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The Saleh Conundrum: What to Do With the New York Jets Head Coach?

NFL: New York Jets at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets had a coach who saved his job with a 6-2 finish over the final eight games of the season.

The Jets had a head coach who was fired after his team lost its final six games, taking a team that was in Playoff position to ten losses.

You could probably guess that the first coach was Adam Gase in 2019.

The second coach was on the field Sunday when the Jets faced the Seahawks. It wasn’t Robert Saleh, though. It was Pete Carroll, who was fired after his only season as Jets head coach in 1994. Carroll paid the price for the team’s late season collapse.

I bring back these memories not to suggest that every coach who has a losing streak to end a season will have a Pete Carroll type career trajectory.

Many Jets fans are calling for Robert Saleh’s firing, and many of the reasons are completely justified. The team’s late season collapse squandered a promising start. I do think in a vacuum you could make a strong case for Saleh’s dismissal.

I think the Gase and Carroll examples do prove a couple of things, however. First, they show us that a six to eight game sample size does not necessarily tell us a coach’s true caliber. Second, I would argue they show too much of the keeping/firing criteria is backward looking rather than forward looking.

We tend to view keeping a coach as a reward for a good season and firing a coach as a punishment for a bad season. It really shouldn’t be that way, though. The real question is whether a coach is the right option for a team going forward. Yes, the past can help us judge these things to a certain extent, but the past isn’t always an indication of the future.

I think in retrospect, the Jets would have been better served moving on from Gase after one season despite the late season run of wins in 2019. I remember back in that same season I argued that the Texans should fire Bill O’Brien despite Houston winning a division title and going to the Divisional Round of the Playoffs. A frequent response I got was, “You can’t fire him after a good year. You have to wait for a bad year.” The flaws in this thinking can now easily be displayed. The Texans don’t get DeAndre Hopkins back because they waited until having a bad year before they fired O’Brien.

These decisions aren’t easy to make. They are very complicated. Usually when somebody is arguing to keep a coach on a bad year, you will hear cliches about “stability” as though keeping a coach for a long time is a magic formula. Patience doesn’t guarantee success, though. Giving the wrong guy extra years is just wasting everybody’s time.

Again if you want Robert Saleh gone, I don’t think you are being unfair. If you say he ultimately won’t be the right coach for this team, the odds are you are correct. That isn't even because of any flaws of Saleh. It is because the majority of head coaching hires in the NFL end up as failures.

I can’t tell you with any certainty whether or not Saleh will grow or not. I would be inclined to keep him for a third year, however.

Why is this? I will give you a couple of reasons.

When the Jets hired Saleh, he had no head coaching experience. I think when you hire a coach like this, you have to expect growing pains. In some ways being an NFL head coach is very different from other jobs, but there are ways in which it is similar. Like any job, sometimes experience makes a big difference. I’ve been better at every job I’ve ever had in year five and six than I was in years one and two. If the Jets fired Saleh after a rough patch like this so early in his career, I’d have to question why they ever hired Saleh to begin with. Surely they had to know it would take some time to grow into the job.

There is one caveat to this. In a world where the Jets were able to land Sean Payton, jettisoning Saleh and his staff would make plenty of sense. In that case I could easily sign off on the thought process, “Look, we don’t like giving up on Saleh so soon, but hiring a coach with Payton’s pedigree is an opportunity that almost never comes along. We obviously had no idea we would have this chance when we hired Saleh, but we felt like we had to make this move.”

We do need to be realistic about the Jets’ chances of landing Payton, though. During their ownership tenure, the Johnson brothers have shown zero to suggest they have the capability of landing a coach with Payton’s stature. He probably isn’t a realistic option.

Another important question with Saleh is whether he has the capacity to learn from this rough patch and grow. There is no way to judge this definitively.

Maybe the best way to evaluate this is to check to see whether Saleh showed signs of growth between his first and second seasons.

I think there are some points in his favor there. Saleh’s defense took an enormous step forward in 2022. It seems like he and the front office were on the same page about the types of players the Jets needed to effectively run the system. A year after there were nonstop complaints from the fanbase about the defensive scheme, there were a handful of whispers in year two.

Saleh was also given major tests at numerous points throughout the season. A starting receiver Elijah Moore essentially quit the team and demanded a trade. The Jets brushed off this potential distraction and won their game. Moore was disciplined with an unofficial suspension. And while his subsequent production was disappointing, the Jets did work him back onto the team.

I would also argue that the guts it took to pull the plug on Zach Wilson in November has generally been undersold. NFL teams give high Draft picks at quarterback chance after chance after chance. These quarterbacks frequently get more chances than they deserve. Although the Jets failed to make the Playoffs, I think Saleh showing that the Jets are a meritocracy where Draft status and contract status don’t determine playing time is a major positive. This wasn’t a one off situation. The Jets made frequent lineup changes to put underperforming players on the bench.

I am sure there are many readers who are thinking these attributes are vague and seem somewhat weak. I’m not sure that’s an unfair argument. I’m also not sure pointing to one losing streak and talk about the team falling apart is any less vague as a rationale for a coaching change, though. It isn’t easy to judge how much of a team’s success or failure is based on the coach. It is even more difficult to try to predict the future based on this analysis.

This brings me to what I believe is the most fundamental question. Are the odds better of the Jets turning it around with Saleh or an unknown coach who will replace him? It is difficult to answer this with any certainty. What I will say is at this point it feels to me like the Jets are clearly moving in the right direction as a franchise, even if the end to this season was disappointing. I would be more inclined to make a change in a year or two if the current progress stalls.

What about accountability? I don’t think firing a coach is the only way to hold him accountable. In fact I think Saleh is facing punishment for the late season failures. Had he led the Jets to a surprising Playoff berth, I think it is reasonable to imagine he would have received a contract extension and the increased job security that comes with it. Now there will be no extension. In fact he might be coaching for his job in 2023. He won’t get a reprieve for a bad season the way he might have with a winning record and a spot in the postseason this year.

If you disagree with this, I understand. I think there are plenty of valid arguments for a change. Personally, though, I would give Saleh more time.