Robert Saleh Says Last Year’s Adversity Has Better Prepared the Jets for 2024

The coach explains how both the preseason hype and the need to build an offense without Aaron Rodgers taught the team lessons. He also explains why Rodgers is a “phenomenal teammate.”
Aaron Rodgers only played four snaps after joining Robert Saleh and the Jets
Aaron Rodgers only played four snaps after joining Robert Saleh and the Jets / Chris Pedota / USA TODAY NETWORK
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The resilience that shone through in a 3–1 October, after Aaron Rodgers went down, was wearing thin. The New York Jets’ injuries were mounting and, at 4–7, any idea of going to the playoffs behind Zach Wilson, Tim Boyle, Trevor Siemian or whomever else they’d roll out there at quarterback was quickly slipping away.

Something needed to change.

So the coaches dug in on their offense, one that averaged just nine points per game through the Jets’ winless November, with the final straw being a 34–13 Black Friday loss to the Miami Dolphins, one in which the team’s only points in the first 55 minutes came on a pick-six, and New York rushed for a grand total of 29 yards.

“We went into last offseason, first year in the new offense, first year with a Hall of Fame quarterback, and we installed an offense designed for 17 games worth of Aaron Rodgers,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said Saturday, the first day of his summer break. “When he got hurt, we still wanted to maintain what we installed. Maybe it wasn’t as much as Aaron would have done. But we wanted to keep the same philosophy of what we’re trying to get done.

“As the year went on, and injuries started to pile up, we realized that there needed to be a shift in philosophy.”

Saleh, coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and the offensive coaches didn’t reinvent the wheel with the mini-bye they got from playing early on Thanksgiving weekend. In fact, they went the other way altogether.

Instead of doing more, as having Rodgers would have allowed, the Jets committed to doing less. The coaches found that through playing the hand they were dealt at quarterback, and the injuries they endured at offensive line, there wasn’t enough they’d found a way to get truly good at as the season wore on. So the idea was to find those things, do them more regularly and see where the chips might fall from there.

The success of that plan was modest. But, eventually, it did come. The Jets won three of their final five games. After failing to hit 100 yards rushing eight times in a nine-game stretch, they hit that mark in each of the last three weeks of the season—going for 164, 107 and 185 in their 15th, 16th, and 17th games, respectively.

Overall, they tried to find what would be the main thing—and keep it the main thing.

And while it wasn’t their intention back then, they laid the foundation for what was to come in the 2024 offseason and, if things work out as planned, beyond.

Happy summer, everyone! The NFL break is officially here, and so are we, for a couple more weeks before my own annual break begins. So over in the takeaways, we’re going to be wrapping up the spring, with a whole bunch of notes, including nuggets on …

• The San Francisco 49ers’ continued development of their roster.

• A Minnesota Vikings receiver not named Justin Jefferson poised to break out.

• How the Philadelphia Eagles plan to rebound.

But we’re starting with the team that dominated the news cycle over the last week of the offseason program, which is actually something that’s pretty normal in Jetsland.

The whole clichéd idea of keeping the main thing the main thing was indeed tested again last week, as the Jets went into their mandatory minicamp.

By now, you know who wasn’t there.

When Saleh and I talked, he asked to stand on what he’d said last week about the Rodgers situation—that the quarterback had a personal event important to him scheduled ahead of time, had communicated his need to go to the team, and that the team was marking his absence down as “unexcused,” which would subject him to over $100,000 in fines.

I did a little more digging over the past few days. What more I could ascertain was how the Jets and Rodgers reached an understanding of the “one team, one set of rules” logic to not excusing his leave. Rodgers, I’m told, was good with it.

And while, yes, the Jets could’ve moved minicamp up a week, the staff didn’t want to do that, because generally having a mandatory minicamp a week before the end of the offseason program essentially green-lights everyone taking the last week of voluntary work off. Which might mean more guys who need the work a lot more than Rodgers does cutting a week off their offseason programs, which would be worse than one guy missing, even if that one guy is Rodgers, because Rodgers wouldn’t be there that week anyway.

One reason I agree with the logic (and this is just me, personally): Moving it up would have been an example of falling into a trap the Jets have plenty of times over the past two decades. That trap is, simply, worrying about the wrong things.

And keeping the schedule the way they did gave them a full offseason program with a locked-in Rodgers, back from Achilles surgery, save for that one week.

“Aaron has been just like he was a year ago,” Saleh said, after declining to rehash the events of last week. “He’s phenomenal. He’s a phenomenal teammate. He’s a phenomenal resource. His leadership, his thoughtfulness, the way he’s taken those young quarterbacks under his wing and the way he's helped even Tyrod [Taylor] along, he’s phenomenal in that regard. Him being here, and attacking the offseason and doing everything that we’ve asked has been fantastic.

“He’s a great teammate, and we’re appreciative of him.”

In a lot of ways, how the Jets dealt with the situation was a lesson from a 2023 season that was full of them, both for Saleh and the team—players, coaches and staff—as a whole.

The aforementioned football lesson, where the Jets cut down on volume to get more from a Rodgers-less team was another. Rodgers, for example, doesn’t like a lot of motion and movement in the offense, because, same as Peyton Manning used to prefer it, he wants to be able to get a clean look at the defense and then move his teammates around accordingly. Thing was, with Rodgers out, not having the presnap bells and whistles wound up hurting a group that was struggling to begin with in making the offense a little too static.

And just as having so much in the offense helped leverage the strength of Rodgers’s mind and experience, taking more out would help get more from younger players who could play faster with fewer things on their plate.

“It was more try to just hone in on certain concepts and come to the conclusion that it was O.K. to be repetitive and to pick some schemes, pick a philosophy and stick with that philosophy for the last six weeks,” Saleh says. “It was really to create consistency week to week with what we’re trying to get accomplished, to see if we could just get better. There’s so much turnover. There were so many players in and out of the lineup.

“We felt like if we could just hone in on a few concepts and coach those concepts every single week for the last six weeks, we would get better.”

The result, again, was a revitalized run game behind Breece Hall, who came alive with 357 yards rushing on 70 carries (a 5.1 yard average), to go with 23 catches for 150 yards, over the final three weeks of the season, and gave everyone a look at how the Jets might be able to get more from Rodgers by asking less from him in 2023.

When the offseason program kicked off in April, Saleh looked out at a meeting room that was full, and full of determined looks.

Last year, in so many ways, this group of Jets hit Broadway. They were at Rangers and Knicks playoff games. They were throwing out first pitches at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field. They were at high-profile shows and concerts. They were, in so many ways, enjoying the trappings that the afterglow of the Rodgers trade brought them.

And it’s not like that’s why the season that followed circled the drain—that, of course, had more to do with what happened four plays in on Week 1.

But the feel around the team—from all the hype in the spring, to the energy that the Hard Knocks cameras created, to the full stands through training camp—was very different then than it is now. In other words, if last year was about expectations and goals, this year in Florham Park has been more about what’s happening today than tomorrow’s promise.

“Last year was different,” Saleh says. “Not to say that one was better than the other, but this is very business-like. I feel like our guys have shown up. They’ve shown up to work. There’s less hoopla around the team. I think our guys are locked in, and they’re focused.

“I really do believe that we had a really, really productive offseason.”

That, again, started with the lessons of last year, with a group hardened by the experience of so many games, sans Rodgers, becoming willful rock fights.

This year, in Year 2 of the Rodgers-Hackett offense, and Year 4 of the Saleh–Jeff Ulbrich defense, there’s been an efficiency that the team has been able to quantify. Over 10 OTA practices, leading into last week’s minicamp, the Jets got over 200 more full-speed reps than they did in the same amount of practices last year. That, of course, averages out to more than 20 reps per practice.

It happened for a couple of reasons.

The first, and most obvious and natural one, is that without new systems going in, the team comes back knowing what they’re doing on a different level—which brings heightened efficiency out to the practice field. The second, and more calculated one, was an effort from some new performance-team folks to work the guys a little faster and harder earlier to prepare them for the season and avoid all of the injuries issues that came about last year.

“One, the guys know what to do, so there’s less mistakes. It’s year two in the system,” Saleh says. “The ball’s getting snapped a heck of a lot faster. But at the same time, we’re trying to push the envelope. We’re trying to find that balance of why we’ve been hurt the last two years, especially along the offensive line. … We’re trying to callous the team a little bit more without recalling the days of the Junction Boys.”

And in a way, all of that goes back to the focused approach the players took from 2023, which was a good example, for everyone, of the window the Jets are in.

If the team, like Saleh said, can stay healthy on the line, with two accomplished tackles (Tyron Smith and Morgan Moses), one wildly talented tackle (rookie Olu Fashanu) and an experience guard (John Simpson) added to the mix, there’s a roster here that simply doesn’t have a lot of holes. Accordingly, the Jets have a chance to be really good. The players know it, and acted like it in April, May and June.

But they also know now how fleeting these sorts of chances can be. Particularly with a talented crew of third-year guys—headed by Hall, Garrett Wilson, Jermaine Johnson and Sauce Gardner—that implicitly learned lesson has resonated. That group, of course, went from a promising rebuilding year in 2022, to a season of dashed expectations, to where they are now. Those guys battled through it and remained high-level individual players throughout

Which, it seems, has put them, and the Jets, in a pretty good place now.

Saleh talks to his players during the second half of a 2023 game against the Browns / Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Off-handedly, near the end of our conversation, I said to Saleh that it sure seems like he thinks he’s got a pretty good team going into 2024.

“I do,” he responded.

Saleh, for his part, also thinks he’s better personally, and more prepared to lead that team for going through what the Jets did a year ago. Part of it is an intense focus on what’s happening internally, and making sure, day-to-day, his team is where it needs to be.

Keeping, again, the main thing the main thing.

“For me, last year, there was so much adversity for all of us: coaching staff, players, administration,” he says. “I think every time you go through the adversity that we went through or a team or an organization goes through, you’re always going to experience a tremendous amount of growth. Last year, personally, as a team, the schemes that we run, the way that we do things, I learned a lot about our process.

“Through all that adversity, I think we’re going to come out the other end being a lot better.”

Now, this being New York, some things won’t change. Rodgers’s every movement will be tracked. If the Jets slip in any way, the staff’s job security will be a topic.

That’s life in the big city.

And there is a very fair level of expectation that comes along with that. Bottom line, when you acquire Rodgers, as was the case with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady, or the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning (or, yes, the Jets and Minnesota Vikings with Brett Favre a decade and a half ago), you aren’t doing it to win on wild-card weekend.

But as Saleh sees it, really, that’s where you want to be, and his expectations aren’t much different than the general public’s, even if the Jets are talking about those a little less now than they were a year ago.

“Last year was an unbelievable experience with regards to, no matter how much we talk about it, controlling the controllables. You have to be able to live it all the way across the board,” he says. “The pressure to win from outside the building will never be as great as the internal pressure to be your best every single day. For us, the experiences of last year I think will make us even stronger internally in terms of attacking the theater and staying focused on the things that are most important.

“That’s everybody that straps on a helmet, and everybody that’s in those meeting rooms and all the people involved with the organization.”

Which, at least for June, is exactly where the Jets want, and need, to be.

Albert Breer