Robert Saleh’s honeymoon is over
Robert Saleh was essentially a unanimously praised hire for the New York Jets. Other than the fact that he hailed from a defensive background – some feared that such an approach would put the Jets at risk of losing their lead offensive mind, Mike LaFleur, to a head coaching gig – there were few critiques of the hire. The former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator offered a boatload of intriguing traits.
Saleh brought a tantalizing blend of ferocity and calmness. He could get as vocal and energetic as any coach in the league but could still mellow out and coach with a down-to-earth mentality when needed. Whatever coaching style a situation called for, Saleh was capable of providing it.
From an on-field perspective, Saleh showed that he could facilitate year-to-year progression through his work with the 49ers’ defense. Saleh took over a dismal unit that remained dismal at the start of his tenure but gradually elevated to elite status by his third year.
To boot, Saleh proved he could make things work regardless of the talent level.
An infusion of talent helped Saleh lead a Super Bowl-caliber defense in 2019 (2nd-fewest yards allowed), but the following season, most of the unit’s best players were sidelined by injuries. Yet, Saleh still led his defense to the sixth-fewest yards allowed despite fielding a team full of backups, young players, and scrap-heap pickups.
Adaptability was another big piece of Saleh’s appeal. He was open-minded, showing the willingness to use the ideas of others.
For example, in 2019, the 49ers hired Kris Kocurek as their defensive line coach. Kocurek suggested that the 49ers implement a wide-9 approach on the defensive line, and Saleh obliged. It was a departure from how Saleh had previously been deploying his defensive ends, but the change worked as San Francisco had the NFL’s third-highest sack rate and oversaw an all-time-great rookie season from edge rusher Nick Bosa.
Finally, Saleh appeared to have the potential to become what previous Jets head coaches could not be: a “leader of men,” a “CEO,” – pick your cliche, but you get the point.
Saleh looked like a man who could captain an entire organization rather than just calling plays for one side of the ball like many of the Jets’ recent head coaches. The Michigan native seemed as if he was born to instill a positive organization-wide culture that could be the backbone of sustained winning for years to come.
From his introductory press conference, Saleh preached an “All Gas, No Brake” mentality. He had a clear vision and oozed with confidence and charisma that suggested he would execute it with relative ease.
Fans were amped. The local media was on his side. National media no longer treated the Jets as a laughingstock.
Fast forward to November, and all of that hope is long gone. In many ways, the Jets feel like the same rudderless ship that they have been for the past decade.
Saleh’s Jets are 2-7 – a record that is not necessarily surprising considering the team’s current stage of rebuilding and the flurry of injuries they’ve had to deal with.
The issue is not that the Jets are losing games. It’s how the Jets are losing games.
Simply put, the Jets have been smashed in all seven of their losses this season. Only two of the seven losses were by one score (Carolina and Atlanta), and those two games were not nearly as close as the final tally suggests.
New York’s minus-15.0 point differential is the worst in the NFL. If maintained, it would be the second-worst mark in Jets history, beating out only the 1976 squad (-15.3).
Nobody expected the Jets to be “good” this year. Everyone was ready for growing pains.
But this? This level of incompetence is inexplicable.
The Jets’ defensive woes are their most alarming problem, which reflects poorly on Saleh considering it is his defensive acumen that put him on the map for a head coaching job.
New York is allowing an NFL-high 32.9 points per game, on pace for a franchise record. It would be the third-worst mark allowed since the 1966 AFL-NFL merger and the worst since the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
Yes, the Jets are banged-up. They are young. They are inexperienced. They are early in their rebuild.
But a lot of teams in NFL history and in Jets history have faced all of those obstacles – and none have been this bad.
Saleh earned a bevy of praise in 2020 for leading a depleted San Francisco defense to top-10 status. One year later, that resilience is nowhere to be found.
It’s way too early for fans to start calling for Saleh’s head. We are only nine games into his tenure and the Jets have faced the NFL’s most difficult schedule thus far (.578). I already laid out the obstacles he is facing in terms of inexperience and talent.
With that being said, is it fair for fans to no longer have the same undying faith in Saleh that they had entering the season?
Fans should still have hope for Saleh, but he has overseen far too much historical ineptitude to be completely let off the hook. There is a lot that he needs to prove in order to reacquire the faith that he earned when he came in.
All fans wanted to see was a team that would lose close games as it endured its growing pains. Simply remaining at the very bottom of the “In The Hunt” graphics would suffice.
It was difficult to picture Saleh as a coach who could watch his team get shellacked as often as Adam Gase did in New York – but here we are with Saleh’s team having a worse scoring margin than either of Gase’s two Jets teams.
Right now, fans should be pessimistic to at least some degree. Not having any bit of doubt about Saleh would be blindly optimistic.
However, fans should still remain patient to see what Saleh can do over the final eight games of the season. The Jets have the league’s second-easiest remaining schedule (.400). Ahead of them lies a golden opportunity to right the ship.
To write off all of the things that made Saleh a great candidate only nine games into his head coaching career would be foolish. He deserves significantly more time. No matter how bad the Jets finish the 2021 season, he will be back in 2022 and should be given a fair chance to turn things around after another offseason to stock the cupboard with talent. Keep in mind the multi-year process that it took for him to finally produce success in San Francisco.
Plus, it is important to keep in mind that due to the incredible number of injuries and the enormous amount of upcoming assets in 2022, the majority of the players on the field for the Jets over these past few blowouts – especially on defense – are not players that will be playing key roles in 2022 and beyond.
The Jets have a severe lack of talent on the field because of injuries and the years of bad drafting from Mike Maccagnan and John Idzik that preceded the entry of Saleh and current general manager Joe Douglas. It will take some time for Saleh and Douglas to fix that.
Right now, Saleh has to try and win games with players like Jarrod Wilson, Sharrod Neasman, Greg Van Roten, Hamilcar Rashed, Del’Shawn Phillips, Ryan Griffin, Nathan Shepherd, and Ronald Blair handling key roles, which is tough for any coach. His team also leads the NFL in snaps played by rookies.
While that is not an excuse for setting all-time records of awfulness, it is a legitimate reason to wait and see what can be done with better players on the field.
That will have to wait until 2022, but there is still plenty of work for Saleh to do in 2021. He needs to give fans (and his own team) real signs of hope that he can be the answer going forward.
The present-day goal is for Saleh to prove that he can get his team to show major progress against the soft slate of opponents that is coming up.
If Saleh can’t get his team going over the next month as it takes on similarly unimpressive teams like the Dolphins (twice), Texans, Eagles, and Jaguars, then fans will have every right to start having significant doubts about his long-term potential as a coach.
At the moment, the balanced approach for Jets fans regarding Robert Saleh would be cautious pessimism with a dash of patience. It is far too early to write him off – the traits that made fans fall in love with him in January have not vanished into thin air after 10 months – but the severity of the team’s woes thus far warrants a substantial decrease in confidence.
On the latest episode of the Cool Your Jets podcast, Ben Blessington and I ponder whether the team’s long-term prospects under Saleh remain positive. Plus, we discuss whether the Jets made the right call to choose Joe Flacco over Mike White for their Week 11 battle with Miami.