The honeymoon is over.
The house money has been spent.
A few minutes after 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the raw, rainy and freezing January weather of Western New York, the scholarship period for Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson came to an end.
The Jets 27-10 loss to the Bills at Orchard Park — a game much closer than the final score indicated against the AFC East champions who’d shredded them 45-17 in the teams’ first meeting this season — represented the final act of 2021 for Saleh and Wilson.
Surely, for Saleh, the Jets’ first-year head coach, and Wilson, the Jets’ rookie quarterback, it was fun at times, even while compiling just four wins to go with 13 losses. Both men gained invaluable experience at their respective crafts. That was what this season — particularly for Wilson — was going to be all about in the first place.
The 2021 season was never supposed to be about wins and losses for the Jets, it was about the first-year head coach implementing his program and developing his rookie quarterback.
That changes in 2022 for Saleh and Wilson.
More will be not only expected but demanded.
Another 4-13 finish — or anything close to it — won’t be acceptable for the Jets in 2022. Not with Saleh and Wilson in their second season, not with four picks in the first two rounds of the upcoming NFL draft (Nos. 4 and 10 in the first round and two in the second round) and some $60 million to spend in free agency.
If Saleh and Wilson and general manager Joe Douglas believe they’ll be treated in 2022 with the relative kid gloves that were applied this season, they don’t have to look very far to see the consequences of repeated failure.
The Jets need only to look at what’s gone on with Joe Judge, Daniel Jones and the Giants this season.
While the Jets took a bright-look-at-the-future vibe into Sunday’s game against the Bills despite entering the day with the same 4-12 record the Giants had before their season-finale loss to Washington at moribund MetLife Stadium, the sky is falling for the Giants in the Meadowlands.
Year 2 for Judge, 4-13 after going 6-10 in 2020, has understandably been deemed unacceptable by irate Giants fans, who want the franchise to clean house, which it very well might.
“At the end of the day, it’s about winning, period,’’ Saleh said after the game. “Winning four games in this league is not good enough. We all knew that this was going to be a roller coaster of a season with the youth movement that we’ve had. We all knew that there would be some ups and downs.
“There were some close games. We beat two division winners (Tennessee and Cincinnati). We had the Super Bowl champs (Tampa Bay) on the ropes. We were a one-score game here with Buffalo.’’
The arrow, indeed, appears pointed up for the Jets, who for the second consecutive Sunday played a current Super Bowl contender like they belonged on the same field.
One week after scaring the bejesus out of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, who had to pull out a 28-24 decision in the final seconds, the Jets played the Bills to the wire. The Bills were clinging to a 13-10 lead before scoring with 8:21 remaining in the game to go up by 10 and pull away.
Considering how poorly the Jets’ offense played, it was a miracle the Bills didn’t beat them by 30-something again. The Jets’ offense finished with 53 net yards, setting a dubious franchise record for futility, which had been 72 yards against the Bengals in 1972.
Wilson finished 7 of 20 for 87 yards and got his team in the end zone only once. He was sacked eight times for 79 yards in losses, leaving him with only 8 net yards passing. Even as short-handed as Wilson was with talent around him (minus his top four receivers), it was not good enough.
In 2022, it’s going to have to be better for Wilson, Saleh and everyone else wearing a Jets uniform.
“Our ceiling is really high,’’ linebacker and team captain C.J. Mosley said. “We’ve laid the foundation and we’ve seen the things that need to be done in order for us to be great.’’
I’ve never been a believer in teams bringing the momentum of a strong finish in one season into the next season. But this Jets team did grow in 2021. Saleh grew. Wilson grew. The Jets started 10 rookies during the course of the season, tied for the most of any team in the NFL.
Everything simply needs to better in 2022. Four, five, even six wins will not be enough. The 2022 Jets need to be playing meaningful games in the final month of the season, seeking victories that have playoff implications, not moral victories.
The honeymoon is over. It ended Sunday in Orchard Park.