The Robert Saleh hire was met with hesitant praise in New York, mostly because Saleh, the long-time 49ers defensive coordinator, is not the offensive soothsayer the team’s fan base has been seeking for the better part of a lifetime. It is much harder to sustain offensive success when a coach depends on a rotating cast of coordinators who will quickly get plucked elsewhere if they succeed. This is especially concerning for a team hoping to finally get a fair evaluation of former No. 3 pick Sam Darnold after years of injury and mismanagement (or a team hoping to groom his successor with the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft).
Mike LaFleur, brother of Packers head coach Matt, is Saleh’s likely choice for the role and has been a rising target on head-coaching lists for some time. He is part of a younger class of whip-smart play designers who could end up defining the landscape over the next five years. It would not be surprising to see him renting, not buying, in Florham Park. So it goes.
But here is the promise of Saleh, which should help negate some of the early concern: He may end up being the best of what Rex Ryan had to offer without the disastrous side effects. And as the team heads into uncharted divisional waters, with both the Dolphins and Bills emerging as heavyweights and the Patriots retooling this offseason, having a firebrand on the sidelines well-versed in a proven defensive scheme is not the worst thing to be known for. Capability on the defensive side of the ball, where most of the team’s dependable resources are at this point, will serve them well. Emotional intelligence, from a person known for his steady stream of motivational tactics and boundless energy, may serve the team even more.
The Jets backed away from a gregarious personality for half a decade following the Ryan regime, which certainly left some broken windows and holes in the drywall on its way out. Instead, the focus was on schematic expertise and a more professional demeanor, hence Todd Bowles and Adam Gase.
The Ryan comparison will understandably scare some people off, but understand what we’re saying: For the first time since Ryan held an office in New Jersey, the Jets will likely finish a season with an idea of who they are. Ryan’s ground-and-pound edict elicited eyerolls around the league, but inside the building it was potent for a time. A fleet of high-profile veterans followed Ryan around like the pied piper. The percentage of people willing to, at one point in time, run through a brick wall for Ryan was exponentially higher than either of the two head coaches that followed.
But where Ryan faltered—a sloppy presentation, a lack of polish, no second act beyond bluster and bombast—is where Saleh can take the baton and run. Here is a person who was believed to be the motivational underpinning of the Kyle Shanahan regime, a yin to the more outwardly reserved Shanahan’s yang. Here was the juice behind a Super Bowl team that was a few plays away from stifling the Chiefs’ dynasty-in-making before it even began. Here is also a person who comes from one of the healthiest organizational structures in professional sports; a team whose draft- and free-agency-to-field pipeline has been envied by opponents around the league.
And the Jets’ offense will be better next year by default. Given the health and skill level of their collective personnel, any additions will make a team that was last in both points and yards somewhat better than they were before. LaFleur, who is steeped in the Shanahan offensive system that teams are frantically hiring for this offseason (see: Arthur Smith getting the job in Atlanta, Matt LaFleur getting the job in Green Bay two years ago, and more to come) will install a system that can create more time and open looks for Darnold to get himself back on the rails.
All of this should be considered a victory. It took the Jets 14 weeks to see signs of life from their football team this past year (and by the time they exhibited said life, it wasn’t preferred to the top draft pick). It will not take that long for Saleh to make his mark, just like it didn’t take long for Ryan to make his presence felt.
Sometimes that can be a good thing.