FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — The one-word message printed in bold white letters on the black T-shirts hanging in the New York Jets players' lockers summarized the massive task for next season.
Robert Saleh's squad was unable to do that this season as a six-game losing streak extended the Jets' playoff drought to a franchise-record 12 consecutive years.
It was a collapse for which Saleh apologized to ownership, players, coaches and fans. And that T-shirt — the coach's idea — was a symbolic reminder of what needs to happen next season.
“It's a tremendous learning experience,” Saleh said Monday. “One that stings because we didn't get it done. But we played real December football with our butts on the line versus teams that were fighting for a playoff spot, too, or are in the playoffs. ... And finishing doesn't mean let's wait until December.
"It means everything we do is about finishing.”
The Jets (7-10) appeared on the verge of snapping that postseason drought when they were sitting at 7-4 in November.
“That 7-4 start wasn't a mirage,” Saleh insisted.
But it faded quickly — with poor quarterback play, injuries and inconsistency among the players and coaches all contributing to the collapse.
General manager Joe Douglas called the Jets' impressive start “surreal, in a positive way” and added that the brutal finish was “surreal, in a negative way.”
The defense was a top-five unit all season, but the offense failed to score a touchdown in the final three games and couldn't consistently move downfield — especially after rookie running back Breece Hall was lost midway through the season with a knee injury.
“It can’t happen again, that's for sure," rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson said.
Otherwise, it'll cost people their jobs — starting with Saleh and possibly Douglas — and send an already frustrated fanbase into despair.
The focus entering the season was the development of second-year quarterback Zach Wilson, but he took a major step back that resulted in him being benched twice and now having an uncertain future with the Jets.
Saleh and Douglas said the Jets remain committed to helping Wilson reach the potential that made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2021. But Saleh stopped short of saying Wilson will be the starting QB next season — and he can't. The Jets are likely going to explore bringing in a veteran to be the starter, with Wilson potentially serving as a backup.
“Yeah, I’m gonna make that dude’s life hell in practice every day,” a smiling Wilson said when asked about that scenario. “I'm going to go out there and do my best to just show the coaches I deserve to be there. And it's not in a negative way, it's a positive way. It's making everybody else better, hopefully.”
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Quinnen Williams wants to get paid — and thinks he has done everything he can to warrant a contract extension.
The defensive tackle, selected to his first Pro Bowl this season, is entering the final year of his rookie deal and wants to work out an extension with the team before the offseason training program begins in April. He said he'll otherwise skip voluntary workouts.
“I did everything right on and off the field,” said Williams, who had a career-high 12 sacks. “I want to be compensated for what I am.”
Williams said “I definitely have faith” the Jets will get a deal done, likes what the team is building on defense, and wants to be part of “the New York Sack Exchange 2.0.”
“We all love Quinnen,” Douglas said. “We all want Quinnen here.”
The Jets know they've got two major building blocks on either side of the ball with cornerback Sauce Gardner and wide receiver Garrett Wilson — both first-round picks — having standout rookie seasons.
Gardner was selected to the Pro Bowl and is already considered one of the best players at his position. He quickly became a fan favorite.
“I feel like I'm the person they needed in terms of the swag that I've got, the confidence and the way I carry myself,” Gardner said. “That's what New York needed. And me just being able to go on the field and play pretty good, that's just the cherry on the top."
Wilson set franchise rookie records with 83 catches and 1,103 yards receiving, standing out as a playmaker despite dealing with five quarterback changes during the season.
There are plenty of questions to address this offseason to make sure the Jets actually do finish where they want to be at this time a year from now.
“Better days are coming,” Garrett Wilson insisted.
The franchise and the fanbase are counting on it.
Williams' contract situation is a priority over the next few months, as is settling the quarterback position. And owner Woody Johnson will likely keep close watch on how it all plays out because another year without a postseason appearance could cause him to clean house next offseason.
“None of us are thrilled, obviously,” Douglas said. “We all want to win. We're all highly competitive. No one wants to win more than Woody, more than the Johnson family.”
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