What is Todd Bowles Doing with the Jets Quarterbacks?

The Jets quarterback situation has been ugly, but it followed a clear game plan. That is, until Todd Bowles started confusing everyone.

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Contrary to common ridicule, this Jets roster is actually a product of rational thought.

After a surprising 10–6 run in 2015 fueled by unnaturally good health and a soft schedule, GM Mike Maccagnan delayed his rebuilding plans and allowed the veteran-laden squad to try its luck for one more go-round. After the 2016 campaign went (predictably) awry, the front office wasted little time initiating a total roster tear down.

This is the prudent strategy to employ, even if it leaves the current depth chart painfully devoid of talent, particularly at the most important position. Even at QB, though — where they have a chance this season to be historically awful — the Jets have made the correct moves in concept: signing an established, yet unreliable place-holder (Josh McCown) with the intention of getting a decent look at 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg while looking ahead to a QB-heavy draft class. Overall, the Jets organizational direction has been rational and competent — not adjectives typically associated with Woody Johnson’s franchise.

Because this is the Jets, though, things have to get strange.

McCown has been the presumed starter since his signing, and rightfully dominated the rep count in the opening weeks of camp. He lead the offense to its lone preseason touchdown in his first and only drive in the opening game against Tennessee, including this dime to Robby Anderson that has a legitimate chance to be the Jets’ most impressive passing play of the year:

In the past week, though, the veteran’s reps have dramatically fallen off. First, he completely sat out last Saturday’s game against Detroit in a clear effort give Hackenberg (and Bryce Petty) more substantial auditions. This isn’t entirely unreasonable, although it still seems odd not to give McCown at least one drive with the starters.

In the team’s next full practice on Tuesday, Bowles curiously stuck to this new regimen. McCown took just three reps in 7-on-7, while Hackenberg took 11, and projected third-stringer Petty received nine, both in 11-on-11. McCown ended up spending practice running sprints, which sounds far more boring and unproductive than practicing playing quarterback (although it does continue an August theme).

The surprising trend continued Wednesday, when McCown saw limited action (he went 5-for-5 and helmed the mock two-minute drill), while Hackenberg received 19 first-team snaps and Petty took 17 (both against the scout team defense).

Bowles credited the latest developments to “evening the reps out” — which is how Bowles initially said he would handle the competition — but this latest strategy adds unnecessarily complications. If McCown is going to be the starter (as everything before this week would indicate), wouldn’t you want him to get as much work with the first-team as possible?

Bowles further justified his decision by citing his confidence in McCown’s experience: “McCown knows what he’s doing. He can play.” True, McCown has been around for 15 years, but he’s hardly familiar with this group of raw pass-catchers, offensive line and first-time OC John Morton and his verbose playbook.

Perhaps more significantly, nothing about McCown’s career performance would suggest that he couldn’t use more practice at playing NFL quarterback. The journeyman might be adept at acclimating to new surroundings, but that hasn’t translated to on-field success. He’s posted a 2–20 record as a starter over the past three years, and 18–42 overall in starts for seven different teams in his tenure.

In general, Bowles (a.k.a. the Anti-Rex) makes a Belichickian effort to divulge as little as possible and curtly speaks in coach clichés, but the lack of explanation can beget more questions. He didn’t help clear things up on Wednesday, opting against naming a starter for Saturday night, insisting that the team will “sit down and talk about it.”

Bowles is aware he’s being weird. After the Lions game, the team — in a very Jets-y move — forbade McCown (a 38-year-old adult) from speaking with reporters. And the typically stoic Bowles was noticeably irked when pressed on the matter Tuesday: [McCown] got reps the whole first half of camp and y’all complained he got too many…Now he’s getting too little. What do you want me to do?” Quite frankly, this “blame the media for my own odd personnel choices” retort is lame, insufficient, and out-of-character.

Furthermore, in that same press conference, Bowles even admitted that McCown could use more practice time “If he’s the starting quarterback, yeah.” Considering the consensus opinion that McCown will be the guy when a Week 1 starter is finally named on Monday, Bowles’ recent actions seem contradictory to his own words.

It’s possible that Bowles is simply making good on his original promise to give the two youngsters a fair shot, and appease upper management by promoting the impression that they are at least trying to develop Hackenberg. However, even if the front office is asking the fanbase to #TrustTheProcess, the coaches (and players) are absolutely trying to win games. Bowles’ messaging certainly hasn’t acknowledged the tank job, considering he instituted a slogan of his own — “One Team: One Goal” — and redecorated the practice facility to emphasize the Lombardi Trophy.

It’s possible Bowles is simply trying to be cryptic and unpredictable, but he needs every win he can get to retain his job, so the idea of not showing his hand versus ideally preparing his team for Week 1 seems counter intuitive. Considering Hackenberg bombed his audition in Detroit and the third preseason game is universally considered the most important tune-up for starters (as the final week prioritizes final roster cuts) the timing of Bowles’ plot twist in the summer’s weakest soap opera is quirky. And if Bowles continues treating Hackenberg like the starter on Saturday vs. the Giants, the speculation and confusion will only ramp up before Monday’s announcement. Regardless, the inconsistency certainly can’t help prepare the offense for the opening Sunday.

Ultimately, no matter how rational their organizational thinking may be, the Jets can never escape punch-line status. The Summer of Hack had already turned a historically inconsequential QB “competition” for a blatantly rebuilding franchise into a league-wide joke, and this week has unnecessarily added to the unintentional comedy.

Maybe Bowles will straighten it out, and maybe this is all much ado about nothing.

Or maybe that would be a better slogan for the Jets.

Follow Michael Corvo on Twitter @rusticwestbrook