Many New York Jets fans are calling for John Idzik to lose his job in the middle of a disastrous season. Those who think Idzik has done a terrible job in free agency and the draft tend to think it's time for him to go. Others think it's too early to judge. Still others think you can't fire a GM after only two years on the job, and doing so would cripple the Jets' efforts to build a winning organization because no good candidates would be willing to take the job after their would be predecessor got fired so quickly. It is this last point I want to explore.
The Jets have fired a GM after only two years on the job twice before. The first time is probably familiar to most GGN members. It happened immediately after the disastrous 1996 season, when Rich Kotite, possibly the worst head coach in NFL history, who also held the GM position, was fired after seasons with back to back 3-13 and 1-15 records. As most of you know, that 1996 team was actually not bereft of talent, it just lacked a head coach. That 1996 team had the following players on defense: Aaron Glenn, Ray Mickens, Hugh Douglas, Marvin Jones, Mo Lewis, Victor Green, Bobby Houston, Chad Cascadden and Marvin Washington. Of those, only Washington was older than 29. That was a young, talented group of defensive players. Only Rich Kotite could turn that group into the league's 29th ranked defense. The offense was somewhat less well endowed, but was still not without talent. Adrian Murrell rushed for 1249 yards that year. The team also had Richie Anderson, who would go on to be a Pro Bowl pass catching fullback a few years later. That team also had Wayne Chrebet and Keyshawn Johnson, both young and both catching 840+ yards of passes, as well as Jeff Graham, a very good veteran who was on pace for a 1150 yard season with 788 yards in only 11 games before being sidelined by injuries. How a team with this much firepower could translate into the league's 27th ranked offense is a mystery only Rich Kotite could unravel. Nonetheless, that pretty talented 1996 team went 1-15 and Kotite was fired as head coach and general manager of the Jets. He was fired after only two years on the job.
The man the Jets hired to replace Kotite as both head coach and general manager was Bill Parcells. Parcells at that time was probably the single most desirable candidate in all of football. Apparently firing both the head coach and the GM after only two years was not much of a deterrent in 1997 to the Jets finding top flight talent to fill the vacancies. The rest of that story is well known. Working with an already fairly talented team, Parcells engineered an immediate turnaround to a 9-7 record in 1997, and took the Jets to the AFC Championship game in 1998. Parcells also put in place the organization that spent the next 14 years going to the playoffs 7 times and going to the AFC Championship game 3 times. No, the Jets never captured the big prize, but it was a 14 year run as a well above average NFL franchise.
The 1996 scenario might be considered not really very analogous to the current Jets situation, because unlike in 1996, the current team has a pretty severe lack of talent. Let's take a look at a situation that was even more bleak than the current Jets team. Let's look at the darkest days this Jets organization has ever known, the 1976 season. The 1976 Jets team was bad. Really, really monstrously awful. Far worse than this Jets team. Far worse than any other Jets team. Here's how bad it was. The 1976 Jets had two quarterbacks, Joe Namath in his last season with the team, and Richard Todd in his first. Namath started eight games, during which he threw for 4 touchdowns and 16 interceptions and had a 39.9 passer rating. Todd started six games and he threw for 3 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 33.2 passer rating. That team on offense had two good offensive linemen in Joe Fields and Randy Rasmussen, two good tight ends in Jerome Barkum and Richard Caster, and a good young running back in Clark Gaines. On defense that team had a good linebacker in Greg Buttle, a decent safety in Burgess Owens, a decent defensive end in Lawrence Pillers, and precious little else. It was a team almost completely bereft of talent, a worse situation than the 2014 Jets, and the results showed. That 1976 team managed to keep within double digits of the opposing team in only four games all year. That team lost by 3 touchdowns or more in 5 out of 14 games. The average point differential that year was minus 15.3 points per game, by far the worst in team history. That team had a game with 72 yards of total offense. 72 yards! That team scored 7 points or less in seven out of 14 games. To make matters worse, that team was the second year in a row that the Jets had two different head coaches during the year. That team makes this 2014 Jets team look like a model of stability and talent.
In the midst of the disastrous 1976 season first year head coach Lou Holtz resigned with one game remaining, in order to take the head coach position at the University of Arkansas. Scouting Director Mike Holovak was named interim head coach for the season finale. The Jets needed a new head coach.
On Jan. 4, 1977, the Jets hired Walt Michaels to be the new head coach. Michaels had served as the Jets’ defensive coordinator from 1963 to 1972, and again under Holtz in 1976. He had left the organization prior to the 1973 season after he was passed over for the head coach position in favor of Charlie Winner, Weeb Ewbank's son in law. Later, after a long search, the Jets hired Jim Kensil to be the new President, COO and GM on June 6, 1977, replacing Al Ward, who had been GM for only two years. Kensil was hired out of the NFL league offices on the recommendation of commissioner Pete Rozelle after Jets owner Leon Hess asked Rozelle for advice on hiring the next GM.
The 1977 draft wound up being the greatest draft in team history, netting the team future All Pro tackle Marvin Powell, future All Pro receiver Wesley Walker, future All Pro defensive lineman Joe Klecko, outstanding 13 year starter at guard Dan Alexander and two future starting running backs in Kevin Long and Scott Dierking. This infusion of talent set the stage for the best six year run in Jets history, with the Jets going to the playoffs in 1981, 1982, 1985 and 1986 and reaching the AFC Championship game in 1982.
As we can see, the Jets have replaced their GM after only two years on the job twice before. The first time, in 1977, resulted in the Jets hiring one of the most respected men in the NFL at the time, a man who oversaw the best six years in Jets history. That happened despite the Jets having perhaps the least talented team in the NFL, as well as the least stable hiring history in the NFL, with 4 head coaches the prior two years and a GM who was replaced after only two years. The second time, exactly 20 years later in 1997, resulted in the Jets landing perhaps the single most sought after candidate for the position in the NFL, Bill Parcells, who put in place the organization that gave us a fourteen year stretch as an above average NFL organization, 7 playoff appearances and 3 AFC Championship games. Obviously the ultimate goal of another Super Bowl win was missed both times. But the point that perhaps should be taken here is simply this: the perception of organizational instability brought on by firing a GM after only two years on the job has apparently been no barrier to the Jets hiring top GM talent in the past. In addition, the combination of worst in the NFL instability in head coaching positions and GM positions combined with worst in the NFL talent was no barrier to the Jets putting in place the team that ultimately gave us the best six year stretch in Jets history. Instability should perhaps not be an excuse for failing to replace both the coach and the GM if such replacement is deemed warranted. If the men currently in place are the best people for those positions among all available possibilities then by all means they should be kept in place. However, as I personally suspect, if there are better alternatives out there, then the excuse that such instability combined with lack of talent will inevitably scare away top talent for the positions, is, I believe, a flawed argument. Based on the prior experiences of the Jets organization, talented candidates for the position will not be deterred from taking the positions by a perceived lack of organizational stability or talent. That would seem to be a fallacy, disproved by actual experience which led directly to the two best stretches in Jets history since the merger.