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Rex Ryan chuckled as he spoke, but the former NFL coach was far from kidding.
I asked him during a recent interview, “How difficult is it to change a losing culture?” And, as always, Ryan’s response didn’t disappoint.
“Well, I did it in about 15 minutes with the Jets. And that’s the truth,” the ESPN analyst said nonchalantly, as we continued chatting about his friend and former assistant, Anthony Lynn.
The response was quintessential Ryan – blatantly bombastic and so deliciously matter-of-fact that it reminded me of how entertaining he was to cover all those years in New York. And the funny thing is, he is right. His larger-than-life personality and irreverent tongue instantly transformed a Jets franchise in desperate need of a new identity and some attitude.
And now, the same challenge awaits the Jets’ new head coach.
The organization hit the reset button for the second time in four years, dismissing head coach Todd Bowles at the conclusion of a 4-12 season. The front office – which still consists of general manager Mike Maccagnan – will begin the search for a new leader to resurrect its wayward franchise.
The Jets are an enticing option for head-coaching candidates for a few reasons: a young quarterback in Sam Darnold; a young leader in safety Jamal Adams; $100 million in 2019 salary-cap space; and the third overall pick in next year’s draft.
Plus, there’s no bigger stage than New York.
And if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, right?
But therein lies the problem: It’s difficult to succeed long-term in this market. And, specifically, in this organization.
While the Jets’ job seems like an easy sell, there are plenty of reasons for head-coaching candidates – such as Mike McCarthy, John Harbaugh, Eric Bieniemy, etc. – to be wary of working at 1 Jets Drive:
The general manager is staying put.
When Maccagnan was first hired, he stressed the importance of building through the draft. But he hasn’t consistently proven that he has a keen eye for scouting talent.
His decision to use a second-round draft pick on Christian Hackenberg was reason enough to question his football acumen.
Any idea where Hackenberg is now?
(In case you were wondering, the former Penn State quarterback is signed to the Memphis Express of the Alliance of American Football.)
Save for a few players who fell in Maccagnan’s lap (see: Leonard Williams and Adams), the list of questionable Jets’ draft choices since 2015 is lengthy. There also have been quite a few free-agent whiffs, the most recent being the five-year, $72.5 million contract he gave cornerback Trumaine Johnson. And had veteran Kirk Cousins not used the Jets – and their $90 million, fully guaranteed offer – as leverage in his offseason negotiations with Minnesota, that monstrous deal would be on Maccagnan’s ledger too.
The GM earned himself some job security with the selection of Darnold, but Maccagnan’s track record is mixed. And the Jets’ decision to retain him might actually end up limiting their candidate pool.
Where is the roster talent?
When a player calls out the lack of “dawgs” in his own locker room, it’s a clear indication the Jets’ issues went beyond coaching. In the aftermath of their 38-3 loss to New England, Adams told reporters: “You gotta go get big-time players, you gotta go get names. You look at the top teams … C’mon, man. You gotta go get players.”
Outside of a young quarterback with potential, a talented safety or two (if you include a healthy Marcus Maye), and a Pro Bowl kicker and kick returner, what exactly do the Jets have? For the umpteenth year in a row, they need a pass rusher. They still need a true No. 1 receiver and a set answer at running back. Plus, they have several holes to fill on the offensive line and in their secondary.
Over the Maccagnan-Bowles era, the Jets went 24-40, compiled three straight seasons with double-digit losses and failed to make the playoffs in all four years. Bowles was shown the door because of their futility. But Maccagnan is culpable for the dearth of talent on this team.
The Jets have a (football) leadership void.
NFL owners are business people by definition. But look around the league and take note of which owners have a deep understanding of the game and which owners are honest about what they don’t know.
One thing that often is said about the Jets is they need more “football people” making decisions. Team owner Woody Johnson has been known to make emotional decisions rather than sound football maneuvers. His brother, Chris, is a self-described “accidental owner” with his older brother currently stationed overseas as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. And while players and staffers are fond of Chris, he is not a football guy. Neither is their team president.
The power structure that existed with Bowles and Maccagnan – both reported directly to the Johnsons – also was flawed. While juggling different objectives is not a situation that was unique to the Jets’ general manager and former head coach, Maccagnan and Bowles weren’t on the same page and thus doomed to fail together.
The lack of a strong vocal presence within the organization has also helped fuel the leadership vacuum. With Woody Johnson out of the picture, Chris Johnson rarely granting interviews and Maccagnan holding court only once or twice a season, Bowles’ lack of emotion only compounded the issue. The Jets desperately need a strong personality to be the face of their front office.
Culture is pervasive.
The regime continues to change, yet the Jets never do.
Losing cultures are systemic. And the franchise will only be as good as ownership allows it to be.
Ryan did the unthinkable almost a decade ago, turning the lowly Jets into must-watch TV and a force to be reckoned with on the field. But those good times didn’t last very long, and eventually he, too, was fired for not winning enough. The Jets haven’t won a Super Bowl since Joe Namath was the hottest thing in New York City, and somehow they’ve managed to regress since Ryan led them to back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and ’10.
The Jets now have a chance to hit reset, but in order for a new head coach to succeed, the entire organization needs to operate in lockstep. And that hasn’t been the case over the years.
Thanks to the way the facility was configured by former head coach Eric Mangini, the football and business sides of the organization continue to operate on opposite ends of the building without any real cohesion. And in recent years, the short-lived chemistry that existed between head coach and GM (Ryan and John Idzik Jr.; Bowles and Maccagnan) gave way to two divergent objectives that failed to yield long-term results.
There’s a reason some Jets fans went so far as to commission a plane to fly over practice, pay for billboards and create a web site in an effort to rid the front office of specific people. Losing takes its toll. And the Jets have disappointed for a long time.
Now, the fan base can only hope the Johnsons made the right choice in sticking with Maccagnan, and that Maccagnan can choose a head coach more wisely than he chooses draft picks.
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