The pressure is on for New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh
In the early 2000s, Herman Edwards led the New York Jets to three playoff appearances in five seasons. Say what you want about backing into the postseason, lack of defensive philosophy, and poor player development, but Edwards’s tenure with the Jets was one of the more successful ones in team history.
However, what may have done Herm in with his playoff teams was his time management. It seemed to come up all over the place, most notably in a 20-17 defeat in 2004 against the Ravens. In that game, the Jets had first and goal on the Ravens’ 4-yard line while down three points with 50 seconds left in the game and two timeouts, but failed to even get off a third down play.
With a team that was talented but not superstar laden, the clock management woes were often their downfall. The late Mike Heimerdinger was hired in 2005 in part to take care of the issues, but a woeful season ensured Edwards’s departure in a trade to Kansas City for a 4th round pick (that became Leon Washington).
Cue Robert Saleh in 2021. Saleh was recently rated as Pro Football Focus’s worst non-rookie head coach heading into the 2022 season (based on the usage of Pythagorean wins to estimate how many games each coach would win with an average roster). While that may put some Jets fans’ backs up, the reality is that Saleh was awful last year.
One big factor in that was Saleh’s time and game management. From bad timeout usage, poor preparation, and mishandling of drives, the Jets’ offense was simply sloppy all around. The time management is on the head coach, and Saleh botched it. This was on full display in the Jets’ 45-17 blowout loss to the Bills in Week 10, in which Saleh decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 on the Buffalo 45 but could not get the team on track in time, resulting in a non-intentional delay of game penalty.
Believe it or not, three-quarters of the way through the season, ESPN had Saleh ranked as one of the NFL’s better coaches when it came to fourth-down aggressiveness in 2021. Overall, he seemed to have gotten those decisions largely correct from an analytics perspective. That says nothing of his play calling in those situations, though.
In one of the defining plays of the 2021 season, Zach Wilson’s choice to sneak the ball on 4th-and-2 from deep in Tampa territory gave the Bucs a chance to come down and win the game, which Tom Brady promptly did. Saleh blamed the play on miscommunication, saying that Wilson did not know that the primary play was the option to Braxton Berrios, with a secondary sneak if it was available. That’s on the coach. Aggressiveness on 4th down is one thing, but with a bad call or bad communication, the result is predictably poor.
Another way in which Saleh’s first season is reminiscent of Herm’s was the defense’s poor planning. Both of these guys were supposed to be defensive gurus, Herm coming from Tampa, Saleh from the vaunted San Francisco defense. Beyond the statistics, it was the lack of a coherent defensive plan that often did Edwards in.
While Saleh has a very defined defensive gameplan, coherent is another story, at least when it comes to the defensibility of his philosophy. As Robby Sabo and others detailed on this site throughout the season, Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich were very obstinate with their defensive objectives. They stuck to predictable tendencies, allowing other coordinators to feast on the weaknesses.
Last season, the Jets’ dearth of talent and injuries to key players were not Saleh’s fault. However, failing to maximize the players on the roster was on him as the head coach. Despite the tumult of the 2021 season, the Jets could have been better than a four-win team, or at least more competitive than they were. Burned timeouts, delay of game penalties, poor on-field discipline, players out of position, miscommunication, and many other technical details showed signs of a poorly coached team.
Saleh still has the approbation of players and coaches across the NFL. This year, though, his reputation will not be enough to carry him. Fans and ownership need to see legitimate improvement, starting with Zach Wilson. In particular, the defense will come under careful scrutiny, not just for execution but also for the gameplan.
2022 is Saleh’s chance to prove his doubters wrong, to show Jets Nation that he was the right hire. If the process improvements do not materialize, it’s possible that the Jets go back to the drawing board at the helm for next season.