Robert Saleh, Jets Agree to Reported 5-Year Contract as New Head Coach

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2021

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh against the Arizona Cardinals during an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Tony Avelar/Associated Press

The New York Jets announced that they agreed to a deal with Robert Saleh to make him their new head coach. 

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that it's a five-year deal and that San Francisco 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur will be Saleh's offensive coordinator:

Saleh spent the last four years as San Francisco's defensive coordinator. Prior to that, he was the Jacksonville Jaguars' linebackers coach from 2014 to 2016.

The 49ers' defensive numbers illustrate why Saleh's stock has risen to the point he's getting the opportunity to coach his own team.

Upon joining Kyle Shanahan's staff in 2017, Saleh inherited a defense that allowed both the most yards (406.4) and most points (30.0) per game. San Francisco also ranked 28th in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders.

Fast forward to 2019 and the Niners earned the NFC's top seed thanks in no small part to an elite defense. They finished second in yards allowed (281.8) and eighth in points allowed (19.4), and Football Outsiders ranked them second in defensive efficiency.

Shanahan likely felt some level of vindication since Saleh wasn't on firm footing as the 2018 campaign drew to a close.

"I'm with him every day," Shanahan said in December 2018, per The Athletic's Matt Barrows. "So I know how good of a coach he is. I know how he is schematically. I know how he is dealing with the players. I know what he can handle just with his personality and how smart he is and that's a lot. I also know that he took over a 32nd-ranked defense." 

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As Saleh became a candidate for the Cleveland Browns prior to this past season, Richard Sherman sang his praises following San Francisco's divisional-round win over the Minnesota Vikings:

However, some might contend the 49ers' improvement on defense was more the result of the personnel and less to do with Saleh, a point to which For The Win's Steven Ruiz alluded:

"Based on his three years in San Francisco, Saleh appears to be a non-factor as a coach. He won't actively hurt your team; but he won't make it any better, either. When the 49ers defense lacked talent, it ranked in the bottom third of the league. In 2019, the roster is loaded and Saleh has turned in good results. But he won't be bringing all that talent along with him to his new coaching job, so it'd be foolish to expect him to replicate those results."

Building a dominant defense is certainly much easier when you have Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Sherman, all of whom arrived after Saleh's hiring. Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw were draft picks in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

That's to say nothing of the contributions from DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward—all of whom were high draft picks before Saleh's arrival.

Ruiz drew a parallel to Gus Bradley, who became the Jaguars' head coach in 2013 based on his work as the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator. Bradley was fired in December 2016 after compiling a 14-48 record.

2020 was a firm rebuttal to those still skeptical of Saleh. Buckner was traded to the Indianapolis Colts, while Sherman and Bosa played in seven combined games. 

The unit went backward slightly in 2020, but that was largely down to getting hammered by injuries. That San Francisco still surrendered the fifth-fewest yards (314.4) is a testament to Saleh's coaching.

As a first-time head coach, the structure of his coaching staff will be critical to Saleh's success early on. He's bound to have some growing pains, which he can mask with the right set of coordinators and position coaches around him.

The Jets are in a position where they either need to make a firm commitment to Sam Darnold for 2021 or strongly consider using the No. 2 overall pick on a quarterback to start over.

That led many to wonder whether New York would look toward an offensive-minded former head coach or top assistant as it replaced Adam Gase.

Granted, the team already went in that direction with Gase, and the results were disastrous. The Jets were last in yards in each of the past two seasons.

In that respect, Saleh's predecessor left plenty of room for improvement.