The perennially lousy Jets will hope to shed the stigma that’s been built up around the team over the past few decades of less-than-mediocre football as they begin a new era under freshly appointed head coach Robert Saleh, who’s hiring was announced by the team on Thursday night.
Saleh interviewed virtually for the gig last week and quickly distinguished himself as the frontrunner ahead of eight other candidates, including Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Aruthur Smith. After they finished in-person interviews with their prospects on Thursday, it didn’t take long for the New York brass to decide who their man was going to be and they made an offer to Saleh later that same night, a source said.
The Jets are actually lucky they were able to pluck Saleh—who’s deal with the Jets is for a reported five years, league sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter—from the market, as five of the other six NFL teams looking for a head coach requested an interview with the Dearborn, Michigan native.
After spending 12 years moving around as a defensive assistant for the Texans, Seahawks, and Jaguars, Saleh finally got his shot when he was hired as the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. The fiery 41-year-old Lebanese-American was able to turn a 32nd-ranked defense before his arrival into a top five unit that carried Jimmy Garropolo to the Super Bowl in 2019. Now that’s impressive.
He was also able to maintain a solid defensive unit in 2020 despite an unprecedented string of injuries that ravaged the core of his group, still managing to field the fifth-stingiest defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed per game.
With the appointment, Saleh becomes the fourth active minority head coach in the NFL, as well as the first Muslim head coach in NFL history.
Saleh isn’t arriving empty-handed either, as he is expected to bring 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur (brother of Matt, head coach of the Green Bay Packers, who are at +400 odds on Betway to win it all this season) with him to serve as his offensive coordinator.
The rookie head coach will also have some ammo to begin this new age of Jets football with a bang: New York has two first-rounders in this year’s draft (No. 2 and No. 23) and two more in next year’s draft, and they have just under $71 million in cap space to attract free agents as well. As if the Big Apple wasn’t already enough of a draw.
Saleh’s fiery, upbeat, and energetic nature will be a welcome change to a Jets locker room that often chafed at the personality of his predecessor Adam Gase, who got the boot the minute the 2020 season was over after an embarrassing 2-14 campaign.
With the Browns reaching (and won a game) the playoffs this season, New York’s current 10-year postseason drought became the longest active streak in the NFL, not to mention that they haven’t even had a winning season in five years. This is to say that even a man of Saleh’s caliber is going to have his work cut out for him—when you take over a two-win team, it’s usually going to be a long, tough, uphill battle to return to relevance.
But it appears as though Saleh could be the man to do it, he seems like a real culture guy, someone who can create a new mindset in the organization and remove the aforementioned Jets stigma. His relationship with general manager Joe Douglas, who said he was looking for the next head coach to be a “great partner,” will be crucial.
Apart from cornerstones Quinnen Williams at defensive tackle and Mekhi Becton at left tackle, the Jets don’t have many players that could be considered Pro Bowl caliber (they had zero players make the Pro Bowl in 2020). They’ve got a lot of question marks all over the field on both sides of the ball.
The most important question, however, and the first one that the dynamic duo of Saleh and Douglas will need to answer, is what to do at quarterback. Douglas has said that the decision will ultimately be his, but that the head coach’s opinion will weigh heavily into that decision.
Will they try to build around 2018’s No. 3 pick and 2020’s lowest-rated passer in Sam Darnold, or will they look to draft his replacement with the No. 2 pick this season? It’s a tough call considering how many other positions on the roster are desperate for reinforcements.
Whatever they decide to do under center, the Jets have a long trek ahead of them, and Saleh might just be the perfect guy to lead the way.