The New York Jets were looking for a leader, someone who could bring a frustrated and hungry playoff franchise back to respectability.
They think they’ve found their guy in Robert Saleh.
The Jets reached a tentative deal with the popular and energetic San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Thursday night to hire him as their head coach. Saleh replaces Adam Gase, who was fired on January 3 after going 9-23 in two seasons.
Saleh, 41, considered the first Muslim head coach in NFL history, became a favorite for the Jets job when he was brought in for a second – and this time, in person – interview on Tuesday night and those discussions continued until Wednesday. He was the first of nine known New York City candidates interviewed remotely to meet with Chief Executive Officer Christopher Johnson, Team Chairman Hymie Elhai and General Manager Joe Douglas at his facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.
Saleh left the Jets and met Philadelphia, which sacked Doug Pederson on Monday. And New York also had an in-person meeting with Tennessee offensive coordinator Arthur Smith on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
After Smith left without a deal, New York had internal talks and chose to hire Saleh.
“YESSS SIRRRRRRRRRR,” excited defensive tackle Quinnen Williams wrote on Twitter.
Saleh, recognized as an energetic leader much appreciated by his players, has been the 49ers’ defensive coordinator under Kyle Shanahan since 2017, overseeing the defense of San Francisco which ranked No.2 overall on its way to the Super Bowl last season.
The 49ers have ranked fifth in overall defense this season despite late-season injuries to overtake rushers Nick Bosa – 2019 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year – and Dee Ford, as well as defensive linemen Solomon Thomas and Ezekiel Ansah. As San Francisco missed the playoffs, Saleh’s work with a shattered, shorthanded defense made him a popular candidate among teams looking for a coach.
“@Nyjets have a great one!” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted. “Congratulations to them!”
Saleh, the son of Lebanese parents, is the second minority coach to be hired by the Jets in the past six years and the first since Todd Bowles, who is black, in 2015. He is the fourth active minority coach of the NFL, joining that of Miami. Brian Flores, Ron Rivera of Washington and Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh.
Saleh, who first spoke remotely with the Jets last Friday, also spoke with Detroit, Atlanta, Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Chargers.
New York surged, however, after Douglas vowed the team would “cast a very wide net” in their search. Johnson and Douglas both spoke about finding a leader, a CEO-type coach who would oversee the overall functioning of the team and help re-establish a culture and identity for the franchise.
The 20th coach in franchise history, Saleh defeated Smith, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Indianapolis defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus , New Orleans defensive back coach Aaron Glenn, former Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis and Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator.
Saleh is the sixth of the last seven coaches hired by the Jets not to have previous full-time head coaching experience, with Gase being the exception. Bowles was Miami’s interim coach in 2011. Saleh is also the fourth former defensive coordinator to land the job among New York’s last five hires, with Gase again the only exception.
With the Jets, Saleh will have a lot of work to do. New York has not made the playoffs since the 2010 season, the NFL’s longest active playoff drought with Cleveland and Tampa Bay this season.
Saleh and Douglas will also have plenty of questions to answer on the roster, no bigger than what the Jets should do at the quarterback.
Sam Darnold, the No.3 overall pick in 2018, has failed to live up to his high draft status and has regressed this season under Gase. New York currently holds the second pick in the draft and could choose to take on a quarterback – perhaps Justin Fields from Ohio State or Zach Wilson from BYU – and start all over again. The Jets, who also have the No.23 pick, could trade to collect more picks. Much will depend on who Saleh brings in his offensive coordinator, and how they perceive Darnold against the outgoing quarterbacks in the draft.
Saleh could bring in 49ers game coordinator Mike LaFleur, Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s brother and Saleh’s best man at his wedding to lead his offense.
The Jets also have 20 players programmed to be unrestricted free agents, including several outstanding players in defense, with goaltender Marcus Maye, cornerback Brian Poole and linebackers Neville Hewitt and Tarell Basham among them.
Saleh, of Dearborn, Mich., Began his coaching career in 2002 as a defensive assistant at Michigan State for two seasons, followed by stints in 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 linebacker 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 a Jacksonville linebacker coach. He spent three seasons with the Jaguars before joining the 49ers.
“He makes sure there is no gray area in terms of coaching and teaching,” San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner said last month. “There are a lot of coaches who just coach. But he’s a great teacher.”