You have to appreciate the professionalism of the New York Jets' players.
Few gave them a chance of averting an 0-16 finish, one that would have cast them in infamy along with the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns, among other hapless squads through the NFL's 101-season history. Certainly no one expected the Jets to beat the (formerly) NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams on Sunday or even cover a 17½-point spread. The Seattle Seahawks, beaten by L.A. last month, crushed New York by 37 points the previous weekend.
But these Jets weren't going to crash and burn willingly.
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Their excitement was obvious earlier this month when it appeared they'd beaten the Las Vegas Raiders with a defensive stand in the final minutes – their disbelief and disappointment just as palpable when they eventually lost on a last-second TD bomb facilitated by since-fired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' unforgivable all-out blitz.
The notion the Jets tanked that day – or any other time – was inaccurate and irresponsible. The window of a professional football career is rarely open for long, and few NFL players have the luxury of waiting until next year … or putting bad film on their résumés.
"It hurts to lose. I don't put my body through this – I don't think anyone on the Jets puts their bodies through this – to lose," center Connor McGovern said before facing the Rams. "This game is too hard to do for a piece of paper and some money in the bank. You've got to love it to be great at this game and you're not gonna love it if you're trying to lose."
Which is exactly why McGovern, quarterback Sam Darnold (a Southern California native) and so many of their teammates were thrilled to defeat Los Angeles 23-20 in what was surely the most stunning upset of the season.
And yet there's no denying that, by winning this battle, the Jets may have lost significant football wars to come – their likely forfeiture of Clemson star Trevor Lawrence threatening a cascading effect beyond the loss of a franchise-altering quarterback.
Consider the possible ramifications:
Lawrence probably won't be a Jet
It was the overarching takeaway from the ambush of the Rams, which pulled New York even with the Jacksonville Jaguars at 1-13 for the NFL's worst record. But because the Jags have played a softer mathematical schedule than the Jets, the guys from Duval County will likely wind up with the tiebreaker conveying the No. 1 pick of the 2021 draft.
That selection has long been earmarked for Lawrence, widely cited as a generational prospect in the same vein as John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. (Yes, NFL draftniks seem to define "generational" differently … but at least the Colts won't wind up with the selection for a change.)
Lawrence was going to be the guy to take Gang Green back to the Super Bowl, more than a half-century after Joe Namath became the one and only quarterback who's managed the feat – many surmising he struck some Faustian bargain to do so.
In the interim, Richard Todd, Ken O'Brien, Chad Pennington, Mark Sanchez and, now, Darnold have delivered a collective "Broadway No," providing varying degrees of false hope.
But Lawrence? He's already guided Clemson to two national championship games and one title – another ring perhaps on the way next month. How could he not be a green-and-white clad savior, his golden arm, golden hair and gold-plated scouting report all that was needed to finally get the franchise's first sterling silver hardware since 1969?
Maybe Jacksonville will win one of its final two games (vs. Bears, at Colts) and restore the Jets to the top of the 2021 draft order, but the Jags seem pretty unlikely to return this most generous of Holiday gifts.
Jets now face QB dilemma
Though Darnold is only in Year 3 of his NFL career, no one would have blinked at the notion of replacing him so quickly with a talent like Lawrence. But what to do now?
The Jets seemed fortunate to land Darnold with the third pick in 2018 given he was once considered the presumptive No. 1 player in that draft. His ability flashes frequently enough – even if his occasional carelessness with the ball has also carried over from his time at USC.
But it's been challenging to fairly evaluate Darnold, who's been sidelined by injuries and mononucleosis and hardly been the beneficiary of a supporting cast capable of supplementing his talent. Before overseeing his first draft last spring, GM Joe Douglas even felt compelled to make a vow to Darnold's parents, promising "to do everything in my power to take care of Sam with protection and playmakers."
Though Douglas' inaugural draft class is getting solid reviews – namely left tackle Mekhi Becton and receiver Denzel Mims – there's hardly a lot of weaponry on this offense. And yet Douglas is approaching significant decisions regarding Darnold – near term, whether to activate his fifth-year contract option while mulling the wisdom of a bigger payday beyond that – while still trying to figure out exactly what the team has in its starter, who's still only 23.
Sure would have been a lot easier to draft Lawrence and reset this position financially.
Douglas might still go that route with Ohio State's Justin Fields, Alabama's Mac Jones or BYU's Zach Wilson. But it's not nearly as clear-cut a choice – especially when the alternative is to double down on Darnold – he recently said, "I want to be a Jet for life" –and give him a projected cornerstone like Oregon tackle Penei Sewell or LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
Head coaching job loses luster
Everyone expects the Jets to imminently fire second-year head coach Adam Gase, including Gase himself.
This job might have looked fairly tantalizing – had it come with the prospect of coaching Lawrence plus three additional first-round picks over the next two drafts while knowing Douglas could have nearly $100 million in salary cap space in 2021.
The Jets will still have the money and the picks, but will Eric Bieniemy or Joe Brady or Arthur Smith really be amped to take over an offense that's produced the fewest yards and points in the league in 2020 given the amount of disarray likely to linger?
Lastly, the Jets haven't exactly cultivated a rep as a place where veterans will want to flock, no matter the size of Douglas' free-agent budget.
Five months ago, safety Jamal Adams was the best player on this roster – and probably in the AFC East. But he forced a trade to Seattle that helped torpedo New York's season before it started. In October, the organization saw fit to release running back Le'Veon Bell, who was signed by Douglas' predecessor, Mike Maccagnan. According to reports, Gase believed the Bell acquisition to be a mistake.
Like any profession, NFL players talk before taking a new job. And though the Jets' culture will surely be changing in the coming weeks, moving to Florham Park, New Jersey, would probably be a lot more exciting if the recent dysfunction didn't give you pause … or if you at least thought you'd be joining a prospect of Lawrence's caliber for the foreseeable future.
But as the Jets have repeatedly proved over the past five decades, it's not easy being green.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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