EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Even without fans in the stands, cheerleaders on the sidelines or the national anthem performed live, some N.F.L. traditions have proven pandemic-proof. Like this one: Two games into the season, and the Jets are already making their fans wish football hadn’t returned.
The Jets revisited their annual rite of autumn (and winter, too) on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, where a bad football team did lots of bad football things. In their latest venture into the tragicomic, the Jets’ accumulation of missed tackles, foolish penalties and general clumsiness conspired to doom them against the San Francisco 49ers, who mustered enough healthy players to complete a 31-13 victory.
On other days, against more competitive teams, the 49ers, already missing a flock of starters, might have struggled to withstand the losses of four critical players — a group that included their quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, who missed the second half with a high ankle sprain, and the league’s top defensive rookie last season, Nick Bosa, whom they fear tore his anterior cruciate ligament — to injury.
Not against the Jets, who followed a somnolent performance last week at Buffalo with a forgettable one Sunday that afterward prompted their beleaguered coach, Adam Gase, to splice an answer with an expletive before saying, “We need to get better fast.”
That assessment might as well have been appended with an “or else.” The Jets do not have the roster quality or depth to compete with A.F.C. behemoths Kansas City or Baltimore or division rivals Buffalo or New England, even with the conference’s playoff field expanding to seven teams. The general manager, Joe Douglas, has been afforded a modicum of time to transform the roster to his specifications, and the team’s chief executive, Christopher Johnson, told reporters last week how much confidence he has in Douglas’s ability to do so.
While calling Gase “a brilliant offensive mind,” Johnson also expressed a desire to see progress this season. Such progress might not be measured in wins and losses but the over all direction of the team, of the offense, of quarterback Sam Darnold, who has presided over a unit that, yet to score a first-half touchdown, has trailed by 21-3 at halftime in consecutive weeks. Everyone has a threshold for humiliation and despair, and it’s unclear whether a similar first-half fiasco to last season — the Jets started 1-7 before finishing 7-9 — could imperil Gase’s job security.
Unlike last week, when the Jets forced and recovered a fumble on Buffalo’s opening series, there wasn’t even a brief flirtation with competence. In fairness, they did win something Sunday: the coin toss. Deferring possession to the second half, the Jets kicked off to San Francisco, which, thanking them for their generosity, scored on its first offensive play, when Raheem Mostert — who later left with a knee injury — took a pitch from Garoppolo and darted down the right sideline for an 80-yard touchdown.
Seven-point deficits with 59:43 remaining are hardly insurmountable, but consider the state of the Jets’ offense Sunday: They played without running back Le’Veon Bell and two receivers Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder — a third, Breshad Perriman sustained an ankle injury — which is sort of like trying to start a car without a key.
Gase said he liked how the Jets moved the ball early, but they do not earn points with 7-yard gains. They combusted in the red zone, failing to score touchdowns on both chances, and all but lost the game in the first half when the 49ers stoned Josh Adams on fourth-and-1 from the San Francisco 20.
The 49ers rampaged 80 yards in part because the Jets forgot how to tackle, forgot it wasn’t wise to incur a personal foul penalty for roughing Garoppolo after stopping them on third down, forgot that tight end Jordan Reed merits elite coverage in the red zone. In the waning seconds before halftime, Reed all but yanked the ball away from safety Marcus Maye for a 4-yard score, his second touchdown of the game, to extend the 49ers’ lead to 21-3.
By then, the 49ers — who entered the game without tight end George Kittle, cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive end Dee Ford — had lost Bosa and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, and Garoppolo had sustained the ankle injury that would knock him out. The culprit driving these injuries, the 49ers suspected, was as much the new synthetic turf at MetLife — where they play next week, too, against the Giants — as the occupational hazard of playing a dangerous sport.
Coach Kyle Shanahan said players discussed how “sticky” it felt all game, and defensive end Arik Armstead afterward tweeted at the N.F.L.’s official account to “fix this trash met life turf. 2020 is so wack.”
No disputing the latter assertion there, though every season seems to unspool in a wack fashion for the Jets, who haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010 season.
Despite the result and the margin of defeat, despite plunging to 0-2 heading into next weeks’ game at Indianapolis, the Jets could take comfort in a small measure, that a lack of crowd noise allowed their defenders to better hear Mostert sprint away from them on San Francisco’s first offensive play, an 80-yard touchdown 17 seconds in.
Without any immediate feedback from the fans, the Jets, then, were left to only guess whether boos would have cascaded then; or after, trailing by 24-3 late in the third quarter, they attempted a field goal on fourth-and-7 rather than go for it (“There’s not a ton of great plays on 4th-and-7 when you’re playing a great defense,” Gase said); or, really, after any or all of the 10 drives Darnold led before he tossed his first and only touchdown on the 11th, with 83 seconds remaining.
It was a cosmetic enhancement of a game — but not a season, the Jets hope — that had long been decided.