The bold head coaching hire, a defensive scheme change, a major offseason looming. Here is David Aitken with a dive into the Jets’ most relevant current topics.
The writing was on the wall for Todd Bowles immediately after his sputtering Jets squad were cut down by a Matt Barkley shaped buzzsaw 41-10 this past November. It seemed like a formality to anyone following the team that Bowles was coaching his final few games as Jets head coach, and a good breakdown of the situation by Ralph Vacchiano confirmed that was the decision made internally. With a lot of time to think about it over, an ideal candidate model emerged.
It’s not often the case that the fan demand syncs perfectly with the team decision maker’s mindset, but the qualities of what a new Jets head coach should look like were unanimous: ideally young, offensive minded, and forward thinking. Any prior head coaching experience would be a bonus, as the Jets tended to hire first time head coaches.
If you’re a glass half full type, this played out exactly how it should have: the Jets (allegedly) put out a feeler for Jim Harbaugh, the biggest “game changer” hire the Jets could possibly make. What followed was an exhaustive list of candidates and interviews that ranged from Super Bowl winning former head coaches, promising up and comers at both offensive and defensive coordinator that would be taking their first head coaching jobs, and a few young impressive program builders at the collegiate level. In the end, the Jets brass selected a head coach that ticked all the desired boxes and as an added bonus already knew the division. Sounds great!
Experience as a head coach can obviously be a good thing and for the purposes of trying to understand the pros/cons of a head coaching hire, it’s better information than the typical flowchart of “was his side of the ball good as an OC/DC? if yes, good hire!” model of head coaching hire judgements. Naturally, a guy that was fired by the Miami Dolphins after three years should come with a share of questions. Of the exhaustive list the Jets created, the hire ended up being the option the majority of Jets fans did not want. It was beautiful in a way, the WFAN caller core of Mike McCarthy truthers and extremely online Jets fans who wanted the next sexy college hire coming together to say absolutely not on Adam Gase.
Maybe a head coaching job has too many variables to only look at a head coaching record over three years. That’s true. It could just be too simple to say “he couldn’t even make a star of Ryan Tannehill, starting point four years into Tannehill’s career.” I think that’s fair. And perhaps he’s not the first coach in history to be steadfast in his beliefs and to have his “guys,” to the point where not falling completely in line and giving a competing voice is a ticket out of town (even for exciting young talent). Sometimes, yes. But he’s going right from one head coaching job to another without any real step back in between, a move history tells us frequently does not work out. There’s no internal assessment period of what went wrong. There’s no acknowledgement that there’s still much to learn, or the perspective that time away brings. For better or worse, the Jets are getting the same Adam Gase in Miami – his way completely on offense, someone else’s hands on the defense, and Jesus take the wheel in player recruitment (Gase had final say over the 53, but not on general player recruitment in Miami).
Gase went out of Miami blaming everybody else for the franchise’s problems but himself. And the Jets brass are banking on him being right.
There was something a little too on the nose about the Jets’ introductory press conference for Adam Gase. The hire, seen as a bizarre choice by much of the fan base, was matched by Gase’s own visible discomfort with the whole ordeal. Chris Johnson, honeymoon period over, finally became an NFL owner on this day with lies to conflict reports regarding discussions with Matt Rhule. Understanding that the move wasn’t popular, the messaging was further controlled by Jets media head Eric Allen acting as a “host” of sorts of the press conference, unintentionally ramping things up into a laughing stock. With all of these elements present, Mike Maccagnan not being asked a single question despite being made available was somehow the fourth weirdest thing about the press conference.
It speaks to the level of insanity and entertainment that was this head coaching search that discussion so quickly went from “but what about Maccagnan?” leading up to Bowles’ firing to quiet acceptance that Maccagnan was not only being retained but had ostensibly been promoted. Maccagnan was both involved in the head coaching hire and reading between the lines the beneficiary of a vague change of front office structure.
We know final say over the 53 man roster is also Maccagnan’s – Gase even said it was not something he was interested in. And so while much of the narrative has been that the next few years of Darnold’s rookie deal is a sink or swim relationship with Adam Gase, the reality is that actually building this roster into a team that can consistently compete for a playoff spot falls on the shoulders squarely of the man who hasn’t yet been able to do so in his first four years on the job.
But I ask, who better to lead the Jets forward in tackling the key needs that will bring success such as rebuilding nearly an entire offensive line, adding competent pass rushers and creating a talented youth movement at the cornerback position than the man that took over in 2015 needing to rebuild nearly an entire offensive line, add competent pass rushers and creating a talented youth movement at the cornerback position?
A guess can be made that the Jets personnel failures under Maccagnan can be traced to being too faithful in a head coaching staff with too much dinosaur thinking on it. We don’t know for sure as outsiders, but it could feasibly explain why there’s faith in Maccagnan internally while Bowles was forced out (though it does not explain the selection of Christian Hackenberg – in itself a large personnel red flag). Or perhaps more likely, Maccagnan is a well respected by-the-books football guy who “just needs time – there’s no patience in this business!” and all the NFL really boils down to is nailing the quarterback and then being lucky enough to get enough consecutive top picks and free agent spending sprees that things come together once in a while because everyone mostly thinks the same anyway.
Todd Bowles’ deserved firing and the lead up to it provided a convenient deflection of criticism for Mike Maccagnan, but there will be no such thing this time around. The arrival of Sam Darnold is Maccagnan’s current saving grace but it will be his downfall if he allows the public perception dial to go from “we have Sam Darnold!” to “we have Sam Darnold, why aren’t we winning?” And with yet another offseason narrative surrounding the 100 million in cap space and a high draft pick another rebuilding year is no longer acceptable.
Defensivee Coordinatorr Gregg Williamss
With the Jets going for an offensive minded head coach for the first time in over twenty years, the defensive coordinator selection was always going to be key. It’s importance only grew when Adam Gase publicly admitted he was looking for a “head coach of the defense,” making a hire with an established resume all the more pivotal. Luckily, the Jets landed arguably the most accomplished defensive coordinator option available. He’s also the most explosive, and likely has a chip on his shoulder after being passed over for the Cleveland head coaching job after a competent interim spell. If it doesn’t work, we will at least enjoy the fireworks.
Williams will philosophically bring something similar to what the Jets have had in place going back to Rex Ryan – heavy on the blitz dosage, usually looking to get home through overloads and corners that are expected to be comfortable in press man coverage and often left on islands. Where the change comes in is that Williams has typically favored 4-3 personnel (though there is precedent for him working within a 3-4 framework when inheriting it in the past).
Joe Blewett excellently broke down how Williams schemed defense in Cleveland here and offered thoughts on how last year’s Jets starters would fare in a 4-3 compared to how they fit with Bowles. The main argument for slowly transitioning from the 3-4 is that there’s a greater overhaul necessary in the linebacker core. Avery Williamson and Jordan Jenkins, both coming off career seasons, become marginalized. There are no obvious replacements for either already on the roster and it would be a shame to see two of Maccagnan’s better finds be relegated to smaller roles or possibly even moved on from entirely.
There are also some potentially large benefits to going all-in on the 4-3 adjustment immediately. Not least because of the Jets’ core players on defense (Adams, Maye, Leonard Williams, Darron Lee), no player stands to be hurt by the change and in fact the two biggest question marks in Williams and Lee have the most to gain of any players on the roster if there is a scheme change.
Either way, there is a lot of remodeling that needs to be done here. Steve McClendon and Henry Anderson were two-thirds of last year’s starting defensive line and they’re free agents going into this offseason. Mo Claiborne and Buster Skrine are free agents in the secondary. And even factoring in their contributions, this was a defense that ranked 21st in defensive DVOA. Given this is already a defense that needs some turning over and no real impact players are going to struggle in the change, the most likely scenario is the Jets immediately go with the 4-3 in Williams’ year one.
Williams’ biggest predicament however is not a question of scheme. No matter the scheme choice defensively, you need players that can get after the quarterback and athletes in the secondary to give blitzes time to get home. The Jets need pass rushers and corners. Much like Bowles and Rex before him, do not be surprised if Williams pushes Maccagnan to prioritize the cornerback position above all. These are defensive minds that all pride themselves on being able to scheme pressure and will ask a lot of their secondary.
The Recompetitive Rebuild
Cap space can be a massive tease. We learned this last year, when the promise of over 100 million in cap space netted the Jets a haul of Trumaine Johnson (the marquee signing), Spencer Long, Isaiah Crowell and Josh McCown returning on the most expensive quarterback coach contract in NFL history. If none of these players returned to the Jets 53 man roster, no one is shedding a tear. Ah, but the real friends are the players who use you as leverage along the way. There’s no doubt the Jets are going to be aggressive, but success this offseason will be determined by the amount of Dont’a Hightowers and Ndamukong Suhs of the world that can be convinced to sign on the dotted line and not just come by for the free cupcakes.
There’s basically two ways a team can dive into the market having a large amount of cap space, and we’ve seen Maccagnan take both in his time here. There is last year’s Jets model, which saw Maccagnan bring in a handful of players at varying levels of the market, content to carry excess cap space into future years and maintain flexibility (such as having the space available to be involved in a training camp developing move like Khalil Mack). Then there’s closer to what the Jets in 2015, where cap space was there to be spent and nearly all of it was used to aggressively stack players at positions of need and take some risks in the trade market. The Jets may seem far away right now, but the team was in a similar position when Maccagnan inherited the team. Big spending led to one season of respectability, about par for the course for free agency built rosters. But the difference is the Jets are no longer looking for a quarterback – they have one, and on a rookie deal for the next four years. The time is now for the Jets to take a massive step forward.
Here is a shortlist for what the Jets should be looking to accomplish this offseason: be in the conversation for any top level player that is available in free agency, be in the conversation for any top pass rusher that makes it through the franchise tag period, rebuild the offensive line, get Darnold quality weapons, add pieces that assist the 4-3 transition, and restock the corner position (ideally before day three in the draft).
That is *a lot* to accomplish, and the reality is the Jets aren’t going to address every single need available. Prioritizing is the key.
Pre franchise tag period, the best players in this class are overwhelmingly pass rushers. This is good news for the Jets. DeMarcus Lawrence, Trey Flowers, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, and Frank Clark would all be long term upgrades. As a short term option, Brandon Graham would be a nice pickup, with Dante Fowler and Shaquille Barrett being in the high risk group. As a fallback, if the Jets end up committing to an edge rusher outside of the top bracket, this position should absolutely still be at the top of the priorities list entering the draft.
Retooling the offensive line is no small task, and it could be a position the Jets slowly turn over throughout the next two years rather than a big immediate splash. As it stands, there is no starting left guard, Brandon Shell is coming off an injury, Brian Winters a down year, Spencer Long a very down year, and Kelvin Beachum defining replacement level on the left side for the second straight year. At the least the Jets want to be in the conversation for Rams guard Rodger Saffold to plug in at left guard. Chiefs center Mitch Morse and Broncos center Matt Paradis would both be upgrades on Spencer Long. Ideally you want to come away with one of the three – if just the center, the Jets could opt to play Spencer Long at left guard, which I guess is something he can do in the literal sense. On the flip side, a best case scenario could see the Jets add both Saffold and a center, and go get Jonah Williams in round one, either displacing Beachum or Winters immediately and sliding in at left tackle long term.
Getting Darnold a top tier target isn’t going to be realistic in free agency with what’s available, but a complementary target should be attainable. Washington’s Jamison Crowder is a popular choice. This makes the trade market worth scouring – if Antonio Brown is indeed available, the Jets should be in the conversation. Parting with the third overall pick is a steep price to pay, but if the Jets secure a move down and collect additional picks early on in the process, or can ideally make a move using 2020 draft compensation, adding Brown is a game changer.
The big question is whether the Jets will enter the Le’Veon Bell sweepstakes. With Powell likely on the way out the Jets are going to want to add a running back either in free agency or in the first few rounds of the draft, so why not go after the prized target? Paying top dollar for a running back is normally a foolish move, but the Jets find themselves in the unique situation of having to get Darnold weapons in the passing game and having more cap space than there are good players to spend it on. The Jets have the cap space to go get Bell AND retool the offensive line AND put serious money into the defense. He may be a running back, but he’s one of the league’s best at the position in the passing game, and in the prime of his career.
Overall the mindset is to be aggressive, the strategy to build towards a stronger pass defense and otherwise overcompensate the resources on offense to ensure Darnold has the pieces around him to maximize his ability.
Gotham City Pressure
Everything has now come together, on paper. The Jets have their forward thinking, offensive minded quarterback guru head coach. His foil on the other side of the ball was arguably the premier defensive coordinator candidate available, with head coaching experience to boot making him an ideal “head coach of the defense” candidate. The endless cap space and top three pick is a springboard. And while the Gase hire wasn’t popular and there should be concerns over whether Mike Maccagnan is the right man for the job, it needs to be stressed that these hires are so pivotal because right now Darnold’s rookie deal puts the Jets in a very good position over the next few years.
Chris Johnson has already shot down the playoff mandate, but it’s time the Jets view pressure as healthy. Adam Gase and Gregg Williams aren’t new to this. Mike Maccagnan is in year five of his tenure as Jets General Manager. Both Gase and Maccagnan can lean on their rookie years in their roles to know things can change quickly and early success isn’t an uncommon occurrence. The Jets can win games in 2019, and while playoff qualification can come down to luck (the Jets have made it several times on 9 wins, but not on 10, the Patriots once missed out with 11), the expectation absolutely should be the Jets are in the playoff conversation next year.
There needs to be a sense of urgency. A young starting quarterback’s rookie deal is the greatest edge in the NFL, and the clock is ticking.