games in 2006, and got the Jets into the playoffs. As a result, Mangini received the infamous "Man Genius" label.

Rex Ryan inherited a nine-win Jets team in 2009 from Mangini; he matched the win total from the year prior but did so with a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez.

Ryan would win two playoff games in his rookie year as head coach before losing in the AFC Championship Game to the Indianapolis Colts.

Todd Bowles won 10 games in his first year as the Jets head coach — the year prior, the team had only four wins.

Heck, even Adam Gase followed the Jets' positive trend of head coaches in their first season by going 7-9 in 2019, a year after the Jets won four total games.

Sustaining success after the first year on the job will be of utmost importance for Robert Saleh. The record that he has in year one with the Jets will not be as important as building a winning foundation that stands the test of time over the long haul.

Admittedly, Saleh is inheriting a very challenging situation with the Jets. Despite the team's history of first-year turnarounds, it's not fair to expect him to make the Jets a legitimate contender overnight.

However, if you take a step back and look at the Jets' roster, the team is vastly improved on offense, defense, and special teams from where they were a year ago. The New York Jets will be a much-improved team from a coaching, leadership, and talent standpoint.

Three specific areas on the Jets in 2021 are great cause for optimism — the offensive line, the wide receiver position, and the team's pass rush. The team has stocked up nicely in those areas.

The Jets still have question marks on their roster like cornerback, and they have a great unknown at quarterback, and they can only go as far as Zach Wilson takes them, but the team by default should be better than they've been in recent years.

Just how realistic is it to expect the Jets to be playoff contenders in 2021. Well, even with an expanded playoff field in the NFL, the Miami Dolphins won 10 games in the AFC last season and still missed out.

The Jets winning 10 or more games in 2021 would be a miracle and would truly defy the odds.

Save for a brief hiccup in the 2015 season, the Jets have played meaningless football games every year in November and December for the last decade.

A true accomplishment for Robert Saleh, his staff, and the Jets would be to play meaningful games at the tail end of the 2021 season. Getting this franchise into that position in year one of a new program would truly put them ahead of schedule.

The New York Jets franchise has been irrelevant for quite some time. The patience of the team's fan base has been tested. The Jets have the longest current playoff drought in the NFL.

They have gone 10 consecutive seasons without making the playoffs, and in the likelihood that they fail to do so in 2021, it will tie the franchise's longest postseason drought set over the course of 11 seasons from 1970-1980.

Is there finally some light at the end of the long tunnel of misery?

The Jets' history of quick first-year turnarounds gives some hope for optimism in 2021, but perhaps the recent example set by the New York Knicks should carry the most significance.

Like the Jets, the New York Knicks have been a franchise that has struggled to stay relevant for years. Poor leadership at the top of that organization has plagued them for years. Sound familiar?

The winds of change finally started to shift for the Knicks when they made the right choices at the top with general manager Scott Perry and president of basketball operations Leon Rose, but most notably with head coach Tom Thibodeau.

As a result, the new leadership has transformed the Knicks overnight from a team that won 21 games to a playoff team. And it's changed the outlook of their entire franchise moving forward.

The New York Knicks in 2021 are finally back to relevancy and respectability, thanks mostly to Tom Thibodeau.

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New York Jets fans hope that Robert Saleh can do the same thing for Gang Green. It may not come immediately in 2021, but then again, it might.