NY Jets: Analyzing Robert Saleh’s decision to not call plays

NY Jets, Robert Saleh Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
NY Jets, Robert Saleh Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The NY Jets are going through a monumental transitional period. It’s all gas, no brake from here on out — and it’s not only a process that will be ongoing throughout the new year but one that has already started at the top.

From the ownership structure with the return of principal owner Woody Johnson to Jets general manager Joe Douglas, who is now firmly entrenched as the football team’s top decision-maker.

But the person who will face the most significant transition is the Jets’ new leader, head coach Robert Saleh.

Saleh is taking on a role that he never has before. It goes beyond just being a first-time head coach.

Saleh is being entrusted with galvanizing a downtrodden franchise and its entire fanbase. And he is effectively taking on the role of Chief Executive Officer of the team by choice and design.

When the Jets’ brain trust embarked upon their search to hire the 20th head coach in team history, they all unilaterally stated, on multiple occasions, that they were looking for a CEO type.

“A leader who can engage with the entire team” was a phrase that Vice Chairman of the Jets, Christopher Johnson, has used during this process and the press conference introducing Saleh.

Douglas also talked about someone who had the ability to connect with everyone in the building. By the looks and sounds of it thus far, and based on his reputation amongst coaches and players, the Jets got exactly the type of leader and CEO type they were looking for in Robert Saleh.

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Robert Saleh’s first big step with the NY Jets was relinquishing play-calling duties

Saleh’s first big step in assuming the CEO role is his decision to relinquish play-calling duties on defense. Instead, one of his former colleagues in Seattle, Jeff Ulbrich, has been brought on board to assume those responsibilities.

Saleh will certainly have input in the Jets’ new 4-3 defense. In fact, in interviews since the announcement of Ulbrich’s hire as defensive coordinator, Saleh has said that he will be installing the defense that he coached in San Francisco.

So Ulbrich will be working off of Saleh’s scheme and sharing the same outlook on the types of players needed to flourish within it. Ultimately, It will be Saleh’s vision on defense, but he won’t be calling the plays.

This is not always the course of action that coordinators turned head coaches have taken over the years.

Some NFL teams have what you could call a ‘CINO’ on their staff. A coordinator in name only, where the head coach will call plays on one side of the ball and have control over an entire unit, despite having a coach whose job title dictates that they are supposed to.

Rightfully or wrongly, most likely the latter, some analysts have surmised that the current situation with Eric Bieniemy and Andy Reid in Kansas City would fit that description.

Defensive play-calling is where Saleh has earned his stripes in the NFL. And Saleh is coming off arguably his best season as a coordinator in 2020, where he led a 49ers defense ranked near the top of many defensive categories.

It’s an impressive feat considering the amount of star defensive players he lost before and during the season.

The lazy and uninformed take on Saleh not calling plays for the defense would be to surmise that the Jets hired someone whose best trait was calling plays on defense, but yet he won’t be doing that for them.

In fact, even some of the Jets fanbase may have some level of pause when they heard that Saleh would not be calling the plays on defense. After all, Jets fans have seen this movie before, although many have erased it from their memory banks.

Back when Rex Ryan was fired, Gang Green hired Todd Bowles to be their head coach, who at the time was the hot assistant as the Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator.

In 2014, the Associated Press voted Bowles as the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year. And with good reason — Bowles’ creative and aggressive 3-4 defense for the Cardinals was among the very best in the league.

But when Bowles made his way to the Jets, he entrusted Kacy Rodgers as his defensive coordinator.

From 2015-2018, the Jets defense never duplicated what Bowles’ defenses did in Arizona. Mainly because, although Bowles had input in the Jets defense, he never fully assumed the controls.

Rodgers is a well-respected longtime defensive line coach, but to put it kindly, Rodgers play-calling as Jets defensive coordinator was not on the same level as his boss.

Fast forward to the present day, and Rodgers and Bowles are together now in Tampa, Rodgers as the Bucs defensive line coach, and Bowles is back as a coordinator, doing what he does best — something he didn’t do with the Jets.

The Buccaneers boast one of the league’s best defenses as they prepare for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game this weekend.

So what’s to stop Robert Saleh from following the same failed path that Todd Bowles did when he became the Jets head coach and relinquished his play-calling duties on defense.

Well, there may be some similarities between Bowles and Saleh. However, there’s evidence that suggests that Saleh will be more successful based on his evolution as a coach during his time with the Niners.

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Those who followed Saleh in San Francisco closely know that the Jets’ newly-minted head coach has a history of leaning on his assistants for not just input, but in altering the entire design of the defense.

So much so that the 49ers’ defensive success and turnaround in 2019 was a product of Saleh taking advice from his defensive staff.

Back in 2019, then 49ers defensive backs coach Joe Woods and assistants Kris Kocurek and Chris Kiffin, helped Saleh adjust his single high Cover 3 scheme defense to a Wide 9 base alignment implementing more traditional Cover 2 schemes with both safeties playing deep.

The changes also helped the 49ers’ defense take advantage of Fred Warner’s superb coverage skills.

Saleh’s defenses from 2017 to 2020 experienced a huge transformation, and it was because of his willingness to do what’s best for the overall team that made him a better coach.

Many coaches are stubborn and one-dimensional and will stick to what they know best, but Saleh, in San Francisco, showed that he not only had faith in the people he was working with but knew how to put together the best ideas to bring forth success.

The 49ers’ defense evolved, and in turn, so did Robert Saleh.

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Saleh’s history of leading and working to get the best out of his players and staff members, in particular, could be a positive sign that he’s truly prepared to be the CEO of the entire NY Jets football team.

Defense included.