Woody Johnson has not asked me for advice on dealing with the future of the team he owns. He isn't going to ask me for advice either. Even so I have put together a few tips I have for him dealing with the direction of the New York Jets in 2014 and beyond. I have put myself into the shoes of the owner and telling what I would do.
We begin with the first move.
Rex Ryan is fired.
Rex Ryan's run with the Jets was sometimes good. It was sometimes bad. It was almost always entertaining. It has reached its conclusion. Few reasons exist for him to stay. Many exist for his departure. There is one above all the rest.
A really good coach should be able to cobble together a Wild Card season once in four years regardless of talent.
The Jets will miss the postseason for the fourth consecutive year in 2014. Many reasons for this exist. One of those reasons is the number of winnable games the Jets have lost all four years that can be traced back to coaching. We have heard over and over about how the head coach will learn and change. It never happened.
The change will be immediate and happen during the season. It will allow Rex to avoid extra losses on his record. It will also give him a head start on finding a new job.
These aren't the reasons we are making the change. It simply does not matter whether the Jets finish the season 4-12 under Rex Ryan or 2-14 under Marty Mornhinweg.
Making the change now will allow the Jets to start their coaching search. They will be able to start speaking with potential candidates who are in college or have taken a year off from the NFL before the other teams can. They will be able to organize the search if it carries into the offseason. Perhaps the Jets will not have a coach in place by the end of the season, but every small advantage should be taken.
Mornhinweg will be named interim head coach for the remainder of the 2014 season.
This brings us to our next decision. Who will run football operations going forward? That job is currently filled by John Idzik. Is he the best choice going forward?
Only in extreme circumstances would I even consider firing a second year general manager. Our current circumstances certainly would qualify, though. I do not see a credible case to be made that this team is moving in the right direction.
I ask myself the following questions. Have my general manager's evaluations been sound? Do I see a plan being implemented effectively? Has he convincingly sold a vision for the future of this franchise?
To all of these questions the answer is a resounding no. This leaves me with only one course of action.
John Idzik is also fired.
John Idzik seems like a good man. He has many talents and is highly respected. He will have success in his future. Unfortunately the skills he has do not overlap with the skills necessary to be an effective general manager for a franchise for the New York Jets.
Idzik is also let go immediately. Again this will allow him to get a head start on finding a new job.
It also allows us to organize our general manager search. We might not be able to talk to candidates for a few months, but we can get whatever necessary legwork out of the way. We have time to determine which candidates we will target and will be able to charge out of the gate once it is time.
This move will also calm the fanbase. It will be a decisive action to show the fans ownership understands the problems and is proactively looking to fix them.
The Jets have a former NFL general manager in their front office. That man, Rod Graves, will be promoted to interim general manager for the remainder of the 2014 season. He will oversee the operation for the year and make any necessary transactions.
Finding the best person for the job
By cleaning house, the Jets will not limit their search to find the best possible candidate. A front office does not need to be structured around a general manager. Sometimes an organization can give the head coach the final say on personnel. It works that way in New England with Bill Belichick. It works that way in Seattle with Pete Carroll. It works that way in Philadelphia with Chip Kelly.
The way the Jets have done these things has limited their ability to hire top tier candidates. The best coaching candidates want say over personnel. That can't happen when the head coach goes but the general manager stays. The best general manager candidates want complete control over their football operation. That certainly doesn't happen when the head coach stays but the general manager goes. The Jets need to find the best possible person to run their team. There is no room to eliminate candidates.
In this hiring process, there will be no conditions that require a new hire to keep any subordinate. No forcing a coordinator on a head coach. No forcing a head coach on a general manager (not to be confused with a structure where the head coach ranks ahead of the general manager). No forcing Terry Bradway on anybody.
This is just a bad business practice. Subordinates are largely responsible for the success and failure of their superiors. How can the boss hold the people who work for him accountable without the ability to hire or fire them?
The next few weeks
There is something not right with the culture the Jets have created on their team. Over the next few weeks I will make it a point to meet with as many people as I can who have been at the helm of winning organizations. I will seek out people like Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Bill Polian, and others like them. I will avoid those like Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells. I want people who are still keyed into the league because they are analysts on television or serving some other role.
I'm not interested in hiring any of them. I don't think any of them would be the best fit. There certainly would be benefits. All would be upgrades. All would immediately infuse a needed dose of credibility to a franchise that has once again become a laughing stock. I'm not ready to turn to any of them, though.
I am also not asking for recommendations to fill any jobs. They will recommend their friends.
I want to speak with them broadly about how to build a winning culture. What goes into it? What are the attributes we would look for in people? What roles did people fill within our organization? What types of people were essential? What type of behavior was not tolerated? What were consequences for not following the program?
I want to compare the traits of successful organizations with my own and see what needs to change.
A time to choose
I see two choices who stand out to me to build this organization around. Both are head coaches. I would not hesitate to bring either in and give them control of this franchise.
The top choice:
Jim Harbaugh, head coach, San Francisco 49ers: Eighteen years ago there was a coach who constantly clashed with his front office. A lot of his players couldn’t stand him. He was an all around abrasive guy.
But all he did was win and win big. The Jets hired that guy. His name was Bill Parcells, and in a two year span he took the Jets from one win to one win from the Super Bowl. Harbaugh has turned losing teams into winners from the University of San Diego to Stanford to the 49ers. It might be that he has a short shelf life and will burn bridges within a few years. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. If he has the same kind of success, he’ll be worth it. I’ll take a jerk if he’s going to win. Word is he is on the way out of San Francisco. Trying to land Harbaugh should be option number one.
I will reach out under the radar to San Francisco management. All negotiations must be kept covert and confidential. Since Harbaugh is under contract, a compensation package will need to be worked out. Our 2015 first round pick (likely top five), Muhammad Wilkerson, and Sheldon Richardson are off the table. All other 2015 picks, all future picks, and all other players on the roster are up for discussion.
If we cannot work out a compensation package that works for both sides, we will turn our attention to:
Gus Malzahn, head coach, Auburn University: There is no better X’s and O’s coach on any level of football. He has twice turned Auburn into a winner overnight, first as an offensive coordinator then as head coach.
He is an innovator. NFL teams implement wrinkles he devises. He brought the Wildcat to the mainstream as offensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas in 2006. The Seahawks hit a long touchdown in Week 1 using one of his signature plays. He has coached prolific rushing and passing attacks. He is this year's Chip Kelly. More than anything, he is a winner.
Now it's time to turn to the general manager search. I’m starting my search with these GM candidates. If we land either Harbaugh or Malzahn, our focus will be on finding somebody who will carry out their vision. That will eliminate some of the names below but not all. If we land neither, we will hand football operations over to our general manager. There are likely to be additions and/or subtractions to the list during the process, but our initial focus will be on the following candidates in no particular order.
Eric DeCosta, assistant general manager, Baltimore Ravens: He’s everybody’s dream date. DeCosta is highly regarded by everybody in league circles and has climbed the ladder in Baltimore. He’s turned down many interviews in the past because he’s viewed as heir apparent to Ozzie Newsome and waiting for that job. He’s also making GM money right now, making him a tough catch. You still have to pick up the phone here. Newsome isn’t that old, and this situation isn’t like the Jets two years ago or Miami last year where you have to keep the coach and enter a dysfunctional front office. This is a chance to build a team in your image in the biggest market in the league. You also have ample cap space and a young elite defensive line to build around. Worth making a sales pitch if nothing else even if it’s a longshot.
Eliot Wolf, director of pro personnel, Green Bay Packers: Son of legendary general manager, Ron Wolf, Eliot is only 32. He’s been immersed in the game since he was 10, though, and has impressed the Packers mightily, producing a meteoric rise up their organizational food chain. He has his father’s network of contacts to fill out a front office. Learning the game as the protege of a genius doesn’t guarantee success (Eric Mangini, Ben Kotwica, etc.), but it’s tough to imagine two better mentors than Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson.
Alonzo Highsmith, senior personnel executive, Green Bay Packers: Another guy from the Thompson tree who has climbed the ladder in Green Bay. The Packers think so highly of Highsmith they have prevented him from interviewing for other high level jobs with other franchises. He's credited with uncovering Tramon Williams among others.
Duke Tobin, director of player personnel, Cinncinati Bengals: Moneyball exists in the NFL. The Bengals are the cheapest organization in the sport. They only had three scouts listed in their media guide last year. Their owner is their general manager. Yet, they’ve produced a contender mainly on players they’re drafted. That’s a major credit to Tobin who runs the personnel department. If he can do that with less resources than any front office guy in the league, I’d love to see what he can do with an organization that will give him an adequate amount of support staff.
Tom Gamble, vice president of player personnel, Philadelphia Eagles: He’s the guy we probably should have hired two years ago. He’s done it all. He’s coached. He’s scouted. He’s worked on contracts. You can’t find anybody in the league who has anything other than the utmost respect for Gamble’s competency. Many outlets reported he was the favorite to land the Jets job early in the process two years ago. Something went awry in an interview. We’ll never know what, but this time Gamble would be totally in charge of football operations without any conditions. I'm more inclined to believe Gamble was not the one at fault for whatever went wrong two years ago based on how things turned out.
Jim Popp, general manager, Montreal Alouettes: The CFL guy was an outside the box candidate two years ago. Say what you will. It isn’t easy to consistently win in the CFL, and Popp has done it. You need to be able to find under the radar talent. Popp isn’t afraid to think outside the box. He eschewed typical CFL thinking and structured his scouting department more like an NFL one. The NFL is a league where relationships matter. Popp would be at a disadvantage so it would be important for him to fill his front office with experienced NFL hands who do have those relationships. I don’t think this would be a problem. He didn’t hesitate to hire former CFL general managers to work under him so he doesn’t seem to fear having other strong personalities. After we went out on a limb last time for Idzik I’d probably be a tad gun shy to go even further out on a limb for Popp, but I could be convinced. If he would be willing to take a lesser job in a front office in the NFL as a path to a GM job with a different team, our new GM will consider him.
Omar Khan, director of football administration, Pittsburgh Steelers: Yes, he’s a cap guy. But he does have a background in talent evaluation. Don’t automatically dismiss candidates because of a cap background either. It’s called a general MANAGER for a reason. It’s about managing. Do you think any GM has the time to study thousands of NFL players and Draft prospects and know everything in detail? The job is about hiring the right people, delegating, and being able to trust the right evaluations. Khan’s ability to manage is highly regarded, and he’d be able to bring over talent evaluators from one of the most stable franchises in professional sports. (On that note, doesn’t it seem odd that Idzik has brought over absolutely nobody from Seattle front office? They’re the best drafting team in the sport, and he is allegedly trying to build this team using their model.)
Rod Graves, interim general manager, New York Jets: It’s highly unlikely I’m going internal with this hire, but it’s a good management practice to interview at least one internal candidate to get a first hand perspective on the current state of the operation. Graves has also earned a courtesy interview for taking over as general manager for the rest of the season. I always thought highly of the job Graves did as GM of the Cardinals so we’d be open to retaining him in the front office if the new GM liked him and thought he was part of the solution.
Once we have our general manager in place, hopefully we are set. In the event we did not land Harbaugh or Malzahn, we will still need a head coach. Again, the list may change in the future, but our focus would be on the following candidates to start. Candidates are listed in no particular order.
Brian Kelly, head coach, Notre Dame: I rate Kelly a tad below Malzahn because I'm a little afraid about how his propensity to dig into his players would translate to the NFL. I worry about some Schianoesque traits I see. I still cannot deny that he has been a big winner wherever he has been and has a great offensive mind. The biggest obstacle might be convincing him to come. He already has his dream job, and it is equal in prestige to an NFL job. Notre Dame could also monetarily match any offer the Jets made.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Texas A&M: Sumlin is another highly successful coach who has devised prolific offenses. I think he'd have to tweak his system in the NFL. It's probably too simplistic to work. He'd need an experienced offensive coordinator who could mesh what Sumlin does with traditional NFL offenses. It's not impossible. That's exactly what Chip Kelly did.
David Cutcliffe, head coach, Duke: There is no tougher place in major college football to build a winner than Duke, and Cutcliffe has built a winner at Duke. He coached both Manning brothers in college, and they both think so much of him that they train with him in the offseason. Tony Romo sought him out last offseason when recovering for surgery.
Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have a reputation for being a smashmouth run team, but Roman is one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game. Of course given the Harbaugh situation, he might not be available as he would be an obvious candidate to be promoted to the head job with that team.
Kyle Shanahan, offensive coordinator, Cleveland Browns: He has run successful offenses in the league for three teams at only 34 years old. He showed remarkable adaptability and creativity designing a scheme around Robert Griffin III two years ago during the latter's monster rookie year. Now on his own for the first time without a head coach with an offensive background, he's doing a nice job in Cleveland. Although young, he could dip into his father's network to find experienced assistants to help him.
Pete Carmichael, Jr. offensive coordinator, New Orleans Saints: He's Sean Payton's right hand man. There are always questions about the coordinator of a unit with a head coach whose specialty is on the same side of the ball, but the New Orleans offense stayed extremely productive during Payton's 2012 suspension.
Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Arizona Cardinals: Just because Rex Ryan wasn't capable of producing a good offense doesn't mean all defensive coaches are also. Bowles has done a great job keeping Arizona's defense afloat losing key contributor after key contributor. He also did a nice job as Dolphins interim coach in 2011 holding the team together and getting a couple of wins after the season was over.
Jim Tomsula, defensive line coach, San Francisco 49ers: He's gotten more and more head coaching buzz over the last few years. He's widely respected for his ability to develop talent and as a motivator.'
Karl Dunbar, defensive line coach, New York Jets: As we discussed above, it's good policy to interview an internal candidate. It's impossible to justify giving Marty Mornhinweg an interview, though. If anybody on this staff has earned a chance to sell himself as the right hire, it's Dunbar. If the new head coach wants to retain Dunbar, the defensive line coach will receive a raise.
Mike Westhoff, former special teams coordinator, New York Jets: I know this is outside the box, but why not listen to Westhoff? He's a great coach. He's an innovative X's and O's guy. He finds unique ways to utilize players. He holds people accountable. He's still attuned what is happening in Florham Park.
I'll enter the interview process without any preconceived notions. It will be up to the candidates to articulate a vision and inspire confidence they will be able to implement it.
This will leave the owner with the difficult path of making the correct choice, but I believe this is a sounder plan than staying the course. It's also a better process than the Jets have shown in their recent decision-making.