Jets rid of Tom Brady, but still must overcome biggest foe -- themselves

Buffalo mayor pokes fun at Brady leaving New England (0:32)

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown pokes fun at Tom Brady leaving the Patriots and the AFC East. (0:32)

When nemesis Marshall Faulk was traded out of the AFC East in 1999, New York Jets coach Bill Parcells said his defensive coaches celebrated with a conga line in the hallway of the team facility. Even though it was said in jest (I think), it was a brazen statement to make. But you know what? Back then, the Jets were good enough to talk like that.

Now? Not so much.

If coach Adam Gase & Co. are giddy over Tom Brady's departure -- actual conga-line dancing would violate social-distancing recommendations -- it would qualify as a misguided approach. This notion that the AFC East is wide open and the Jets are poised to break through after two decades of frustration is utterly preposterous. They're not the heir apparent in the division; the Buffalo Bills own that unofficial title. Heck, the Jets might not be the third-best team. Caesars tabs the Jets as the longest shot to capture the AFC East at 15-2 odds as of March 17.

Let's be clear: Even though they were tormented by Brady for 19 years, the Jets' No. 1 enemy over that span was the Jets. Brady beat them 29 times in the regular season, once in the playoffs. You can bet they beat themselves more than 30 times -- on the field, in the locker room, in the front office, in the ownership suite or all of the above.

The Jets' record in the Brady era (2001-19) was 139-165, a .457 winning percentage -- a full 93 games behind the New England Patriots. While the excellence of Brady and coach Bill Belichick contributed to the Jets' anguish, it's a flimsy excuse to say they were the sole reasons for the suffering. The Jets were mediocre because they were mediocre.

To his credit, Gase didn't make any "conga-line" references or anything resembling that tone when asked at the recent scouting combine about a possible Bra-xit.

"It's hard," Gase said. "We obviously all want to say yes [the AFC East is open], but I think one of us has to go and do it and figure out a way to jump in front of New England. It's tough because they've held onto the division for so long. We've just got to do a good job of focusing on what we have to do to make sure we're doing everything right in our building."

Good answer.

Gase is in a tough spot because the pressure on him just went up a few levels on the PSI gauge. Fair or not (and it's probably not), the perception is he must overtake the Patriots now that Brady is taking his ball, his six rings and his quirky diet to Tampa, Florida. It makes Gase the first Jets coach since Al Groh (2000) who doesn't have to worry about TB12 breaking his heart. Eric Mangini dodged him for one year, 2008, the year of Brady's knee injury -- and we all know how that turned out.

Mangini missed the playoffs and got fired.

For Gase, another 7-9 record won't be good for his job security, especially if he gets passed in the standings by the mad-spending Miami Dolphins, who have gone from tanking to banking.

"I see a two-horse race, with Buffalo on the inside lane," said a longtime personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I'd put New England next. This is a big year for Miami, but who's their quarterback? The Jets are building the offensive line. If that becomes a strength, they'll take a step. I'm not a big fan of the coach [Gase], and you can't minimize coaching in this league. [Sean] McDermott has proven himself and Belichick is Belichick. That's why I don't think the Jets are ready to take over the division."

During the middle stages of the Brady dynasty, the Jets actually made personnel decisions with the Patriots in mind. In 2010, to combat New England's high-scoring offense, the Jets gave Darrelle Revis help in the secondary by trading for cornerback Antonio Cromartie and using a first-round pick on slot corner Kyle Wilson.

These days, the Jets have to worry about themselves, not what the Patriots or any other team is doing. And don't expect that to change now that Brady is a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After all, his Patriots parting wasn't a lightning bolt in a blue sky.

While the Bills and Dolphins are operating with a sense of urgency -- understandable for the win-now Bills -- the Jets are proceeding at a deliberate and sensible pace. General manager Joe Douglas, in his first offseason, is more concerned with building the infrastructure than making headlines.

Addressing the weakest unit on the team, he retained left guard Alex Lewis and reached agreements with center Connor McGovern and tackle George Fant -- all second-contract players on affordable deals. We're not talking star players here, but they should make life easier for quarterback Sam Darnold.

The Jets still need athletes in order to be taken seriously in the AFC -- paging wide receivers and cornerbacks -- but free agency isn't over and there's still the draft, which is loaded with receivers. The Jets have an arm up on the Dolphins and Patriots because they have a long-term answer at quarterback, and that's a big part of the puzzle.

It's surreal to type this sentence: For the first time since 2001, the Jets have the edge at quarterback over the Patriots. Chad Pennington enjoyed good years in 2002, 2004 and 2006, and Ryan Fitzpatrick was Fitzmagic in 2015, but at no time were they ahead of Brady.

He's gone now, a football senior citizen moving to Florida. (Early-bird special, anyone?) The AFC East landscape has shifted dramatically, but that doesn't mean it's time for a parade. Or a conga line.