Less than two weeks after one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the New York Jets have found their next head coach.
The team announced Thursday night that they have agreed in principle with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to become the 20th head coach in the team's history.
Saleh has been with San Francisco since 2017, steering what has been a top 10 defense the past two seasons — one of which included a Super bowl appearance. He was a known commodity this offseason, having been a potential target for multiple teams throughout the league.
The hiring is also a historic one for the NFL, as Saleh becomes the first Muslim head coach in league history. Saleh, the son of Lebanese parents, is the the second minority coach to be hired by the Jets in the last six years and first since Todd Bowles, who is Black, in 2015. He’s the fourth active minority coach in the NFL, joining Miami’s Brian Flores, Washington’s Ron Rivera and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.
Previous head coach Adam Gase, who was brought on in 2019, was fired after the team finished with a losing record for the fifth straight season — the longest such streak in the franchise's 61-year history. They also missed the playoffs for the 10th straight season, marking their worst postseason drought since the 1970s. It is also the longest active streak in the NFK, with the Browns and Buccaneers both making the playoffs this season.
The team's 2-14 record in 2020 marked the second-worst season in Jets history, with the only worse season coming 1996 when the team won just one game. Gase went just 9-23 in two years as head coach.
The 41-year-old Saleh emerged as a favorite for the Jets job when he was brought in for a second -- and this time, in-person -- interview Tuesday night, and those discussions extended into Wednesday. He was the first of the nine known candidates New York interviewed remotely to meet with chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, team president Hymie Elhai and general manager Joe Douglas at its facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.
Despite the season ending just over a week ago, the team had already interviewed at least a couple other potential candidates, including former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. New York pounced, though, after Douglas promised the team would “cast a very wide net” in its search. Both Johnson and Douglas spoke about finding a leader, a CEO-type of coach who would oversee the entire operation of the team and help re-establish a culture and identity for the franchise.
Saleh is the seventh straight coach hired by the Jets to not have previous head coaching experience, with the last not fitting that category being Bill Parcells in 1997. He’s also the fifth former defensive coordinator to get the job among New York’s last six hires, with Gase the only exception.
Saleh and Douglas will have lots of questions to answer about the roster, none bigger than what the Jets should do at quarterback. Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status and regressed this season under Gase. New York currently holds the No. 2 pick in the draft and could opt to take a quarterback -- perhaps Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson -- and start fresh at the position.
The Jets, who also have the No. 23 selection, could trade down to collect more picks. A lot will depend on who Saleh brings in as his offensive coordinator, and how they view Darnold against the quarterbacks coming out in the draft. Saleh could bring in 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur, brother of Packers coach Matt LaFleur and Saleh’s best man at his wedding, to run his offense.
The Jets also have 20 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including several standouts on defense, with safety Marcus Maye, cornerback Brian Poole and linebackers Neville Hewitt and Tarell Basham among them.
Saleh, from Dearborn, Michigan, began his coaching career in 2002 as a defensive assistant at Michigan State for two seasons, followed by stints at Central Michigan and Georgia. He joined the Houston Texans in 2005 as a defensive intern under Dom Capers and worked three seasons as a defensive quality control coach under Gary Kubiak before being promoted to assistant linebackers coach in 2009.
Saleh joined Pete Carroll’s staff in Seattle as a defensive quality control coach in 2011 before being hired by Gus Bradley in 2014 as Jacksonville’s linebackers coach. He spent three seasons with the Jaguars before joining the 49ers.
“He makes sure there’s no gray area in terms of coaching and teaching,” San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner said last month. “There’s a lot of coaches out there who just coach. But he’s a great teacher.”