The New York Jets needed a culture change.
I could rehash everything that went wrong in Adam Gase’s disastrous two-year tenure with New York Jets, culminating with Gase exiting with middle fingers raised as he won two meaningless games late in the season to cost the Jets the #1 overall pick. But that exercise has been done a million times, and Jets fans certainly don’t need the triggers.
But the healing process has begun with the hiring of Robert Saleh, the fiery defensive coordinator of the 49ers, as head coach. Saleh’s personality fits the Jets fanbase to a “T,” and it’s almost certainly what the team needs after the Gase fiasco. Heck, this is a fanbase that still looks on Rex Ryan fondly for his willingness to say what’s on his mind. Things ended badly for Rex, but there’s no denying his Jets played with an attitude and edge that’s been severely lacking since.
Obviously, I can’t say that Saleh will be successful. What I can say is that he’s already built up goodwill through his introductory press conference that Gase never did.
The first Muslim-American head coach in NFL history (and third Arab American), Saleh has coached defense in the NFL since 2005, the four most recent seasons as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. His 49ers consistently improved defensively in his tenure, ranking 24th in total yardage in his first year, up to 13th, then 2nd, and then 5th in 2020 despite suffering catastrophic injuries on that side of the ball (Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas for starters).
Interestingly, Saleh openly admitted at his introductory press conference he won’t call the defense for the Jets, opting instead for a CEO-type approach that has suited guys like Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, and Pete Carroll well in their time. And it makes sense that Saleh and GM Joe Douglas would be on board with such an approach — Saleh spent three seasons under Carroll in Seattle from 2011-2013, while Douglas was a scout with the Ravens for 15 years, the last seven of which were under the Harbaugh/Ozzie Newsome banner.
Saleh and Douglas will work closely together to execute the vision of the franchise, like Harbaugh/Newsome, Carroll/John Schneider, and Tomlin/Kevin Colbert … or so they hope.
As beat writer Connor Hughes says in The Athletic piece I linked above, there’s no real value in a coach “winning” a press conference, but Jets fans are excited about Saleh, and it definitely feels like he and Douglas are on the same page.
Given Saleh’s CEO approach, his staff is exceptionally important. Of course, he gave Jet fans a reason to be excited by plucking Mike LaFleur — younger brother of Matt and Kyle Shanahan protege — away from San Francisco to run his offense. LaFleur, 34, has never called plays but will attempt to install the Shanahan offense in New York, with an emphasis on the zone run game and getting his QB outside the pocket.
“Everyone is familiar with the Shanahan system and what he’s been able to create,” Saleh said, per The Athletic. “Nobody in the world knows it better than (LaFleur) does. To be able to have him, and John Benton along with us as run game coordinator, really excited about them being able to install the system and implement the vision we all want to see.
“There will be a lot of pre-snap movement. A lot of help for the quarterback. Run marrying the pass. There will be a clear identity of what we’re trying to accomplish down-in and down-out on the offensive side of the ball.”
Benton, the Jets’ run-game coordinator, was the 49ers’ offensive line coach the last four seasons. He will help LaFleur with the most important install of the offense — the run game.
Saleh’s defensive coordinator will be Jeff Ulbrich, hand-picked by Saleh to be the defensive playcaller. Ulbrich spent last year in Atlanta, where he was promoted to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in October, following the firing of Dan Quinn. He has never worked with Saleh before, so it’s an interesting situation to watch.
Oh, Saleh’s QB coach will be 31-year-old Rob Calabrese, who spent the last two years as a quality control coach with the Broncos.
For the Jets to have players who can contribute for fantasy… they first need players. That starts at the QB position, where the Jets are expected to make a change given they have the #2 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft. Still, if you still have rosy eyes for Sam Darnold, this is in theory an offense in which he can function well — he’s athletic, and he’s been effective on the move in his career.
Shanahan’s system has long been a boon for fantasy running backs, and it’s helped to produce numbers for both well-compensated players (Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman) and guys with practice-squad experience (Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson). If LaFleur follows the Shanahan mold, it might not be a priority for the Jets to invest heavily in the position. That doesn’t necessarily mean a holdover from Gase like Lamical Perine or Ty Johnson will be major producers here, but merely that the Jets may not feel the need to spend a high pick or delve into the top end of the free agent market.
At wide receiver, Jamison Crowder is still under contract, and rookie Denzel Mims flashed at points last year. TE Chris Herndon had a wildly disappointing 2020 season but did come on late, and Shanahan’s system can use a very athletic TE effectively. Of course, the Jets need help at the perimeter positions still, and the outlook for the guys here will vary wildly based on who gets added and who will be throwing the football.