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Ten recommendations for Woody Johnson on how to guide the New York Jets into the future

A memo for the owner

NFL: New York Jets at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Memorandum

To: Woody Johnson

From: John B

Date: January 3, 2024

RE: New York Jets Path Forward

Woody, you have done it again. You intervened in your team’s operations thinking you know how to build a winning football team. The result has been...well...not a winning football team.

Have you ever heard the saying, “You don’t like me, and I don’t like you?” In this case it’s more like, “You don’t know me, and I don’t like you.” But I’m here to offer some advice you haven’t asked for. Consider me a consultant you didn’t need to pay. I’m here to help you get out of this mess, and I’m offering advice for free. Feel free to take or leave my recommendations to guide the New York Jets into 2024 and beyond.

Recommendation #1: Identify the difference between needs and wants.

This team’s 13 year Playoff drought is an embarrassment. It is the longest in the NFL by 5 years and the longest in the four major North American sports. We want to end this in 2024. However, we need to put the Jets on a path to consistently contend for Super Bowls within three years. Do you see the difference? You should do everything in your power to end the Playoff drought as soon as possible but not if it makes building a long-term contender less likely.

Recommendation #2: Admit the current plan has failed.

Let’s be honest. Trading premium resources for Aaron Rodgers and trying to build a Super Bowl team around him within two years was always a low percentage bet. Don’t be fooled by what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did with Tom Brady or what the Los Angeles Rams did with Matthew Stafford. A lot needs to go right to win a Super Bowl. Your team controls some of it, but a lot of it is based on luck. I’m talking things like injuries, officiating, and bounces of the ball. The smartest teams balance the short run and the long run to create a long term window to contend. There is just too much randomness at play to make banking on a one to two year window a good idea. Trading for Aaron Rodgers at 35 year old where you can reasonably expect him to play at a high level for four to five years is one thing. Trading a couple of day two picks (and let’s be honest. You fully expected one of them to be a first round pick.) was a fool’s errand.

The move was even more foolish because of how many holes existed on the roster at the time the deal was made. We can talk about all of the failures of the 2023 offseason (and there were many). But this was not one year in the making. Years and years of missed evaluations at positions like offensive line and wide receiver left the Jets short on offensive talent and resources entering last offseason. If you are going to microwave a contender in short order in that situation, you have to hit on a lot of low percentage gambles. You also need to create a lot of short term cap space by limiting future flexibility and pushing a lot of guaranteed dead money to the future. This in turn limits your future flexibility even more. Dead money becomes king.

King Dead Money the First seldom leads his loyal NFL subjects into an age of prosperity.

The Jets enter the 2024 offseason down a second round pick in the NFL Draft and limited in salary cap space. Filling all of the team’s holes will require another round of clearing cap space by pushing even more dead money into the future and further limiting the team’s flexibility going forward. If the Jets went to the AFC Championship Game this year, you might be able to argue for this approach to give the team the final push to the top. As currently constructed, the Jets are not close to being a Super Bowl team.

Further short term moves at the expense of the long run simply cannot be justified. This means no restructuring deals to clear cap space and no giving up Draft picks to bring in a receiver in his 30s like Davante Adams.

Remember, we want to end the Playoff drought next year. We need to be a Super Bowl contender soon. The Jets cannot reasonably expect to be a Super Bowl contender in 2024 no matter what they do. It is simply a question of whether they want to damage their future ability to become one.

Recommendation #3: Retool around your core, don’t blow it all up.

Here’s the good news. The Jets have a heck of a core to build around. This isn’t a situation like 2020 where the roster was barren. The Jets have the ability to turn this thing around quickly if they have the courage to take a step back in order to take two forward.

Many teams in the NFL wish they had a core like Quinnen Williams, Sauce Gardner, Garrett Wilson, Breece Hall, Jermaine Johnson, Bryce Huff, Quincy Williams and Michael Carter II. These are all players who are either in their respective primes or about to enter them. (Quincy is older than his counterparts, but I suspect his speed will allow him to age gracefully). It might be controversial, but I would throw Alijah Vera-Tucker into that mix. His injuries were freak occurrences, not chronic ailments to worry about, and his age would suggest he has a high probability of recovering to have a successful career. We can also hope that players like Jeremy Ruckert, Will McDonald, and Joe Tippmann grow to make this core even stronger in the years ahead.

There is an old saying in the National Basketball Association that the worst place to be is in the middle of the league. You either want to be a contender or at the bottom to earn a high Draft pick and land a franchise player. In practice I question the validity of this in the NBA, but it is assuredly not true in the NFL. It isn’t easy to build a Super Bowl roster, but it is a lot easier to get from the middle of the pack to a championship that it is to start from scratch.

I understand the calls to trade the team’s young talent for assets, but I simply cannot endorse this idea. The Jets have the foundation for the type of roster that can help us reach the need of building a contender with a long window quickly...provided we are willing to make some tough decisions.

Recommendation #4: Have the difficult conversation with Aaron Rodgers.

Over the last nine months, the New York Jets have been laser focused on building their team to Aaron Rodgers’ specifications. They hired his preferred offensive coordinator. They signed favored teammates, often to the detriment of the team. They limited their future financial flexibility in a futile attempt to build a Super Bowl roster around Rodgers.

We have reached a point where the hard conversation needs to be had. The focus needs to be on the future. Winning a Super Bowl with Rodgers’ remaining time in the league is no longer a realistic possibility (if it ever was).

Rodgers himself has spoken about wanting to leave the Jets in a better place than he found them. He acknowledged that the team gave up a lot to land him for a very limited time as a player. He embraced the role of trying to train up Zach Wilson to take over for him.

Aaron Rodgers has a role on this team going forward. Some of the negative reputation he had at the time of the trade has been warranted. He has relentlessly sought out the spotlight in a season where he played four snaps.

Some of the reputation he had has not panned out, though. Rather than being a bad locker room guy, by all accounts he has been a tremendous leader and influence on the team.

Aaron Rodgers should remain the leader of the Jets. His job will be to teach the team how to be professional. Hold people accountable in the locker room. Cut down on the public dissension we have seen the last two years. And win as many games as possible. Even with few major additions this offseason, a team with Rodgers at quarterback and that young core should be competitive, a borderline Playoff team.

Rodgers bought into his role as a mentor for Zach Wilson. Let’s be honest. 90 percent of the veteran mentor stuff is nonsense. A young quarterback is seldom successful or unsuccessful because of a veteran mentor. To a large extent, a quarterback can either function reading a defense with pass rushers bearing down on him or he can’t. However, it is undeniable that Wilson became much more adept at reading presnap keys this season, and a some of that progress likely is due to lessons learned from Rodgers’ tutelage. If the Jets draft a quarterback, Rodgers can take that quarterback under his wing with the same vigor he showed working with Zach Wilson.

Once again, the focus must be on the future. We will, however, promise Rodgers that if he surprises us and leads the Jets to the top of the conference by the trade deadline, we will reconsider and look at bolstering the roster, even if it comes at future expense.

Recommendation #5: The top priority is to find the next franchise quarterback.

I am sympathetic to the idea the Jets should focus on building their team before they draft the next quarterback of the future. Here’s the thing. Teams rarely get to pick the right quarterback at the most convenient time. The opportunity to find a franchise quarterback does not come every year.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying the Jets unequivocally need to draft a quarterback this year. It is foolish to go into the Draft saying you definitively need to pick a player at a certain position. What if there is no good player left when you pick?

At the same time, you can’t definitely rule out taking a franchise passer if he’s there when you pick. The Jets have plenty of needs, but no NFL franchise has a need greater than a long-term solution at quarterback.

Understood, a rookie quarterback will likely have a limited impact on the 2024 team. Remember the difference between wants and needs, though. Also consider the numerous examples proving how important it is to think ahead at quarterback.

Do you think the Jets should avoid a long term need at quarterback just because the timing isn’t right? That was the same logic used by Mike Maccagnan in 2017 when he passed on Patrick Mahomes.

Now consider the examples of the opposite. The Eagles picked Jalen Hurts in 2020 when they purportedly had their long-term quarterback in Carson Wentz.

The team you just traded with, the Green Bay Packers, received a lot of criticism not loading up around Aaron Rodgers for his final years in 2020 when they thought ahead and drafted Jordan Love. Now they are on the cusp of the Playoffs and quite possibly have their quarterback of the future in Love.

And of course fifteen years earlier that same franchise was criticized for not loading up around Brett Favre for his final run by drafting Rodgers. We saw how that worked out.

The bottom line is the short term hit is always worth it if you find your long term quarterback.

And think about one of the the biggest criticisms the Jets have received in their handling of highly drafted quarterbacks. They are thrown onto the field before they are ready. If you pick a quarterback this year, they will have the luxury of sitting. Nobody will put pressure on the team to throw a quarterback on the field as long as Rodgers is on the team.

Recommendation #6: Be cautious in free agency.

This is an absolutely critical point. Over The Cap projects the Jets will enter the 2024 offseason with only $16 million in salary cap space. That isn’t much for a team that needs two tackles, an interior offensive lineman, two wide receivers, a safety, and depth at key spots like defensive tackle.

Conversely, the Jets have only $147.5 million on their 2025 cap, which currently gives them $112.5 million in projected cap space two years down the line. That money disappears very quickly if the team pushes guaranteed cap hits to the future in a futile attempt to clear short term cap space to fill all of its holes in 2024 to try and win the Super Bowl. With a cautious approach to the upcoming offseason, however, the Jets can maintain a surplus of cap space to load up the roster around its excellent young core just one year down the line.

Obviously a top priority for the Jets this offseason needs to be improving the offensive line. If no quarterback is worthy of the team’s first round pick, the selection will likely be in the sweet spot to nab a top offensive line prospect.

This is a good thing. The free agent class is underwhelming in the trenches. Most of the top names at tackle, Trent Brown, Tyron Smith, Andrus Peat, Donovan Smith, and George Fant, are in their 30s and uninspiring. Simply put, nobody here is worth a big dollar contract with multi-year guarantees.

The Jets might be best advised waiting for the dust to clear in March. It is almost certain that some of these players will not be signed in the initial spending spree of free agency and be forced to settle for more more moderate deals. The Jets could sign more than one on a discounted deal and hope they run into a good season from one.

Aside from that, the Jets should focus on players in their mid 20s entering their prime. Any contract of significance will likely need to be a backloaded deal so they need to be focused on players with many great years ahead.

Take Bryce Huff. This is a homegrown 25 year old who produces pressure at a rate as high as any defensive end in the league. Let’s be logical and keep him around.

In the event the Bengals let Tee Higgins hit the market, the Jets should go all in on him. He is another 25 year old, the very definition of many great years ahead. He and Garrett Wilson would complement each other perfectly and form one of the league’s best 1-2 wide receiver punches.

No more seeking out old players. Target players who will be here for years to come.

On the flip side, because we are no longer futilely chasing a ring, we can use 2024 to cut a lot of salary cap fat. Older underperforming players like Laken Tomlinson and CJ Uzomah can be released without worrying about the short term hit to the roster.

Recommendation #7: Follow the “better a year too early” principle.

The legendary baseball general manager Branch Rickey had a philosophy that it was better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late.

The thinking behind it was simple. If you trade a player who still has a productive season in front of him, you will miss out on the fruits of that season but still get something valuable in return. If you wait until a player is washed up, you will get nothing in return for that player.

The Jets have a number of players late in their prime. If the focus was on chasing the Super Bowl in 2024, it would make sense to keep them. However, since our need is building a consistent contender in the next few years instead, these players can likely be dealt for Draft picks. By the time we are contending, their primes will be over.

These players include:

John Franklin-Myers: JFM is one of Joe Douglas’ greatest success stories. The Jets got a plus starter at a premium position from the waiver wire. Franklin-Myers is now in his late 20s with a favorable contract and can play anywhere on the line. This means he likely will command a nice Draft pick in return. He is also exependable with Jermaine Johnson and Bryce Huff patrolling the defensive line for the foreseeable future.

DJ Reed: This one hurts me I must admit. I love everything about DJ Reed. He’s everything you could ever want in a free agent signing. But this is business. Reed is in his late 20s and depends on his athleticism to overcome an undersized frame. My guess is he won’t age gracefully. We already have the best cornerback in the league in Sauce Gardner and an excellent slot corner in Michael Carter II at the position. The time to cash in on DJ is now as he enters the final year in a reasonable contract.

Tyler Conklin: If you ever read the comments of this site, you know I joke around a lot about Conklin. In reality he’s fine as a tight end. It’s just that few tight ends move the needle, and Conklin isn’t one of the exceptions. However, a lack of receiving options have funneled targets to Conklin and allowed him to amass counting stats that go above his actual contribution to the Jets. It is likely some team will overpay based on box score scouting. The Jets can likely secure a midround pick for Conklin and lose little by giving Jeremy Ruckert his snaps.

CJ Mosley: I would love to keep Mosley around if he is amenable to a paycut. He is a consummate pro and has had an excellent season. His current contract, however, is prohibitive. To call it an overpay would be an understatement (and that speaks volumes as Mosley has had a Pro Bowl caliber season). The Jets would save roughly $11 million by cutting or trading Mosley. He’s a perfect guy to have around for a retool because of his leadership. But if he isn’t willing to take a reduced salary, it makes sense to get an asset in return. Mosley isn’t getting younger, and Quincy Williams seems more than ready to take over the leadership role in the locker room.

These deals will clear contracts off the book, further enhancing the 2025 balance sheet. The Jets will be ready to make a splash building around their core and potentially a quarterback who had the luxury of sitting a year. We can finally see the Jets join the upper echelon of the NFL and put a stop to the endless cycle of the Jets rebuilding to nowhere, grabbing flashy names and winning the back pages at the expense of quality team building.

Recommendation #8: Fire Robert Saleh.

Woody, I know you publicly promised Saleh he would return for 2024. That’s your problem to figure out. I didn’t advise you to make such a foolish proclamation.

Here’s the reality about Saleh. He brings pluses and minuses to the table.

On the positive side, the man knows how to build a defense. He has a distinct philosophy. He knows exactly which attributes he wants for each role. He knows how to identify talent. He knows where he prioritizes depth (defensive line) and why (to rotate and keep his guys fresh throught the game). He also knows how to implement his system.

His weaknesses include game management, building an offensive philosophy, making effective hires on the offensive side of the ball, and developing players there.

There’s a phrase to describe a coach like this, “defensive coordinator.” Let’s face it. Some coaches are best suited for the lead role. Others are best suited to be a top lieutenant.

Perhaps with some time and distance, Saleh can reflect on how to do better if he gets a second chance. It just hasn’t worked with the Jets. It’s time for the team to move forward.

Since we have had the tough conversation with Rodgers, he will understand that he cannot have any say on the new hire.

Woody, you have consistently tried to elevate assistant coaches to the head job since you bought the team. One thing we have learned is that you’re terrible at identifying coaching prospects. So let’s go with the sure thing.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Alabama at Michigan Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh has won big everywhere he has coached, including in the NFL. This is a logical point for him to return to the pros. He knows how to build a top notch team. Don’t overthink this. Just give him what he wants. He will bring instant credibility to the franchise.

Harbaugh will be heavily sought after so it won’t be an easy task landing him. In the event you miss out and insist on going the assistant route again...

Atlanta Falcons v Detroit Lions Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Ben Johnson, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator, deserves heavy consideration. I’ll be honest. I think the idea that the only good head coaching hire is an offensive coordinator who calls his own plays is ridiculous. Good head coaches come in all shapes and sizes, and there are plenty of offensive coordinators who aren’t cut out for the head job. Conversely, there are plenty of defensive and special teams coaches who have built explosive offenses and developed quarterbacks. The search for “the next Sean McVay” has become a destructive and self-defeating enterprise in the NFL.

With that said, Johnson checks many boxes even if we get past the obsession with finding the next McVay. By all accounts, he is a great communicator and delegator. And while it isn’t the end all, he is a great offensive mind, which McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and Andy Reid have shown is an excellent quality to have in a head coach.

Recommendation #9: Fire Joe Douglas

I already went over Douglas’ strengths and weaknesses last summer. That list has held up well so I won’t relitigate.

I think far too often the discussion over a general manager comes down to the wrong questions. Is he better than his predecessor? Is the team showing improvement?

The answer is yes to the former. The Jets’ roster is currently more talented than the one Douglas inherited in 2019. But that isn’t any great accomplishment. It would be almost impossible to build a less talented roster than Mike Maccagnan.

Even by these low standards, the question to the latter is almost assuredly no. The Jets will not improve their record in 2023 over what it was in 2022. Yes, I understand Aaron Rodgers got injured. But shouldn’t there have been some improvement outside of Rodgers to drive a better record? If your only upgrade was trading for Aaron Rodgers, I’d wager you haven’t done a particularly effective job.

Even so, these are the wrong questions. The question I ask is whether there is reason to believe the incumbent general manager can build a Super Bowl caliber roster.

Joe Douglas arrived in New York with great fanfare. While he has shown more competence than his immediate predecessors, the fact his roster was eliminated with three weeks to go suggests the answer to this question is a resounding no. Yes, he traded for Rodgers. Yes, Rodgers got injured immediately. But if you need Aaron Rodgers just to have an outside chance of making the Playoffs in Week 16, odds are you have built a poor roster. And Douglas is too deep into his tenure to blame this lack of quality and lack of depth on anybody else.

It is difficult to name a replacement. If the Jets hire Harbaugh as head coach, it is likely he would demand carte blanche to bring in the front office of his choosing. If the Jets cannot land him, however, a name worth thinking about is Alec Halaby, Eagles assistant general manager.

Jets fans could be forgiven for being hesitant about bringing in an Eagles lieutenant for a second straight general manager hire, but Halaby by all accounts has been instrumental in Philadelphia’s widescale adoption of analytics and obsession with finding any competitive edge. This is the direction the league is headed. It would be nice to have the Jets ahead of the curve for once.

Recommendation #10: Fire Yourself

I’m not going to waste time asking you to, “Sell the team,” or take some action that has no chance of happening.

But there is no rule in the NFL that the owner has to be in charge of the day to day operations of a franchise.

Woody, it’s time to fire yourself as CEO. You’ve proven you are terrible at running the Jets. There are hundreds if not thousands of executives in the sports and business worlds who would love to take over operating an NFL team.

Here’s how it works. You hire somebody as CEO. That person makes all of the decisions going forward. He or she has say over the coaching staff and front office. You relinquish decisions over everything else. You no longer make any decisions about the roster, coaches, or front office. You still have control, though. At the end of each season, you can decide whether the CEO is doing a good job. If you think so, they stay. If you think not, they get fired and you pick a new one.

You see, Woody, I know you too well. I know there’s no chance you will take my recommendations. You can never make an honest assessment about the Jets. You always talk yourself into believing the team is closer to glory than it really is. You always look for the quick fix.

If you don’t hire a professional CEO, you’ll “think” this thing through and start to buy into all the hype from August about this being a Super Bowl team. You’ll believe if not for the Rodgers injury, you’d be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. You’ll ignore everything this season exposed about the Jets’ vulnerabilities. And the Jets will waste future resources chasing a championship beyond the team’s grasp.

Do I trust you to make an effective CEO hire? Not really, but with the exceptional pool of candidates who will be interested in this job, our odds of success will be much higher than they will be keeping Douglas and Saleh with you meddling in football decisions.

Here’s the best part, Woody. If you follow these recommendations, you can still get the relevancy you seek above all else while setting your team up for a brighter future. You can lean into the Rodgers redemption narrative. You can get the team on Hard Knocks again, and this comeback story can be the top story consistently on ESPN and NFL Network. There will be enough talent on the team to make the Jets beat believe, “This is crazy enough to work.” Heck, your PR guys sold a team with Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Duane Brown, and Mekhi Becton featured in critical roles on offense as a legitimate Super Bowl this past year, and the national media ate it up. No team is better at winning the offseason narrative. You don’t need a bunch of splashy moves to do it again.

But under the surface, you can allow your team to have a badly needed reset to position itself for real prosperity in the future. Maybe then you can win in the actual season.