Robert Saleh, Jets, 49ers, Head Coach, Defensive Coordinator
Robert Saleh, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Getty Images, Jet X Graphic

Robert Saleh is under fire as blowouts remain the norm in Florham Park

Forget WPIX’s Yule Log. The hottest thing in New York as the holidays approach could be the escalating tensions between its green football coaches. Some feel the temperature could spread to the incumbent man’s seat.

Former New York Jets boss Rex Ryan scoffed at comparisons between his tenure and that of Robert Saleh’s during an appearance on the DiPietro & Rothenberg radio show on Monday. The latter took an unceremonious turn on Sunday afternoon, as the Jets (2-7) were victims of a 45-17 shellacking at the hands of the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium.

“Don’t ever compare this Robert Saleh guy to me,” Ryan said on ESPN Radio’s New York City affiliate.

“This guy is supposed to be a defensive guru, I heard everything. And I take it personal on this one. Everything I heard about was, ‘Well this guy’s a lot like myself, but without the bad part.’ Yeah? Well, some of the bad parts you need. Because this team doesn’t play with any damn heart. That’s the thing that’s disappointing to me.”

Saleh has brushed off the criticism from Ryan in a collected, if not somewhat abrasive, manner (his brother David’s reply wasn’t as subtle). But one can certainly see where Ryan is coming from.

Even the most optimistic Jets fan and most devout congregant of the Church of Mike White had to assume that Gang Green wouldn’t be on the right end of a visit from the Bills. Nothing more needs to be said about Buffalo’s sheer offensive firepower and the new AFC East overlords (a title that hangs in the balance thanks to four wins in a row from the New England Patriots) had something to prove after a shockingly listless 9-6 loss to lowly Jacksonville in the weekend prior.

Yet, the Jets should be far beyond their current outputs, ones that have been historically dreadful. In addition to the dubious history established over the last four weeks, the Jets have been the victims of four losses by at least three possessions this season. They’d undoubtedly have a fifth if Indianapolis didn’t call off its dogs…erm, Colts…in a nationally televised Thursday night game.

Is this the supposed defensive guru the Jets were promised?

For all intents and purposes, Saleh isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, on the hot seat. If the wretched Adam Gase era was renewed for a second season, surely Saleh can get another opportunity.

Even if the trigger fingers of owners and general managers are quicker than ever, the Jets can afford to be patient. The playoffs were far too huge of an ask this season and the team has been willing to give their coaches an extended opportunity. Their last single-season firing came in 1994 and it led to something even more horrifying (Pete Carroll’s 6-10 season that birthed the Rich Kotite regime).

Saleh has said all the right things in his press conferences. His “All Gas, No Brake” mantra, honesty in the New York market, and immediate embrace from the players immediately won over starving Jets fans. It served as a welcome change of pace from prior regimes dominated by civil wars with playcallers and supposed superstars, Sopranos guest stars, and, of course, costume/prop-dominated pressers.

But the on-field results have left too much to be desired. Ryan’s words, boisterous, blustery, and attention-seeking as they may be, might have some merit. It’s time for Saleh to prove why he got this job in the first place.

Ryan was all too willing to mention the numeric shortcomings of Saleh’s time in both New York and San Francisco (defensive coordinator in 2017-20). A sixth-place showing in points allowed during the 49ers’ run to Super Bowl 54 is the only time in five seasons with the 49ers and Jets that Saleh has led a finish in the upper half of the league.

If one needed any further proof that Ryan’s comments were done for the sole purpose of ear-seeking in a rather desperate attempt at capitalizing on a football world that takes glee in green schadenfreude, he refused to dive into the context of what could go down as Saleh’s finest hours. Surprisingly, none of them came during the run to South Beach.

The 49ers’ NFC title defense was one defined by medical awkwardness on both sides of the ball, as the year ended with a league-worst 18 players on injured reserve. Saleh’s unit was particularly ravaged, as that list was headlined by sophomore sensation Nick Bosa, who was one of several Niners swallowed up by the turf of MetLife Stadium during a blowout win over the same Jets he’d wind up coaching.

Solomon Thomas was also among the casualties, as were backfield contributors Jimmy Garoppolo, Tevin Coleman, and Raheem Mostert. Notable defensive names like Dee Ford and Ziggy Ansah also ended the year on IR while fellow Week 1 defensive starters Kwon Alexander, K’Wuan Williams, Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, and Jaquiski Tartt also missed significant time due to injury.

Saleh made no excuses in that span, instead bucking down and putting respectable efforts forward. The unit allowed less than 300 yards in half of their outings despite working with a revolving depth chart that featured several reserves and inexperienced entrants stepping up.

One number that Ryan neglected to mention (whether it was intentional or not) was the fact that the 49ers’ defense finished fifth in the league in yards allowed.

“(He made) sure that every guy is doing their job 100 percent of the time, as good as they can, hard as they can,” linebacker Dre Greenlaw, a second-year defender who made 11 starts last season, said of Saleh’s work 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.”

Saleh has shown he’s more than capable of adaptation. It was clear that he would have to do it again once Carl Lawson and Vinny Curry were each lost for the season. The Jets defense was thus a makeshift unit from the get-go, its cracks filled in by a hodgepodge of draft weekend Saturday options, whether it was through the selections or the free agency afterward.

Over the first few weeks, the Jets responded well to the early challenge. Losses piled up because of a developing offense, but they had a strong pass rush. While Zach Wilson’s heroics took center stage in the Oct. 3 upset win over Tennessee, the defense put up seven sacks to stifle the powerful Titans’ offense.

Since then, however, the Jets have embarked on the bumpiest defensive road in team history. Saleh (and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich) have run out of excuses as they embark on a meaningless future.

Rediscovering that San Francisco resolve is going to come up huge when it comes to getting this latest iteration of the Jets’ perpetual rebuild back on track.

Interestingly, Saleh appears to be putting more of the trust in revamping the defense on Ulbrich.

“We’re year one in the system. Ulbrich and his staff are trying to figure this out just as well as the players are. They’re going to hit a groove, too. Am I there to assist? Absolutely. Do I sit in on meetings? Absolutely. Is play calling going to change anything? It’s not going to change anything,” Saleh said on Monday, per notes from the Jets.

“It’s execution. But at the same time, from an execution standpoint, coaching standpoint, just being there because he is trying to run a scheme and trying to blend a little bit of what he’s done in the past vs. what we do, what we’ve done and the way the system has evolved. And so, there’s nuances there where I’m there to assist, but I’m also there for the offense, I’m also there for special teams and trying to spread out and just try to assist where I can.”

What Saleh is saying is understandable. After all, the defense could allow sub-300-yard efforts for the remainder of the season and no one would care if they were accompanied by flailing performances from Zach Wilson (when he returns, of course). But a larger, more hands-on approach with the unit that made his fortune could be his redemption.

It’s going to take new methods for the Jets to win in the 2020s. If the success comes with Saleh, he may have to rely on old approaches to pull it off.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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Geoff Magliocchetti is a veteran football writer with years of credentialed experience with the Jets and Giants. Email:
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