Jets’ handling of Bless Austin’s injury raises internal questions about tanking

The curious case of Bless Austin has prompted some folks on One Jets Drive to ask a disturbing question during this nightmarish season: Is the brain trust really tanking?

Austin was put on Injured Reserve Saturday after Adam Gase sounded optimistic 24 hours earlier that the starting cornerback would be fine against the Chargers after experiencing neck discomfort earlier in the week.

“We tried to practice on Friday… he looked concerned with it,” Gase said after the Jets dropped to 0-10 with a loss to the Chargers on Sunday. “And then we checked with the doctors again. And he didn’t feel good with it. So, we ended up putting him down. Just (going to) keep evaluating with where he’s at.”

However, Jets employees vehemently disagreed with the head coach’s characterization of the situation.

The Daily News has learned that people at all levels of the organization have started to wonder whether Jets brass actually care about winning any of their remaining games. There’s growing skepticism in the building.

Austin told teammates that his neck issue required a couple days of rest/treatment. Team medical personnel shared the belief that the second-year cornerback’s discomfort wasn’t serious at all. Everyone appeared to be on the same page.

So, why did the Jets put Austin on ice for at least three games? And why did Gase have a casual relationship with the truth when explaining the decision after the Jets’ latest loss?

Some inside the organization surmise that the powers that be want to tank for Trevor Lawrence.

Others stopped short of claiming that the higher-ups are rooting for losses so that they can land the prized Clemson quarterback in the 2021 draft. However, there’s a burgeoning sentiment that winning doesn’t matter right now for ownership and general manager Joe Douglas.

Otherwise, they said, what sense would it make to put your best cornerback on I.R. when he would be fully healthy in a few days?

Austin was replaced by undrafted rookie Lamar Jackson, who gave up five catches on six targets for 57 yards and one touchdown on Sunday, according to Next Gen Stats. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert had a 145.8 passer rating when throwing at Jackson.

It’s typically smart to take a conservative approach when treating injured players. But the decision to place a player on I.R. when all the relevant parties believed it would only take a couple days to heal furthers the notion that perhaps some people in the building couldn’t care less about winning.

The Austin situation has prompted some players and coaches to grumble about the direction of the franchise. No player or coach prepares to lose. Some people weren’t particularly happy with Gase’s post-game explanation of why Austin landed on I.R.

Gase said Friday that Austin was slated to practice after his MRI before came back clean.

“Hopefully, Bless has a good day today and we’re good to go for Sunday,” Gase said on Friday. “So, that’s a positive MRI result.”

Austin was officially listed as questionable on the final injury report released later Friday. Gase, who didn’t know exactly how Austin was hurt, suggested that the player suffered the neck issue on Wednesday.

“Yeah, I mean I’m not really sure,” Gase said Thursday when he announced that Austin was going for an MRI on Thursday. “I guess. We weren’t in pads, so I’m not really sure what happened. They just told me this morning that something was going on with his neck.”

So, how did a “positive MRI result” morph into a serious enough injury that would require an I.R. designation?

Some folks sense shenanigans.

Benching Austin would open the door for obvious tanking theories. The I.R. designation gives the team cover to play their untested cornerbacks without criticism.

Although players understandably have been reluctant to publicly criticize team decision makers, there’s been an undercurrent of mistrust for quite some time. The team predictably rolls out some guys to spew the company line from time to time, but the divide between the locker room and team brass has deepened in the past year and a half.

The Austin case didn’t exactly help matters.