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What NY Jets HC Robert Saleh says vs. what he means

Robert Saleh, Mike White, New York Jets
Robert Saleh, Mike White, New York Jets, Getty Images

Saleh, like every NFL head coach and player, has undergone extensive media training

How does an NFL head coach go to sleep? First, he lies to one side, and then he lies to the other.

NFL coaches lie to the media. Sometimes, they do it subtly, but at other times it’s so blatant that my four-year-old could spot it. (Is that truth or a lie? “It’s the truth,” claims the four-year-old with chocolate on her chin.)

Jets head coach Robert Saleh is no different. He is a players’ coach and rarely sells out his guys to the media. Therefore, he will fudge, mince words, or just tell outright untruths to protect his players.

In the New York market, it’s hard to criticize Saleh for taking this approach. His even-keeled demeanor is pretty much perfect for the spotlight. He keeps his emotions in check when responding to annoying reporters asking questions designed to trip him up. At the same time, he gives enough good quotes and insight to keep writers busy.

Still, it appears that a Saleh translator is necessary for both the Jets’ beat and fan base. Taking what Saleh says at face value is foolish.

Injury reports

NFL head coaches always lie about injuries. The reason is simple: why give the opponent an edge?

However, Saleh takes this to a whole different level at times.

Zach Wilson: “There is a possibility that Zach will start Week 1.”

When Saleh says something is possible, it pretty much means that it won’t happen. At this point, it’s close to an automatic. It’s like a parent saying “maybe.”

After Zach Wilson sustained a torn meniscus and a bone bruise in the first week of the preseason, it was reported that the injury would keep him out for 2-4 weeks. Some outlets listed the timeline as more like 4-6 weeks. Either way, the regular season opener was a little more than four weeks to the day from when Wilson injured his knee.

As it turned out, Wilson returned to action in Week 4 against the Steelers, which was seven weeks after the injury.

Saleh knew the whole time that Wilson wasn’t going to play in Week 1, but he tried to dance his way around it. It was a mostly transparent gamesmanship tactic so as not to give the Ravens an edge in knowing which QB to prepare for. As it turned out, Joe Flacco didn’t give them any issues, and Wilson likely wouldn’t have been much better.

Mike White: “We are preparing as if we have him on Sunday.”

The day after Mike White left the Jets-Bills game due to a crushing blow to the ribs, Saleh was asked about the injury in very pointed terms. ESPN’s Rich Cimini asked point-blank if White had a rib fracture.

Saleh’s response: “I’m not going to get into the details. I know that what they saw was good enough for him to get back on the plane and he passed all that stuff.”

Cimini followed up by asking if Saleh expected to have White for the following week against the Lions, to which the coach responded, “We are preparing as if we have him on Sunday.”

Later in the week, Mike White made a very similar statement. When asked if there was any doubt in his mind that he would play against the Lions, White said, “No. Not at all. Like I said Monday, I’m preparing as such, and if something changes, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Somehow, the media and the betting lines took that White line as confirmation that he would be playing, even though Saleh had said virtually the same thing on Monday and repeated it earlier that day. If you read between the lines, even at the time, you could see that there was no certainty in what was said.

Sure enough, the next morning, Saleh announced that White was not cleared for contact and Zach Wilson would start. White admitted that his confidence from the previous day had been a pipe dream. 10 different doctors refused to clear White for action due to the risk of puncturing a lung.

This whole song and dance didn’t fool anyone, either, at least according to Dan Campbell. The Lions coach, who had lauded Mike White’s toughness in his Wednesday press conference, said following the Wilson announcement that his team had been preparing for Wilson to be the QB all along.

Quinnen Williams and Corey Davis: “They have a chance to play on Sunday.”

This goes back to Zach Wilson’s injury. When Saleh says a player has a chance to play, they simply never do. Corey Davis didn’t clear concussion protocol prior to the Lions game, and it was pretty obvious by Wednesday that he was not going to. Saleh kept up the charade with Quinnen Williams all the way until 11:30 on gameday, even past when Tanzel Smart was elevated from the practice squad.

At this point, it’s a pretty well-established Jets rule that if a player does not practice on Thursday, he is not playing in the game on Sunday.

On players’ performance

Zach Wilson: “It’s not all about the quarterback.” “We still believe in Zach Wilson.”

What, exactly, do you expect Saleh to say in this situation? That the Jets have given up on Zach Wilson and are going to cut him after the season?

The reality is that Saleh is a players’ coach and will jump through hoops to avoid criticizing his players publicly. He sees what we all see on the field. However, he also knows that the Jets need whatever trade leverage they can retain for Wilson. There’s no advantage to throwing him under the bus at this point.

Zach Wilson: “We’re moving Zach up to the No. 2 spot. Zach’s been doing a great job. … [The timing of it is] coincidence, more than anything.”

Uh-huh, Coach. Elevating Zach Wilson to the No. 2 QB position behind Mike White prior to finding out that White was out against the Lions was purely because Wilson had made progress. Believing that would be like believing what comes out of a politician’s mouth.

The Jets elevated Zach Wilson above Joe Flacco because Flacco managed to lose the game for them on four snaps taken in the Bills game. Old Man Joe has now been strip-sacked at the highest rate in the NFL, three times the league-average rate. The Jets really had no choice in the matter.

As further evidence of this, look what’s going on now: Wilson was so bad that the Jets have no choice but to reinsert Flacco as the backup and pray that Mike White stays healthy. Last week, they opted to go with Chris Streveler over Flacco, no matter how much Saleh gave the media a song and dance about wanting Streveler’s running ability.

Shooting down hypotheticals

If you’ve tried out ChatGPT recently, you know that it’s quite a tricky task to get a backdoor answer to a question once the AI tool shoots it down.

Saleh is as cagey as ChatGPT when it comes to hypothetical questions, no matter how valid they might be. Occasionally, he calls something hypothetical when it’s not one just to dodge a response.

This is all coachspeak. It’s one of the ways in which Saleh is well-equipped to handle the ruthless New York media.

Identifying the truth

There is no real way to know what Robert Saleh is truly thinking, especially since his decision-making and priorities have been spotty at times this year. However, here are a few rules of thumb.

  • Whatever Saleh says about injuries is likely untrue, by default.
  • If Saleh compliments a beleaguered player, it is his players’ coach persona speaking, not his true belief.
  • When Saleh discusses actual football reasoning, he’s usually telling the truth. That includes his in-game decision-making and personnel choices (e.g., explaining that he chose not to call a timeout late in the Lions game to avoid a booth review of a generous spot and that Bam Knight was elevated over James Robinson due to Knight’s one-cut, vertical running style).
  • Don’t listen to what the beat writers say that Saleh said; watch the press conference yourself. I’ve been amazed at what is left out in the 140-character tweets of Saleh’s comments compared to the actual video of the presser.

The New York media wants a paradox of a head coach: a guy who will stay cool and calm under pressure but give them the information they want to hear and who will defend his players yet assign blame publicly. Robert Saleh has chosen the diplomatic approach, which includes a whole load of malarkey.

The trick is not to believe everything that comes out of his mouth.

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Jonathan Richter
1 year ago

THANK YOU!!!! I am so sick and tired of people complaining that Saleh doesn’t give out the unvarnished truth in a press conference! Good for him! He’s trying to keep every strategic advantage, and maintain the confidence of his players individually and the locker room as a whole. I care not one whit about the level of communication between the team and the fans or media. It’s all about communication within the building and on the field.

1 year ago

Disinformation is part and parcel of being a head coach. Am very weary of so-called “Fans criticizing the fan base for criticizing the Q.B. play, too bad, they just want the team to win!
Just extend THIS season!!!

1 year ago

“Don’t listen to what the beat writers say that Saleh said; watch the press conference yourself.” – this is standard operating procedure for me.

1 year ago
Reply to  Psi

I think this applies to all players as well not just Saleh. NY media is the best at twisting words for likes.