By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
AP Pro Football Writer
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — The New York Jets’ season began with aging Joe Flacco starting at quarterback. It ended the same way.
And that was the problem.
Well, along with all of the other switching, struggling, injuries and inconsistency at QB in between.
It sent what appeared to be a Jets squad on the brink of ending the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to a 7-10 record, more disappointment and offseason uncertainty. One pivotal area — as it was for other clubs that fell short, such as the Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers — was quarterback.
“It’s the head of the snake,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “And if you’re not getting consistent play or consistent movement from the head of the snake, it’s not going to be good.”
It certainly wasn’t for the Jets, who were downright snakebit — just as some say they’ve been since Joe Namath delivered the franchise its only Super Bowl title after the 1968 season.
New York made five changes at quarterback: Flacco to Zach Wilson to Mike White, back to Wilson, back to White, back to Flacco.
The Jets certainly weren’t alone with that sort of revolving door: NFL teams combined to start 68 quarterbacks — the most in the Super Bowl era in a non-strike year. A league-record 13 teams used three or more starting QBs. In contrast, nine of 14 playoff teams had their preferred starter available for every game.
Like the Jets, Tennessee and Carolina went 7-10.
The Titans were 12-5 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC last season, when Ryan Tannehill started every game at quarterback. This season? He missed five starts overall after injuring his right ankle in late October and then again in December, so playing time went to rookie Malik Willis and little-used veteran Josh Dobbs, contributing to a fall from 7-3 and first place in the AFC South to a seven-game skid.
Not a coincidence.
“This is a quarterback-driven league, and people are hired and fired every day over that position,” new Titans GM Ran Carthon said. “I want to spend more time evaluating that position.”
The Panthers went through a trio of starting QBs — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker — and all three missed time because of ankle or foot injuries. That’s aside from rookie Matt Corral, who was lost in the preseason with — yes, you guessed it — a foot injury. The Panthers fired coach Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start before making a late playoff push under interim coach Steve Wilks. He was cast aside for new hire Frank Reich, who might take a QB with the draft’s No. 9 pick.
“Quarterback is, I stand by, the most important position in all sports,” Jets general manager Joe Douglas said. “But ultimately, it’s a team sport and you have to have a great group of people around them to support them.”
Tough to do when quarterback is the weak link.
Flacco, now 38, started the first three games while Wilson sat with a preseason knee injury. Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in 2021, had a few good moments overshadowed by plenty of bad over the next seven games.
Still, the Jets were 6-4 and in the playoff hunt with a top defense and AP Rookie of the Year finalists in cornerback Sauce Gardner and receiver Garrett Wilson.
But the season spiraled from there. Zach Wilson got benched, and White delivered a slight spark before being sidelined with broken ribs. After Zach Wilson returned for two games, White gave it another shot, but aggravated his injury.
New York went back to Flacco and the season ended with six losses in a row — and a franchise-record 12th consecutive year without the playoffs.
“We’ve all had a long wait: 54 years from the last Super Bowl is too long,” owner Woody Johnson said. “Way too long. I’d like to change that fast.”
With the Jets among the league’s worst offenses for two seasons and Zach Wilson failing to develop as expected, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was fired. He was replaced by Nathaniel Hackett, who didn’t make it through one season as Denver’s head coach but is tasked with jumpstarting New York’s offense after Saleh interviewed more than 15 candidates.
Now the focus becomes quarterback. And Johnson said he’s “absolutely” willing to pay big bucks for a franchise-type QB.
“We’ve got a (salary) cap, so you’ve got an amount you can spend,” Johnson said. “But yeah, that’s kind of the missing piece.”
Has been since those glory days of Broadway Joe.
AP Pro Football Writers Josh Dubow and Teresa M. Walker, and AP Sports Writer Steve Reed contributed.
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