Peace reigns in year two of Saleh’s Jets tenure
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh is the amateur football comedian’s worst enemy.
Through his cool, collected demeanor, inspiring story, and proven track record of lasting gridiron success, Saleh brings an aura of respectability to the downtrodden Jets franchise. For as many gridiron misfires that have represented the Jets on the field, those directing them on the sideline are likewise open to punchlines.
Some, like Rex Ryan, embraced the comics’ barbs and ran with the thanklessness of coaching the Jets. But the position broke Lou Holtz, Rich Kotite, and Adam Gase. None of them held another NFL position after their respective cursed tenures in green.
Holtz, to his credit, did find prosperity with another green-tinted organization at the collegiate level. Still, his NFL coaching tenure holds the ultimate football insult with the comparison to Kotite and Gase.
Even Todd Bowles, stoic and solemn as they come on gameday, was chastised for the crime of being too calm before his defensive mastery in Tampa Bay earned him another head coaching gig.
Saleh was a welcome change from all of that, even if hiring a defensive-minded coach could be a risk in today’s offense-happy NFL. Armed with the looks of an action star, a catchy, quotable mantra that had the most sedated and jaded Jets fans ready to run through a brick wall, and, oh yeah, an accomplished NFL resume, he was the perfect choice to lead the latest iteration of Gang Green’s perpetual rebuild.
That’s what made Saleh’s comments in the aftermath of Mike White‘s Halloween special so surprising.
Even with the reputation of the New York press, Saleh’s media commitments should have been the least of his concerns. It wouldn’t have taken much to outshine his predecessor in that department. Gase’s pressers were known for a confrontational aura. They often doubled as damage control, where he could deny quarreling with a different figure on the Jets’ roster. Saleh, a coach whose arrival was publicly praised by players both domestic and abroad, was a mostly-calming presence.
The spirits of recency bias, however, must have possessed Saleh after White’s 405-yard effort gave the Jets a win over the future AFC champion Bengals while presumed franchise arm Zach Wilson recovered from a PCL injury. White’s Hall of Fame performance notwithstanding, conventional wisdom suggested that turning the reins over to the fifth-round pick turned holiday hero would be an absurd notion, especially after the massive investment that had been made in Wilson, the second overall pick mere months prior.
All Saleh had to do was confirm that the starting job was Wilson’s to lose. He could have said that the team wasn’t ready to pass the franchise role to a fifth-round, first-year player. He should have clarified that six starts were not enough time for the rookie to prove himself prior to his injury.
“We’ll go day-to-day, but anything is possible, right?” Saleh curiously remarked when asked if White had a chance to usurp Wilson. “Anything is possible. So it goes back to that whole theory of (whether) the difference between player A and player Z is an opportunity and reps. That’s what this league is. That’s professional sports. That’s why they come out of nowhere. Someone gets an opportunity. And what Mike does with his opportunity. He’s got the world in front of him, he’s just got to take advantage of it.”
An injury in the Jets’ next game in Indianapolis prevented White from making up or losing any ground on Wilson. However, his unintentional coup ended with a four-interception showing against the Buffalo Bills. Saleh perhaps silently admitted to his error by starting the reacquired Joe Flacco over White when the Jets faced Miami the following weekend.
To Wilson’s credit, he returned from the injury and built solid momentum for his sophomore season. He utilized a newfound rushing ability and held a streak of 162 consecutive passes without an interception to cap off his freshman campaign.
But the fact that a significant decision-maker in the Jets’ organization publicly displayed hesitation about Wilson’s status as the franchise quarterback was a foreboding development for a team whose simplest errors are used as guaranteed punchlines by the football comedy realm.
Less than a year later, Saleh has apparently learned a valuable lesson about faith and transparency.
If it happened anywhere else, the patience displayed towards Mekhi Becton would probably be praised. But Jets’ picks, of course, are subject to the infamous Green tax. Becton was another injury casualty, lost to a knee ailment on the first score of the year because even touchdowns end in disaster for the New York Jets. The original four-to-six-week timeline eventually became the whole season, allowing George Fant to become the anchor on Wilson’s blind side.
The Jets passed on several elite receiving talents (including Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb) for the right to draft Becton, leaving them with some major explaining to do. Fant’s performance proved too strong to relegate him to the second tackle, making things even more thorny.
Training camp is often a place where players claim to be in the “best shape of their lives” and then do their utmost to prove it on the field. It’s a time to show what they’ve learned during the offseason, a time to prove they have long-term NFL mettle.
Saleh proved that the feeling extends to coaches, as well.
In announcing that both Fant and Becton will start at the bookends, Saleh put out multiple fires at once. Not only did the Jets reward Fant’s progress, but they also mapped out a path for Becton’s future.
The team has flat-out declared that they want to see Becton play right tackle. Saleh simultaneously made clear that an opportunity remains to regain the left tackle duties if and when the time is right.
“We just sat down and just talked about it. We don’t want those guys jumping back and forth. We made a decision that’s best for the team,” Saleh declared. “George had a fantastic year last year at left tackle. Mekhi is a gifted young man who can do both. Doesn’t mean Mekhi’s left tackle days are over, but right now he’s young enough to … make that transition. We really like those two next to each other. We got a really cool group.”
Say what you will about the Jets’ rebuild, there has always been a path, a map, a blueprint. The road itself, however, has been blurry. Less than 48 hours into camp, Saleh’s progress at the podium gave the Jets a torch.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags