Ending the New York Jets lengthy postseason drought is still a tall task, but early injuries have raised the pressure on the new boss.
For New York Jets fans, hiring Robert Saleh was like getting that one Christmas gift your parents insist they’re not getting you.
Saleh was one of the most sought-after coordinators during the NFL’s search for head coaches in 2021. He was an anomaly in the lens of modern American football in that his prior duties have centered around defense, a new arrival in the brotherhood of NFL head coaches at a time when stats like 30 points or 400 yards appear on more losing box scores than ever. Of the seven new hires, Saleh was the only one with a background primarily in defense.
He nonetheless earned interviews with all but two of the teams looking to fill headset vacancies. His eventual hire by the Jets earned positive reviews both domestically and abroad. A football fan landscape that uses any simple Jets mistake as a guaranteed punchline almost didn’t know what to do with itself.
Jets supporters would’ve taken any average football mind after the harrowing two years under Adam Gase’s watch…something along the lines of the mediocrity on display with say, Eric Magini would’ve been downright euphoric. Getting Saleh, the coveted coordinator from San Francisco, could’ve been classified as the closest feeling the Jets have had to a postseason triumph since their visit to the AFC title game at the start of the prior decade. Saleh’s mantra of “All Gas, No Brake” has been more quoted than lines from the scripts of The Sopranos…no easy tasks in Northern New Jersey.
Despite the praises hoisted upon Saleh (and a strong refurbishing of the team’s depth chart), the Jets’ issues didn’t instantly vanish. No one was booking trips to Inglewood for Super Bowl LVI. MetLife Stadium probably won’t have to reschedule any events in January. The feeling of being a savior, a prophet amongst metropolitan football fans, has to feel good. But it’s going to take a lot of work to keep that trust.
Jets fans were understandably patient: Gase’s antics over the last two seasons left the franchise in shambles. “Trusting the process” has become a parody of itself…especially since such a strategy has produced nothing greater than heartbreak in the conference semifinals for the concept’s originators in Philadelphia…but Gang Green’s worshippers had no choice. Merely improving from last year’s disaster would be viewed as a genuine step in the right direction. The veteran additions they made this offseason were strong markers in that path back to respectability.
The trigger fingers of NFL decision-makers are quicker than ever: Gase’s two-year tenure was the shortest in Jets history to end via firing since Rich Kotite’s cursed 32 games in 1995-96 (Al Groh resigned after a single season in 2000). But, perhaps a completely winless campaign notwithstanding, Saleh isn’t getting fired if/when the Jets miss the playoffs this year.
But Saleh probably thought he’d at least get to enjoy the spectacle of opening kickoff before dealing with his first true test.
Saleh’s first games as an NFL head coach are going to held without the services of two of his top defenders after a costly business trip to Green Bay. Carl Lawson is done for the year after rupturing his Achilles while linebacker Jarrad Davis (ankle) is out for at least the first five games after leaving the exhibition showcase that concluded the trip. The football gods continued to show no mercy as the Jets prepare for their final preseason contest on Friday against Philadelphia (7:30 p.m. ET, WCBS); former Eagles Vinny Curry will miss the reunion with his former team and all 17 regular season games after that after he was diagnosed with blood clots.
Saleh has also been left to finish cleaning up the mess the prior regime left behind. The incompetence of the last two seasons created so many holes that it was a near guarantee that some area on the roster was going to be neglected. New York’s secondary appears to be the odd group out: inexperienced raw talent reigns at the top of the cornerback depth chart (Bless Austin and Bryce Hall). The new, experienced arrivals upfront could’ve helped the Jets get by, especially in the early going. Now, Saleh is dealt his first major crisis before the calendar flips to September, to the point where the team is planning to seek out more help in the pass rush before the season starts…an endeavor that would ignore holes like backup quarterback and the aforementioned secondary. He’ll have to work through his first games with a relatively thin group on the defensive front.
In other words…the showcase that got Saleh hired continues.
If one’s criteria for hiring a new head coach stopped at a quick glance at the standings, Saleh’s status as a former 49ers assistant likely would’ve eliminated him. San Francisco followed up an NFC title with a 6-10 showing that sank them to the bottom of the NFC West. But the standings often rarely tell a team’s full story.
Since Gase, among others, was doing a fine job of upending the Jets’ fortunes on his own, the football gods might’ve left the Jets alone during the 2020 season. They instead turned their focus to the Bay Area, where several key ingredients were forcibly removed from the 49ers’ Super Bowl recipe. Saleh’s unit was no exception: the defensive injury list resembled a Pro Bowl ballot. Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, Dee Ford, and Richard Sherman missed significant time, while Emmanuel Moseley, Jimmie Ward, and K’Waun Williams were also medical departures. San Francisco was extensively also affected by the COVID-19 issues that invaded the NFL last season; local restrictions forced them to relocate to Arizona for the last portions of their season.
Saleh responded to the challenges head-on. Whereas some new hires (i.e. Arthur Smith, Tennessee offensive coordinator-turned-Atlanta head coach) earned their promotions through on-field results, Saleh earned his job through adaptation.
Despite the front seven losing a good part of its bite, San Francisco’s defense managed to keep its pressure at a consistent rate, forcing hurries on 11.2 percent of opposing quarterback dropouts (fifth-best in the league). In more conventional stats, Saleh’s ragtag group of defenders allowed 350 yards or less in six of their final games. One such effort allowed the Washington Football Team’s offense to put up 193 yards…in a game the 49ers lost 23-15. Washington’s points were primarily earned through a Chase Young fumble return touchdown and Kamren Curl pick-six and two other drives totaling 42 yards that led to Dustin Hopkins field goals. Their longest drive of the day, a 72-yard trek to open the second half, also produced a Hopkins triple.
— NFL (@NFL) December 13, 2020
Under Saleh’s watch, depth man Kerry Hyder got back to numbers (49 tackles, 18 quarterback knockdowns, 8.5 sacks) not reached since his sophomore season in Detroit, which was followed by a torn Achilles that cost him his whole 2017 campaign. He was rewarded with a three-year deal from Seattle.
Linebacker Dre Greenlaw said that Saleh’s composure helped the 49ers keep their composure in a time of distress.
“(He made) sure that every guy is doing their job 100 percent of the time, as good as they can, hard as they can,” Greenlaw said per Shayna Rubin of The Mercury News. “Saleh said if we bring that every week to the game, we’re going to be one of the most dominant teams. Having the mentality he has, the mindset he has, it carries to us on defense. I don’t know where he’s going to go from here, but I know that mentality will stick with us.”
Now, Saleh has to deal with that adversity right from the get-go. He’s not looking for sympathy…he’s looking for players to step up.
“The NFL train stops for nobody,” Saleh said after last weekend’s 23-14 preseason win over Green Bay per Randy Lange of the team website. It was Saleh’s first public comments after the dire Lawson diagnosis. “When someone falls off the train…it’s another opportunity for someone to jump on the train. A lot of men at that defensive end spot are chomping at the bit for the opportunity, and they got it. We’ll work our tails off to get them ready, and I know they’ll work their tails off to reciprocate.”
The New York Jets have been a franchise that has had to deal with adversity, a team that has been forced to adapt to landscapes changed through both self-inflicted calamities and issues bestowed from parties from abroad. Fortunately, they’ve found a head coach that earned his biggest opportunity to date through overcoming such issues.
This time, however, it’s time to do it in green gear.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags