After a horrific decade of New York Jets football, things seem to be pointing up for Gang Green heading into the 2021 season under the leadership of new Head Coach Robert Saleh. Upon the official announcement of Coach Saleh accepting the role, those in the media were eager to throw praise towards the Jets brass for landing their guy and the staff he’d be bringing along. Similarly, Jets fans were celebrating like it was 1969 after learning the news, as it symbolized the end of a disastrous tenure led by former head coach Adam Gase and the beginning of a new era of Jets football that can be summarized in four words: All Gas, No Brakes.
With all the excitement surrounding Saleh and his staff heading into the heart of the 2021 offseason, join me each week as we’ll take a deep dive into the coaches on Saleh’s staff to learn more about their backgrounds, influences and everything in between. To start this series, let’s look at Head Coach Robert Saleh.
After graduating Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan, Robert Saleh went on to attend Northern Michigan University from 1998 to 2002. While earning a degree in finance, Saleh was a four-year starter for the Wildcats at tight end and earned an all-conference honors selection. Following a brief career in finance, Saleh left the corporate world and began to pursue his one and only passion: football.
Saleh began his coaching career as an assistant for the Michigan State Spartans in 2002, where he spent time on both sides of the ball before moving to Central Michigan as a defensive assistant in 2004. For his final stop while aboard the college coaching carousel, Saleh landed at the University of Georgia as a defensive assistant. But his time on the Bulldogs staff was cut short, as he received an opportunity to jump to the big leagues in the summer of 2005 thanks to his relationship with close friend and fellow coach Tony Oden.
Saleh’s first stop in the NFL was with the Houston Texans, where he served as a defensive intern under head coach Dom Capers. The Texans finished the 2005 season with a 2-14 record and while most of the coaches were relieved of their duties, Saleh impressed former Texans General Manager Charley Casserly with his work ethic and convinced new head coach Gary Kubiak to take a chance on the intern. During his time with the Texans, he met fellow assistant coach Kyle Shanahan, who would eventually give Saleh his biggest role yet just a few years down the line. Saleh stayed with Houston until 2010, when Kubiak fired the entire defensive coaching staff.
While looking for any opportunity he could find at the 2011 Senior Bowl, Saleh learned that the Seattle Seahawks had an opening on the defensive side of the ball and eventually landed a position on Pete Carroll’s staff. Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley took Saleh under his wing over the next three seasons, which included a Super Bowl victory in his final year in Seattle. Saleh often references Carroll as one of the most influential figures on his NFL coaching journey, as this is where he “found himself” as a coach.
During his time spent with the Seahawks, Saleh grew close to Bradley and absorbed as much information as possible about his 4-3 Cover 3 defensive system that took the NFL by storm during the “Legion of Boom” days in Seattle. Following their Super Bowl winning season, Bradley departed Seattle to be the new head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and brought Saleh with him to be the Jags linebackers coach.
Unfortunately for Bradley and Saleh, their time in Jacksonville only lasted a few years and both were fired following the 2016 season. Bradley went on to become the Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator the following offseason and urged Saleh to come join him in LA, but Saleh had other plans in mind.
Once the San Francisco 49ers officially announced Kyle Shanahan as their new head coach, Shanahan began building out his staff and gave Saleh a call gauging his interest in becoming the 49ers new linebackers coach. Saleh was interested to rejoin his old friend, but floated the idea of interviewing for the open defensive coordinator position, as he believed he was a perfect fit based on his experience. While the two coaches kept in touch following their days in Houston, it still wasn’t a given that Saleh would get the job based off his relationship with Shanahan. But after accepting the position as their linebackers coach and showing off his expertise on Bradley’s system, Shanahan quickly made the move to name Saleh as their new defensive coordinator.
Things got off to a slow start for the new regime, but the 49ers slowly pieced it together and ended their 2017 season on a five-game win streak that gave the organization a much needed boost of momentum heading into a critical offseason. But unfortunately for the 49ers, the 2018 season wouldn’t be much better as the team’s postseason hopes were forgotten almost as soon as starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL early in the season and the Niners finished 4-12. Even though the records didn’t show for it, Saleh was confident in his system and was certain the tides were changing.
In 2019, the 49ers enjoyed what some say as the greatest single season turnarounds in NFL history. With Saleh calling the shots for the defense and all of their talent finally healthy, San Fran became one of the NFL’s most feared teams almost overnight. Led by their defense, the 49ers went on to finish the regular season with a 13-3 record and had a commanding lead going into the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV before falling short of the ultimate victory to the Kansas City Chiefs. Saleh’s defense finished the year second in total defense allowing just under 282 yards per game, sixth in forced turnovers and fourth in sacks.
Even with a loss in the Super Bowl, Saleh went into the 2020 offseason as one of the hotter head coaching candidates, but ultimately made the decision to stay in San Francisco for another shot at a championship with a loaded roster. While the expectations for 2020 were sky high, reality quickly struck the organization as many of their key players, especially on the defensive side of the ball, found themselves shelved just weeks into the season. But in one of the more impressive coaching feats in recently memory, Saleh was able to keep his unit together as they dealt with a league leading number of injuries on their way to finishing within the top ten of several major defensive statistics.
What to expect for the Jets?
Aside from his brilliant defensive mind, one of Saleh’s most known qualities is his ability to connect with those around him. Whether it be players, coaches or the fans, it seems like people gravitate towards his electric and fiery personality. In short, he’s the anti-Adam Gase.
Saleh credits his time spent in Seattle for molding himself into the coach and leader that he is today. Outside of developing his defensive expertise under Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley, the biggest influence on him was Carroll’s coaching philosophy at a personal level. As a part of his coaching philosophy, Carroll preaches to his staff that it’s critical to understand who you are as a person and how you can use your experiences and your personality to get your message across to your players. By having this unique approach to coaching, you won’t be copying another coaches style and you’ll be able to make an authentic connection with those around you. This is when it really clicked for Saleh, and both Carroll and Bradley noticed the growth of the young coach right before their eyes.
And after seemingly perfecting his own coaching philosophy during his time with the 49ers, there has been no shortage of compliments thrown his way from former players, such as cornerback Richard Sherman and offensive tackle Joe Staley. Both had glowing recommendations of their former coach and both are excited to see how Saleh can turn the Jets organization around. Again, total opposite of what former Miami Dolphins players had to say about Adam Gase.
On the football field, Saleh is expected to run his base 4-3 Cover 3 defense with the help of his defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. The Jets have run a base 3-4 style of defense for the majority of the past two decades, with the exceptions being a few years under Herm Edwards and the past two years under Greg Williams where Gang Green ran more of a hybrid 3-4 defense. While I don’t think it will be that much of a shift given the current state of the NFL’s pass happy offensives and how popular nickel and dime sets have become, we will see plenty of defensive fronts that may seem unfamiliar to some Jets fans. I think we should expect the Jets to roll out plenty of hybrid, wide-9 and 4-3 under fronts with mainly Cover 2 and Cover 3 elements mixed in on the backend of the defense. Probably the most refreshing thing for Jets fans to hear after the past two seasons is that Saleh’s system is versatile and he has repeatedly shown a willingness to adapt when things aren’t working on the field and to what his players do best. Expect to see this type of attitude applied to the offensive side of the ball and special teams as well.
The Jets’ hope is that Saleh’s fresh infusion of passion and energy into their locker room is just what is needed for a team in desperate need of a makeover and a means to building a winning culture. It is unlikely the Jets will turn into a contender overnight, but if all the indicators are correct, Saleh may be the exact prescription for what has been ailing Gang Green for over a decade.