2 philosophical changes NY Jets HC Robert Saleh must make

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By: Michael Nania

Robert Saleh has the potential to be a great head coach but needs to bring everything together in 2023

Robert Saleh is a polarizing figure in the land of New York Jets football. Those who subscribe to the notion that “you are what your record says you are” point to Saleh’s 11-23 record and claim he will never lead New York to championship glory. Others are willing to look past the record and credit Saleh for the work he has done in turning around the team’s culture.

Personally, I’m a fan of Saleh. He took over a hopeless two-win team, and in a matter of two years, he has inspired enough confidence in what the Jets are building to the point where New York owns the ninth-best odds to win Super Bowl 58 at most sportsbooks. Most impressive of all, he’s done it without even making the playoffs in either of his first two seasons.

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The Jets have a league-wide perception as a potential dark-horse contender in spite of their lack of recent success. The existence of this perception is a testament to Saleh. He’s managed to convince the world to overlook the Jets’ 7-10 record and still view them as an up-and-coming team. They are seen as a playoff-ready team that has merely been held back by injuries and the lack of a quarterback. This says a lot about Saleh, who has convinced a lot of people that the Jets are in good shape going forward despite their past results.

This is all well and good, but 2023 is the make-or-break year for Saleh. Up until now, all optimism about Saleh is based upon hope and projection. You can only overlook the results for so long.

Saleh has said and done all of the right things. The culture seems strong. The roster seems playoff-ready outside of the quarterback position, which, ideally, will be solved within the next week or two. New York has overhauled its coaching staff this offseason, building a group that features more experience and a better structure than it did over the past two seasons.

Everything is in place. It’s time to see some results.

I think Saleh is capable of getting the results that Jets fans desire. But it’s going to take more than simply adding a quarterback.

If Saleh is going to reach his ceiling as a head coach, there are two key changes he must make to his overall philosophy.

Be more time-efficient during the week

The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) recently released the results of a survey in which players across the league reviewed the working conditions of their teams in the 2022 season. It included some very concerning results for the Jets.

Overall, the Jets actually did not fare too poorly in the survey, ranking 19th out of 32 teams in their average performance across the following eight categories:

  • Treatment of Families (C+ / 18th)
  • Food Service / Nutrition (C- / 16th)
  • Weight Room (B- / 21st)
  • Strength Coaches (B / 30th)
  • Training Room (C+ / 17th)
  • Training Staff (B / 28th)
  • Locker Room (B- / 17th)
  • Team Travel (B- / 18th)

It’s also worth noting that there does not seem to be much correlation between winning games and the results of this survey, as, for instance, the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs ranked 29th overall and the AFC runner-up Cincinnati Bengals ranked 27th.

So, the Jets’ overall results were fairly middle-of-the-pack, and it doesn’t seem like these results matter much, anyway. The grades aren’t necessarily what concerned me.

What concerned me the most was a tidbit of information that was included in the NFLPA’s summary of the Jets’ results:

“The player respondents don’t feel like the coaching staff (ranked last) is efficient with their time as they are routinely at the facilities much later than other teams in the league. Longer hours are not necessarily correlated to winning, as seven of the top eight coaches who ranked most efficient with their players’ time made the playoffs this year.”

According to the results of this survey, the Jets had the least time-efficient coaching staff in the league. Players felt like they were wasting too much time at the facility during the week. The NFLPA also cites a statistic that suggests there is a correlation between time efficiency and winning, claiming that teams achieve better results when they are more time efficient.

Assuming the NFLPA releases this survey again next year, I would like to see the Jets take an enormous leap in this category. It’s not a good look when players are willing to be critical of a coach’s style in a survey that is released to the public.

Saleh should take these results to heart and adjusts the team’s weekly schedule this year. Work smarter, not harder – especially when you’re a team as injury-prone as the New York Jets.

Go for it on fourth down more often

According to Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index, Saleh was the least aggressive coach in the NFL on fourth downs in 2022. His Aggressiveness Index of 0.49, compared to a league average of 1.00. In other words, he went for it on fourth down slightly less than half as often as the average NFL coach would have gone for it in the same situations.

Aggressiveness Index accounts for yards-to-go, score, time, and other game situation factors to estimate how often the league-average coach would be expected to go for it in each fourth down situation. Thanks to these adjustments, the Aggressiveness Index evaluates all coaches in the league on the same plane. So, it’s not as if Saleh’s last-place ranking is a result of facing a high number of fourth-and-longs or anything like that. The metric accounts for all of those variables.

Simply put, Saleh was the most conservative fourth-down coach in football.

Sure, Saleh can be somewhat excused in this department due to his lack of confidence in a sputtering offense and his high level of confidence in a thriving defense. Considering the disparity between the Jets’ offensive and defensive productivity, it makes sense that Saleh wanted to take a conservative approach on fourth down. It matched his old-school football philosophy of winning through the defense, the run game, and ball control.

But as Jets X-Factor’s Rivka Boord argued in an article about Saleh’s fourth-down aggressiveness, being more aggressive on fourth down actually does serve that old-school philosophy:

“It’s understandable that Saleh wants to call a conservative game with a Jets team that is predicated on defense and the run game. However, I would argue that this fourth down strategy dovetails with a time of possession approach perfectly: its whole purpose is to keep the ball out of the opponent’s hands, which is the same reason that teams try to establish the run.”

Being aggressive on fourth down can work in harmony with a defense-first/ball-control style of football. Some coaches are catching up to that idea. Some are still behind the times.

Nobody is arguing Saleh should start going for it on every fourth down, but he was conservative to an extreme degree in 2022, and it cost the Jets a lot of extra possessions they could have desperately used.

The Jets only went for it on fourth down while leading once in the entire season. Unsurprisingly, that was a league-low. The average NFL team finished the season with a total of 5.3 plays in which they went for it on fourth down while leading.

Saleh was also too conservative when tied or trailing. According to Ben Baldwin’s fourth down decision bot, which suggests the most ideal fourth down decisions based on win probability, there were six situations where the Jets were tied or trailing and Saleh elected to punt or kick a field goal despite the bot making a “strong” suggestion for New York to go for it. The Jets ended up losing in four of the five games where he made one of those decisions (the exception being a miraculous Cleveland comeback):

(Week) Opponent Yards to Go Yard Line Time/Quarter Jets Score Opponent Score Recommendation Actual Play
(1) Baltimore 2 Jets 39 3rd quarter 3 17 go punt
(2) Cleveland 1 Jets 40 1st quarter 0 0 go punt
(2) Cleveland 8 Jets 10 2:41 4th 17 24 go punt
(14) Buffalo 1 Buffalo 9 1:21 4th 9 20 go field goal
(17) Seattle 2 Jets 39 11:32 4th 6 20 go punt
(18) Miami 1 Jets 34 3rd quarter 3 3 go punt

It doesn’t matter how bad your offense is or how good your defense is: An ultra-conservative fourth down mentality doesn’t fly in the NFL anymore. If anything, a team with a weak offense should feel more compelled to go for it on fourth down. If you’re a poor offensive team who probably can’t outgun the other offense over four quarters, isn’t it worth taking risks to try and gain those extra advantages that could level the playing field?

Saleh will most likely have a better quarterback and a better overall offense in 2023, which should increase his confidence in the offense’s ability to convert fourth downs. He must capitalize on the improved talent by letting his offense seize control of the game in situations where it makes sense to do so.

But there will still be games where the Jets’ offense struggles. There also could be injuries or disappointing performances that cause the Jets’ offense to remain as lackluster throughout the season as it was in 2022. These things shouldn’t matter. Regardless of how good the Jets’ offense is in 2023 as a whole or in any given game, Saleh needs to be more aggressive on fourth down. That’s the smart way to play football. It’s 2023: we have years of data that prove the safe-minded ideologies of yesteryear are not conducive to winning.

I’m not asking Saleh to be Nick Sirianni, but he cannot be as far behind the modern NFL trends as he was in 2022. Saleh just needs to creep close to the league average when it comes to fourth down decisions. That should help the Jets steal some extra possessions over the course of the season, which could go a long way toward helping them win a close game or two that they may not have won in the past when Saleh was risk-averse.

Next Article: Can NY Jets gain edge in 2023 with fourth-down decision-making? 

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