New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas (seen in a 2019 file photo) has the authority to fix … [+]
The New York Jets entered a new era when they officially introduced Robert Saleh as their 18th head coach in franchise history on Jan. 21. But the start of the tenure of Saleh, the first Muslim-American head coach in NFL history, wasn’t the only game-changer for the Jets on that day.
Also during Saleh’s introductory news conference, then-acting owner and CEO Christopher Johnson announced a sea change in the structure of team’s front-office hierarchy. General manager Joe Douglas would be one tier above Saleh.
Johnson said, “That structure has changed. Joe will report to (ownership), Robert will report to Joe. It seems a clean and simple way to do things, but honestly not much really changes. We have very good communication already. I don’t think that that’s going to alter things here all that much truly.”
Despite Christopher Johnson downplaying it, this was significant because since his older brother Woody Johnson had become the team’s owner and CEO in 2000, the head coach and general manager had been on equal footing in the team’s hierarchical pecking order. Both reported to Woody Johnson, who was at the top of the franchise’s organizational flow charts until leaving to become the U.S. Ambassador to England during Donald Trump’s presidency.
That setup remained the same while Christopher Johnson handled his brother’s duties during Woody’s tenure in England. Woody Johnson took control of the team once again after Trump’s presidency ended, and he and Christopher agreed on the new plan.
(Woody Johnson actually was flying back to America from London while Saleh’s first Jets presser was in progress.)
Both Johnson brothers had maintained this setup wasn’t a problem. But it created situations such as one in 2020, in which former coach Adam Gase kept playing one of his favorites, running back Frank Gore, despite the season being lost. Young, promising backs lost valuable playing time, but Douglas wasn’t empowered to tell Gase not to play the aging Gore. Both Gase and Gore are out of the NFL.
Thus, although the upcoming off-season will not be Douglas’ first one in this somewhat expanded position of clout, it will be his first with a body of work to judge Saleh and his coaching staff. He may want Saleh to make changes to that staff, or at the very least, tweak their philosophies going forward given the Jets are currently 4-11.
True, it was not unexpected that the Jets, with the youngest roster in the NFL, might take their lumps this season, but it’s the way they’ve lost that has been cause for concern.
Let’s start with Saleh, who returned to the team’s facility Wednesday morning after being sidelined for a week by Covid-19. He has had his peaks and valleys, much like any rookie head coach in the league.
However, he recently has shown signs of major growth. Against Miami on Dec. 19, the Jets benched underperforming edge rusher Shaq Lawson and running back Ty Johnson, who had dropped three passes the previous game. Both were healthy scratches. Prior to that, Saleh had seemed reluctant to bench players for performance issues, other than linebacker Jarrad Davis, whose playing time has dwindled significantly since a 45-17 Jets’ loss to Buffalo on Nov. 14.
But the defense still is ranked last, and has been for quite some time. And even if Douglas doesn’t force Saleh to make any staff changes, he at least should talk to him about the philosophy utilized by Saleh and coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. The Jets’ soft zones often have been expertly dissected by veteran quarterbacks, particularly on third downs, one reason New York ranks last. Also, Douglas cannot let them talk him into standing pat at cornerback. Reinforcements are needed early in the draft, as I wrote here.
The offense seems to be in a bit better shape heading into 2022, with coordinator Mike LaFleur steadily improving as a playcaller after a shaky start. Also, left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker (first round), wide receiver Elijah Moore (second) and running back Michael Carter (fourth), all 2021 draftees, have had good seasons and shown much promise for the future.
The one 2021 offensive draft pick who has been less impressive is the most significant one, quarterback Zach Wilson, the No. 2 overall selection. Wilson is last in the NFL in both passer rating and completion percentage and has struggled, as rookie quarterbacks usually do. Not only that, but according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Wilson’s differential between actual completion percentage and expected is minus 9.7%, also the worst in the NFL.
Besides his inexplicable inaccuracy on easy, short throws, part of the problem is that Wilson often wants to escape the pocket, improvise plays and throw on the run when he does not need to. Saleh and LaFleur would prefer he stay in the pocket, and rightfully so.
Yet despite Saleh raving about Wilson’s “incredible arm talent” during an in-house video last spring, and assistant general manager Rex Hogan pointing to deep shots he connected on in college (from the pocket) against Tennessee and Houston in that same production, LaFleur seems reluctant to dial up deep shots for Wilson. Considering that Wilson can throw the ball 50 yards with a mere flick of his right wrist, it is the football equivalent of having a performance sports car yet only using it to drive back and forth to the train station.
Granted, intermediate and short throws are staple plays in the Shanahan-style offense LaFleur espouses. But mixing in occasional deep routes might maximize Wilson’s incredible arm talent and curb his wanderlust to leave the pocket.
Perhaps Douglas is on board with this philosophy. But it seems wasteful to spend a No. 2 overall pick and $35.15 million in guaranteed money on a rocket-armed QB and then try to make him a glorified game manager. Douglas, Saleh and the Jets must figure out why they selected Wilson in the first place.
Also, of course, there will be plenty of personnel decisions to be made in free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft. Douglas will continue to have final say on personnel, something he has enjoyed since coming on board in June 2019, but he must decide how much of a voice he wants to give to his coaching staff going forward.
The New York Jets are nowhere near a finished project, and the reshaping will continue in 2022. It is Douglas’ responsibility, more than anyone else’s, to get the off-season portion of it right. That may include some tough decisions and stepping on some proverbial toes. Douglas must be up to the challenge.