FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
During a 20-minute briefing with reporters after the ouster of coach Todd Bowles, Jets CEO Christopher Johnson was asked about any concerns he might have about his next coach working in the white-hot glare of the New York spotlight.
Johnson paused a moment before offering his take on what could be a vitally important issue, based on the uniqueness of performing in the country’s biggest media market.
“If you make it here, you’re a freaking legend,” Johnson said. “That counts for something.”
He’s right about that. Win or lose on the New York stage, there’s always that something extra that you simply don’t get in other places. And in this case, it’s also true of the man deciding who will coach a Jets team that is enticing in many ways. With a franchise quarterback in place, the third overall draft pick and $100 million in cold, hard salary-cap cash, Johnson himself can become a freaking legend if he gets this right.
He faces his most consequential decision since stepping into the role of the franchise’s top executive after older brother Woody Johnson took over as U.S. ambassador to Britain. And if Christopher Johnson finds the right person to bring the best out of Sam Darnold and turn around a franchise coming off three straight seasons with double-digit losses, he will be the toast of the town.
Christopher has been around the Jets since Woody purchased the team in 2000 from the estate of the late Leon Hess, but it was the elder Johnson who was at center stage while running the franchise. Christopher had always been a trusted voice and had been consulted on all major decisions, but it was Woody’s show — with varying degrees of success.
The Jets became a four-time playoff team under Herman Edwards after the abbreviated one-year tenure of the Bill Parcells-Al Groh partnership that came out of Bill Belichick’s unwillingness to become HC of the NYJ. Eric Mangini then got to the postseason once. Rex Ryan presided over two runs to the AFC Championship Game in his first two seasons before flaming out. After Bowles came close to a playoff berth at 10-6 in his rookie season, the Jets have experienced three consecutive losing seasons and more angst about the Patriots, who have dominated the AFC East since 2001.
“It keeps me up at night,” Johnson said of his team’s futile chase of its division rival.
It now is up to Johnson and general manager Mike Maccagnan, who has been retained despite a spotty record in the draft and free agency. The two of them — with no outside interference from a consulting firm or any of the team’s executives — will head up the search for a coach who can quickly turn the Jets into a contending team.
“My single goal is to get the best head coach,” Johnson said. “The buck stops with me. I have to do a better job of getting [the Jets] to a place where we can consistently win, and I will do that. I am confident we will find the right person to lead this organization.”
It will not be an easy task. The Jets are one of eight teams looking for a new coach, so it will be ultracompetitive, especially for the most sought-after coaches. Former Packers coach Mike McCarthy is expected to be in high demand, but with so many openings, the lack of candidates with previous head-coaching experience is potentially problematic. So if the Jets are to go with another first-time head coach, as they’ve done with their previous five hires going back to Groh, Johnson will have to find a potential gem along the lines of Sean McVay, Doug Pederson, Matt Nagy or Frank Reich, first-time coaches who are all in this year’s playoffs.
Johnson was questioned about how the front office and coaching staff will be structured, and there will be plenty of skepticism about his decision to have the head coach and the GM continue reporting to the owner. There have been some clunky arrangements in the past, most notably the Ryan-John Idzik combo that was blown up after two years. But as Johnson correctly said Monday, it’s not the structure that caused the team to fail. It was a host of other issues, not the least of which was questionable coaching and inconsistent player procurement.
Johnson is aware of Maccagnan’s many misses, but the presence of Darnold, Jamal Adams and other worthy players convinced the owner that an upgrade at coach can turn things around.
“This is my first time in the big chair doing this,” he said, “and I’m incredibly excited about it. I think this is a good landing spot for a coach.”
Asked if he faces one of the biggest decisions in franchise history, Johnson replied, “Absolutely.”
He’s absolutely right.
If he nails it, he’ll be a freaking legend.
If not, he knows he’s in for a New York-size dose of criticism.