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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Jets’ Robert Saleh needs to start coaching like a head coach

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Three days later, Robert Saleh is surely still angry over the way he was treated as a guest in Bill Belichick’s house. Nobody in the NFL holds a grudge quite like the Patriots coach, who never misses an opportunity to humiliate anyone and everyone associated with the Jets.

Imagine how many points Belichick would have scored Sunday had the Jets fired him way back when, rather than the other way around.

But the 54-13 beatdown wasn’t about the all-time New England great as much as it was about the overwhelmed Jets rookie coach, who was derelict in his duty to put a professional product on the field. In fact, seven weeks deep into a football season of failure in New York, Saleh has been as big a disappointment as any coach or player in town.

If only for a laugh in his Wednesday news conference, Saleh should’ve answered every reporter’s question by saying, “We’re on to Cincinnati.” Only there was nothing funny about where the Jets are as they stumblebum their way into a home game with the 5-2 Bengals.

This isn’t only about the Jets’ 1-5 record. It’s also about a journey that so far has been just as discouraging as the clear destination. Though owner Woody Johnson said he has “unwavering, steadfast confidence” in Saleh (and general manager Joe Douglas) — setting a world record for the earliest vote of confidence ever given an NFL coach — fans know that it’s often a good idea to run far, far away from anything Johnson has unwavering, steadfast confidence in.

Robert Saleh
Robert Saleh’s Jets have big problems on both sides of the ball.
Bill Kostroun

The Jets don’t have a plan, or an identity, on either side of the ball. On defense, Saleh’s specialty, they are among six teams that surrender more than 400 yards per game, and among four teams that surrender more than 29 points per game. They are also the league’s only team yet to record a single interception.

On offense, the Jets are the league’s only team yet to score a single point in the first quarter — they’ve scored just 20 in 180 first-half minutes. They are averaging a league-worst 13.3 points per game, or 20 fewer than the top-scoring teams.

“We gotta put up or shut up, right?” Saleh had said before making his fateful Foxborough trip. The two weeks the Jets spent studying the Patriots might as well have been spent studying ancient Greek philosophy.

You might have read that New England no longer employs Tom Brady, and that the Patriots entered the game with an 0-4 record at home lowlighted by a loss to the 1-6 Dolphins. Admittedly embarrassed by the end result, Saleh had good reason to come across as a beaten man afterward. The Patriots scored an average of 39.5 points in their two victories over the Jets; they scored an average of 20 points in their other five games.

It’s clear Saleh made a mistake hiring his best man’s kid brother, Mike LaFleur, to be his first-time offensive coordinator in charge of his first-time quarterback, Zach Wilson. LaFleur might be a terrific coordinator someday, but he is out of his league right now.

Saleh made another offseason mistake by not pressing Douglas to acquire an experienced backup for Wilson, now injured, leaving newbie Mike White as the starter (against Joe Burrow, no less) and forcing the GM to trade a sixth-round pick for Joe Flacco, who isn’t showing up until Friday for personal reasons (only in Jets World). If Wilson returns sooner rather than later, Flacco might never start a game this year despite the price of that draft pick.

Sometimes the Jets make the Mets look like a well-oiled machine.

Wednesday, Saleh maintained he hasn’t found the job of head coach to be any more challenging than his previous job as defensive coordinator (of the 49ers). Later, he brought up Cincinnati’s progress in Year 3 under Zac Taylor, who was 2-14 and 4-11-1 in his first two seasons. Reminding reporters that it takes time for young coaches to become winners was a smart audible from Saleh, who hasn’t called many.

Yeah, Jimmy Johnson started out 1-15, and Bill Parcells started out 3-12-1, and both are in the Hall of Fame. But then again, a lot of really bad coaches started out with really bad records, too.

NFL parity is supposed to give a fighting chance to most teams in most games, and Saleh’s hasn’t shown up in half of them. So what will become of him in the long term, assuming there is a long term?

If you played even a down of high school football, you could easily see why you would be more motivated to play for Saleh than for, say, Adam Gase. Saleh looks like a head coach and talks like a head coach.

Now he needs to start coaching like a head coach.

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