Rah, Rah, Room for Improvement

The Jets and Giants have done more than their share of losing during the more than six decades that they’ve shared New York’s pro football stage. The Giants had a 17-year playoff drought that started in the Johnson administration. The Jets have never been back to the Super Bowl after their upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in the 1968 season.

But in the last decade, they have collectively skidded to new lows. The Cleveland Browns made the postseason last year, making the Jets the owners of the N.F.L.’s longest playoff drought at 10 years. The Giants have made the playoffs only once since their title run in the 2011 season. Each team has won just 18 games in the last four years. In 2020, the Giants had the second-worst offense in the N.F.L., ranking only ahead of the Jets.

With all that recent history, it takes precious little beyond a dip in temperatures and the announcement of a handful of new personnel to spark optimism that one of the city’s pro football franchises will be better than dismal.

In the case of the Jets, a new head coach, Robert Saleh, and starting quarterback, Zach Wilson, drafted with the second overall pick in April, could be moorings to a foundering franchise. Giants Coach Joe Judge and his quarterback, Daniel Jones, enter their second year together, with any improvement bound to make an impact in the N.F.C. East, the division run by a seven-win team last season.

“Quarterbacks and coaches are important to both teams,” said Steve Gera, who worked in the front office of the Browns and Chargers for 10 years and who now runs a sports performance company. “And both teams seem to have the quarterback they need, and I say that knowing that rookie quarterbacks can go in either direction.”

The same could be said for veteran Jets quarterbacks. The team has cycled through quarterbacks for years, with Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Sam Darnold among the would-have-been saviors. But Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets’ general manager in 2010, when they last made the postseason, said Wilson is very comfortable with new receivers and a new playbook, ahead of the curve for a rookie.

Tannenbaum also called Elijah Moore, a wide receiver from Ole Miss whom the Jets drafted in the second round, “intriguing” because he is fast, has good hands and can be a deep threat or catch passes over the middle of the field. Moore will join the newly acquired receivers Keelan Cole Sr. and Corey Davis, as well as Jamison Crowder, the team’s leading receiver in each of the past two seasons.

Saleh, the charismatic former defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, should provide a jolt after two dim years under Adam Gase. But Tannenbaum warned that Saleh should be ready for his “welcome to New York moment,” that day when something goes disastrously wrong and the news media and fans start to criticize his leadership.

“Hopefully for him, it’ll come later than sooner,” said Tannenbaum, who now works for ESPN. “I felt like I was on a honeymoon for 8 to 10 minutes. I was born and bred here, but it’s not for everybody.”

On Sunday, Saleh and the Jets will start their attempt to not finish in last place, facing the Panthers in North Carolina. Despite the organizational changes, the biggest roadblock to changing their standing is sharing the A.F.C. East with the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. That’s why Frank Tummino, a lifelong Jets fan, said he can get only so excited. Every September, he gets his hopes up, only to have them dashed by December (or earlier). In a sign of what amounts for optimism in Jets Nation, he expects his team to win six games.

“We’re self-deprecating fans,” Tummino, 57, said. “I don’t expect a huge turnaround. I’m just looking for improvement.”

The Giants have had a less linear approach to climbing out of their doldrums. After starting the 2020 season on a five-game losing streak, during which running back Saquon Barkley tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, they won five of their next seven to somersault into contention. That was before bumbling away a playoff berth down the stretch. Jones, in particular, took a step backward in his second year as a pro without a true No. 1 receiver and while missing an elite rushing threat.

In his pursuit of a contract extension this season, Jones will have more options. The Giants signed the former Lions receiver Kenny Golladay, who led the league in receiving touchdowns in 2019, and drafted wide receiver Kadarius Toney. The Giants also signed Kyle Rudolph to platoon with Evan Engram at tight end.

With so many areas for improvement, the question remains what benchmarks the Giants will be using to gauge his progress.

“I’ll be curious what the team’s definition of ‘blossom’ is going to be,” Gera said. Will the Giants need to return to the playoffs for faith in Jones to be justified?

Beyond the Dallas Cowboys, who return their Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott from a gruesome leg injury, the rest of the N.F.C. East teams have enough question marks to make Jones’s and the Giants’ seem quaint in comparison.

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