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There were some familiar faces among the possibilities as Jets GM Joe Douglas began his first coaching search. He had friendships with some NFL assistants. He knew some college coaches well. A coach with whom he won a Super Bowl would eventually become available, too.
In the end, though, none of that mattered. He decided to hire a man he had never met.
That’s how open Douglas’ mind was when this process began. The first time he met Robert Saleh, the 41-year-old defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, was the day he conducted his initial, virtual interview with the Jets, according to multiple sources. One wild week later, Douglas hired him as the 20th head coach in Jets history, giving him a five-year deal with the hopes that together they could turn the franchise around.
“It would’ve been really easy for Joe to fall back on someone he already knew,” said one NFL source, familiar with the Jets’ process. “You see a lot of GMs and teams do that. But he went outside of his comfort zone.
“And I think everyone believes he hit a home run.”
The reviews certainly have been positive for what will surely be one of the most consequential decisions in Douglas’ career. But Douglas has also been praised for the way he came to that decision – a thorough search with 10 known candidates for the job, followed by a quick decision at the end so their top choice didn’t get away.
Douglas promised a “wide net” right from the start, and his initial “short list” was long and varied enough to prove that he meant it. It showed he had no preconceived notions. Four of the coaches he interviewed had a background primarily in offense and six had a background in defense. They ran the gamut in age from 62-year-old Marvin Lewis, the only former head coach on the list, to 31-year-old Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who had just one year as a coordinator in the NFL.
The search was considered “wide open” from the start, a source said – no early favorites. But that changed on Friday, Jan. 8 when Saleh had his first virtual interview with the Jets.
“He wowed them,” said one source familiar with the interview. “His presence, his confidence, his plan … it was all there. He convinced them he believed he could turn everything around quickly. He was exactly what they wanted the image of their leader to be.”
Saleh was understandably in demand, too. Before the process was over he would interview with six of the seven teams looking for a new coach – everyone but the Texans. He had been considered a rising star around the NFL for years, particularly after his second-ranked defense led the 49ers to the Super Bowl a year ago.
Some thought he was the favorite for the job with the Detroit Lions, especially since he was a native of Dearborn, Mich. Others believe he was the fallback candidate in Jacksonville if the Jaguars weren’t able to land Urban Meyer.
Whether that’s true or not, one thing was clear: Saleh was definitely interested in the Jets, too.
“He thought it was one of the best jobs on the board,” said an NFL source. “The Jets have some pieces there and a ton of draft picks and cap room to build a team quickly. He thought there was more there than some of the other teams. Definitely more than the Lions.”
The Jets, though, were not ready to jump even though he impressed them in that first meeting. They had a plan to be methodical and thorough and nothing was going to change that. They had already interviewed Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Lewis. They had already lost one candidate when Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham backed out. And they had six more interviews scheduled. Brady, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and Saints defensive back (and former Jet) Aaron Glenn would all get virtual interviews in a wild next three days.
It’s unclear if Douglas spoke to any other candidates. There was a report that Iowa State coach Matt Campbell declined to be interviewed. There was another report that an interview had been scheduled with Florida’s Dan Mullen, though that never occurred. And most conspicuously, Douglas, a former Ravens scout, never requested permission to interview Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, whom many NFL sources had speculated would be near the top of Douglas’ preliminary list.
He did not have obvious ties to most of the coaches on his interview list.
When the six days of virtual interviews were over, Saleh had emerged as a clear-cut favorite in the organization, a source said. But Smith, who had drawn interest from every team looking for a coach, closed the gap with his strong interview of his own on Monday, Jan. 11, one day after the Titans had been eliminated in the playoffs. His work resurrecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s career and his vision for the Jets’ offense were particularly intriguing, according to a source.
But something else happened that Monday: Eagles coach Doug Pederson was unexpectedly fired. Douglas and Pederson had worked together for three years in Philadelphia, when Douglas was their vice president of player personnel. They had a close relationship, according to multiple sources. In fact, prior to the end of the season one NFL source had said that if Pederson was fired to “put him at the top of Joe’s list.”
It’s unclear if Douglas gave any consideration to expanding his search at that point. But Pederson, according to a source, wasn’t even sure he wanted to immediately get back into coaching. A source close to him said he planned to take a couple of days on a brief vacation in his wife to ponder his future.
But by then, the Jets knew his future wouldn’t be with them.
“It was just too late,” said one source familiar with the process. “By then (the Jets) had done nine interviews, were planning to bring in two finalists and had fallen in love with Saleh. Maybe if Doug had been fired at the end of the season he would’ve been in the mix. But he wasn’t.
“Too much work had already been done.”
So the Jets focused their attention on Saleh and Smith, first flying Saleh into New Jersey on Tuesday night, Jan. 12. Before he left on Wednesday he had met with Douglas, CEO Christopher Johnson and team president Hymie Elhai and other members of the Jets organization. There were some indications throughout the day that the Jets were on the verge of hiring him, but it’s not believed that they made him an offer. They wanted to complete their process and meet Smith, who was flying in on Wednesday night, in person, too.
While Saleh was meeting with the Jets, though, the Philadelphia Eagles requested permission to interview him, too. So plans were made for Saleh to fly on Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie’s private plane to Florida, where the Eagles management was meeting, as soon as his Jets interview was over. The Los Angeles Chargers also indicated they wanted to bring him in for a second interview that weekend.
The interest in Smith, meanwhile, was also heating up. He had a second interview with the Atlanta Falcons the day he flew to New Jersey to meet with the Jets. He also had an invitation from the Lions to fly to Detroit the next day for a second interview with them, too.
So on Thursday, after Smith left, Douglas, Johnson and Elhai decided to regroup and discuss their next move. They could hire Saleh and Smith immediately, since both of their teams’ seasons were over. And given the outside interest in those two, they’d probably have to move quickly. Or they could wait out the weekend to see if any of their remaining candidates on playoff teams would be available. Several people said they had at least some interest in Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
By then, though, they were all sold on Saleh as their guy. Late Thursday night, after they agreed to terms on a contract, the hiring was officially announced.
The immediate reviews were overwhelmingly positive, from current players to Saleh’s former players, to nearly everyone around the league.
“You’re not going to find a single person in the league that’s going to say a negative word about this hire – and that rarely happens,” said an AFC executive. “(Saleh) is exactly what that franchise needed. And if it’s true that Joe really didn’t know him, that’s great. That’s the way this is supposed to work. Hire the best guy, don’t just hire your best friends.”