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Bad Ownership, Problems Everywhere, Half Measures: The New York Jets Story

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NFL: New York Jets at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I think there is a certain art to being a good owner in sports. You need to know when to assert yourself, and those times are few and far between. Any owner who inserts himself into his team’s Draft war room and starts overruling his football people on a fourth round pick is probably a bad owner.

A good owner asserts himself in the big decisions. These are decisions like offering the franchise player a big contract extension. The owner might not negotiate the particulars, but he signs off on the final deal.

Mainly, though, the big decisions are hiring and firing prominent people like the coach and the general manager.

Woody and Chris Johnson aren’t the worst owners in their own city.

They aren’t villainous like James Dolan. They don’t attack their paying customers in the media. They don’t ban team legends from home games.

Despite a reputation to the contrary, they aren’t cheap like the Wilpons. The Jets have frequently spent up to the salary cap during the Johnson ownership and made several splashy free agent signings.

But they have shown over and over that they are bad owners. How do I know that? The Jets get almost all of the big decisions wrong. Sometimes it comes in the form of the owner inserting himself into a decision he has no business making such as the trade for Brett Favre a decade ago.

More frequently it has simply been due to making the wrong hires. The Jets have experienced some fleeting success in the Johnson Era, but no general manager or head coach has been able to build a consistent contender.

Part of the problem is that almost two decades after he bought the team Woody Johnson still doesn’t know enough about football or the NFL to know what he wants in a general manager or a head coach. Even basic football terminology has seemed beyond the owner’s grasp in recent seasons. I have heard him talk about putting a ‘spy’ on J.J. Watt and refer to an interception that was not returned for a touchdown as a ‘Pick 6.’

More importantly, an owner needs to know the qualities that make a good general manager and head coach and where to find people with these qualities.

It is one thing for a first year owner to need help making hires, but over a decade after he bought the team, Woody Johnson has felt the need to hire Jed Hughes, Charley Casserly, and Ron Wolf to conduct his last three searches. On some level, I give Woody credit. By getting this help, Woody admitted he knew what he didn’t know. He didn’t know how to find a good candidate so he asked for help.

At the same time, I wonder why that deep into his ownership, he didn’t know how to find quality candidates. A headhunting firm can provide a list of candidates. It can also be a convenient scapegoat if things don’t pan out. Just look at how much criticism Korn Ferry and Charley Casserly have gotten in recent years for the hires the Jets made. That criticism has been deflected from the owner.

Ultimately, though, the owner has to make the final decision. And when the owner doesn’t have the necessary knowledge, he doesn’t ask the tough questions about the headhunter.

Jed Hughes of Korn Ferry helped Woody with the general manager search that ended with the hiring of John Idzik. That same firm led the Seahawks’ search for a general manager three years earlier. Idzik was working for the Seahawks at that point but was not seriously considered for the general manager job. If you were Woody Johnson wouldn’t you have asked, “If this guy wasn’t good enough for you three years ago when he was right under your nose, why is he good enough now?”

Understanding how deep relationships can go in the NFL, wouldn’t you ask yourself, “Is Casserly just trying to set up his protege with a plum job? Can he not see past Mike Maccagnan’s flaws? Doesn’t it seem odd that Maccagnan works at a lower level job with the Texans than the typical general manager hire?”

Throughout the Johnson ownership, the Jets have regularly employed another technique of the failed owner, the half measure.

It started early. Woody Johnson quickly needed to make his first coaching hire when Al Groh abruptly resigned to become the head coach at the University of Virginia. When the Jets struggled to decide between finalists Herman Edwards and Ted Cottrell, the solution was the half measure.

Edwards was hired as the head coach. Cottrell was hired as the defensive coordinator.

It sounded great on paper, but the result was not good. Edwards and Cottrell had very different defensive philosophies. Cottrell was fired after three rocky and inconsistent seasons.

Through the years the half measure has become ingrained in the DNA of this franchise.

While the Edwards-Cottrell example saved the Jets from needing to make a definitive decision, more recent uses of the half measure have been used to simply pretend problems don’t exist.

At the end of the 2011 season, the Jets clearly needed to change offensive coordinators. Brian Schottenheimer was well past his expiration date. But the Jets had another big problem. Mark Sanchez collapsed down the stretch of that season. His inaccuracy was alarming, and his decision-making was confounding. There were serious issues that went beyond the offensive coordinator. What did the Jets do? They released Schottenheimer to go to the Rams and doubled down on Sanchez. The results were ugly.

A year later the Jets suffered through a dismal season. Mike Tannenbaum’s poor drafting, poor signings, and poor cap management left the Jets barren of talent and without a quick way of turning things around. There were also issues on the coaching staff. Rex Ryan showed no ability to hire a quality offensive staff. After the veteran leadership of his first two Jets teams departed, the locker room could no longer self-police and had fallen out of control. What did the Jets do? They fired Tannenbaum and kept Ryan. The results were ugly.

The appeal of the half measure is easy enough to understand. If everything can be blamed on one culprit, fixing things will be easy. Better still if there actually are legitimate problems with the scapegoat.

We know Todd Bowles has done a poor job building a coaching staff. We know he’s a bad game manager. We know he isn’t the guy you want nurturing a young quarterback.

Now if we can just pin all of the other problems on him, this thing will become easy to turn around. In addition to the coaching problems, let’s lump the other issues and just say, “Bowles had a lot of say over the personnel, and the personnel is better than people think anyway. The problem is just coaching.”

It sounds good. If you treat the entire year equally, it’s a winner. You’ll get nine months of buzz and excitement before the start of the season because of how much the team will improve without Bowles. There were nine months of buzz and excitement after Schottenheimer and Tannenbaum were fired too.

The problem is actual results on the field matter more than nine months leading up to the season. Nobody remembers or cares about the excitement leading up to the 2012 season. What mattered was the half measure failed. It wasn’t so much that the Jets gave Mark Sanchez another year in 2012. It was how doubling down on Sanchez with that extension left a cap strapped team stuck with an expensive and no escape hatch, an outcome that was easily foreseeable.

In 2013 the case was a bit more complicated because the Jets posted a surprising 8 win campaign, but ultimately the success from that half measure was a short-term sugar high. The end result also set the franchise back.

That brings us to today’s predicament.

If a participation trophy could take the form of an NFL general manager, you would end up with Mike Maccagnan.

It frankly is amazing how little has been accomplished on the personnel side by the Jets over the last four years. And Maccagnan gets praised for moves that typically aren’t even that good.

Over the offseason, Maccagnan traded for Henry Anderson. He found Robby Anderson as an undrafted free agent. He drafted Lachlan Edwards.

These moves are frequently cited as arguments that Maccagnan has added talent to the roster and deserves more time. Don’t get me wrong. These were solid pickups, but what kind of general manager counts these among his crown jewels? Trading for a 7 sack interior lineman on the last year of his contract? A wide receiver averaging around 750 yards per year? A punter? Would you even think twice about low impact moves like this when discussing the best GMs in the NFL?

Maccagnan has a few legitimate feathers in his cap like Jamal Adams and maybe Sam Darnold, but all one needs to do is look at the team that took the field yesterday in Foxborough to see these are the exceptions.

I recently showed you the big picture body of work. Maccagnan has been at the bottom of in drafting players good enough to be in the NFL. His big money free agents have been terrible. He hasn’t built much of a core, and despite the claims of rebuilding, the Jets actually were slightly older this year than the average team in the league.

He demonstrably has one of the worst general manager records in the NFL over the last four years.

Sure it’s easy to blame Todd Bowles because Leonard Williams is underperforming. It’s convenient too because you can’t definitively prove it one way or another. But I haven’t heard the explanation for how Williams made the Pro Bowl two years ago under this same coach. Does Bowles get credit for that, or was it because Williams was a brilliant pick by Maccagnan?

I have heard people blame Bowles for Trumaine Johnson’s poor performance. This conveniently ignores how he allowed the fifth most coverage yards in the NFL under different coaching a year ago. Unless Bowles has magical powers to make future players decline, there might be something more at play here.

Bowles is at fault for winning only 4 games because the talent is better than people realize, right? Wasn’t he also the coach when the team won more games in his first three seasons? How does that work?

The issues are clear as day. The talent level on this team has been low for a long time, and Maccagnan has done little to fix that. Before the season started, PFF ranked every roster in the NFL. The Jets finished 29th.

Half measures are attractive in the short run. It’s painful to think that the Jets roster needs to be revamped almost everywhere. Fixing that will take time and major changes. If everything gets blamed on the coach, this could be a very quick fix.

For a team as bad as the Jets, problems are rarely fixed with one move. It typically requires wholesale changes.

It is pretty obvious that I wouldn’t have a ton of faith in the owners to make a good general manager hire, I still would rather take my chances on that rather than stick with something that clearly isn’t working.

Instead we have another half measure that only addresses half of the problem.

And now I’m not sure whether the Jets are a professional football team whose objective is to win a Super Bowl or a shell corporation whose objective is to funnel a salary to Mike Maccagnan.