NY Jets coach Robert Saleh faces big decisions before historic debut

When the New York Jets finished the 2020 NFL season with a 2-14 record, the franchise began a rebuilding process by firing head coach Adam Gase and hiring Robert Saleh as the new man in charge.

Saleh made history as the first Muslim head coach in NFL history. He was born and raised in a Lebanese-American family in Dearborn, Mich., the most populous Muslim city in the United States. After graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2002, where he played tight end on the football team, Saleh got into coaching. He began as an assistant at Michigan State University and worked his way to the NFL, eventually being promoted to defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers and helping them reach the Super Bowl in the 2019 season.

The Jets brought in the 42-year-old Saleh to turn around a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2010 season and hasn’t posted a winning record since 2015.

The most notable task in front of Saleh right now is what to do about the Jets’ quarterback situation. Between free agency, the trade market, and the NFL Draft (April 29-May 1), there are a lot of options for which direction to take.

New York’s current starting quarterback is Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2018 who just finished his third season as the team’s starter. Darnold is talented, but he’s underachieved relative to expectations since entering the league.

In Darnold’s defense, the entire Jets organization has underachieved. Many of the young QB’s struggles can be blamed on factors he can’t control, e.g. coaching, the offensive line, and lack of talent at playmaking positions like running back and receiver.

Still, a lot of Jets fans have lost faith in Darnold, 23, who has a 13-25 record as a starter. This past season he posted career-lows in passing yards per game (184.0) and Quarterback Rating (40.1), and he threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (9).

Should new coach Saleh and the Jets keep Darnold in place as their QB moving forward? Or should they move on from the USC product and begin Saleh’s coaching tenure with a fresh slate?

The Jets own the No. 2 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. The top prospect in this draft class is universally agreed-upon to be Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. He will almost certainly be taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the No. 1 overall pick. When the Jets go on the clock with the No. 2 pick — assuming they keep the pick and don’t trade it — the next-best QBs on the board include Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.

According to CBS Sports, the Jets will evaluate the QBs in this draft class before deciding whether to keep Darnold. Despite his underwhelming performance on the field, Darnold has potential. The price other teams would be willing to pay for him in a trade — be it in the form of players or draft picks — could allow the Jets to add pieces to their offensive line, to their defense, and/or to their offensive skill positions.

Then there’s the possibility of bringing in a veteran quarterback to replace Darnold. It just so happens that two established All-Pro level QBs may be available for the Jets this offseason.

Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, who led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards this past season, has requested a trade. Depending on which reports you believe, Watson has interest in joining the Jets.

Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, who finished second in the league with 40 touchdown passes this past season, has clashed with team’s front office recently. There have been rumors that the Seahawks may explore trading Wilson, who has a no-trade clause in his contract; which means he can be traded as long as he approves the deal. For years, it’s been speculated that Wilson would eventually want to play for a team in a major media market — like New York — so that his wife, R&B singer Ciara, can advance her career in music and fashion.

If the Jets traded for a star like Wilson or Watson, they would most likely have to include their No. 2 draft pick in the deal. If they don’t pursue those possibilities but do trade Darnold, they’ll most likely use the No. 2 pick on a quarterback.

If the Jets choose to find their next QB via free agency, this offseason’s pool of available passers is headlined by Dak Prescott, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston.

A two-time Pro Bowler with the Dallas Cowboys, Prescott was on his way to breaking the NFL’s single-season record for passing yards in 2020 before he suffered a broken ankle in October. Newton is a former league MVP who led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl in the 2015 season; he struggled with injuries and went to the New England Patriots this past season, where he ran the ball well but was inconsistent as a passer. Winston led the NFL in passing yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019, but he also led the league in interceptions; he was let go by the Bucs, who signed Tom Brady, and Winston backed up Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints in 2020.

Even if the Jets begin the 2021 season having replaced Darnold with one of the aforementioned veteran quarterbacks, expectations will be relatively low for first-year head coach Robert Saleh. It’s mostly understood that the Jets have a long list of issues that need fixing beyond the QB position. So even in the high-pressure atmosphere that is New York sports, Saleh should have some reasonable leeway as he begins this project.

The greater social significance of Saleh’s hiring is not lost upon the accomplished coach.

“Especially back home, where I’m from, Dearborn, Michigan, there is a lot of pride so it’s a very humbling experience,” Saleh told CNN. “When you look at an NFL organization and you look at the locker room, it’s like the ultimate melting pot of different people and different races and different stories that get together with one goal. To be a part of that is special.”

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