Charley Casserly called Woody Johnson as soon as he heard Todd Bowles was heading to Atlanta the next morning to interview for — and possibly accept — the Falcons’ head coaching job. It was around 10 p.m. on Jan. 12, and Casserly, the former longtime NFL general manager hired by Johnson as a consultant in the team’s search for a new coach and GM, feared his top choice might get away.
He knew the Jets owner needed to make a move. Immediately.
“Woody said, ‘Change his flight and get him in here,’ ” Casserly recalled on Tuesday about the moment that ultimately changed the Jets’ fortunes and set them on the path to where they are today — within a game of reaching the playoffs in Bowles’ first season. “[Johnson] didn’t waffle for a minute. When the time came to make a decision, he acted decisively.”
Johnson also acted on Casserly’s recommendation that he hire Mike Maccagnan to replace John Idzik as general manager, and within a whirlwind 24-hour period, the Jets had their new football operations team in place. The Bowles/Maccagnan partnership could not have gone any better, as the Jets appear to be on the right path for long-term success.
Casserly and former Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who also participated in the exhaustive offseason search to fill the two most important roles in the Jets’ organization, couldn’t be happier at the way things turned out. While they may be surprised at how quickly the turnaround happened, especially in light of the circumstances surrounding the quarterback situation, they are hardly shocked that the Jets are in a far better place than before Bowles and Maccagnan took over.
“I think it’s a remarkable job that they’ve done,” Wolf said. “I think they’ve been exceptional. It’s a great tribute to how good they really are. The Jets have a good thing going.”
The Jets are on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2010, when Rex Ryan led the team to a second straight playoff berth. The Jets can clinch an AFC wild-card berth with a win or tie against Ryan’s Buffalo Bills, or if the Steelers lose to or tie with the Browns.
Bowles’ ‘very impressive’ knowledge of Jets
Both Casserly and Wolf, who was selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year, were immediately impressed when they first met with Bowles. Wolf, in fact, suggested that Johnson hire him after his first meeting with the Jets, although it wasn’t until after his second interview that Bowles got the job.
“His preparation was outstanding in his interview,” Wolf said. “He knew the AFC East. He knew the Jets, and he had just finished the playoffs [as the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator] in an entirely different conference. He had no time off, but he studied, prepared and made his presentation and truly knew the Jets. It was very impressive.”
Casserly believed Bowles’ skill set, not only as a coach but as a human being, would serve him well.
“Excellent defensive coach. Excellent at adjustments, adapting personnel to scheme,” Casserly said. “Leadership. The ability to take control of the room. That, to me, is very important. I had a real good feeling on that, and that’s been evident.”
“Smart guy in dealing with the media,” Casserly continued. “The job wasn’t going to be too big for him, because he’s a smart guy and he’s mature and he’s been around a while. I thought he would have a vision for the team and you can see that now.”
Two things stood out for Casserly during the interview process.
“I heard a story out of Miami [where Bowles had been the interim head coach near the end of the 2011 season],” Casserly said. “The guy stops practice right in the middle of it and makes them start all over. As an interim coach, that said something. And then I asked him to give me a speech he would make to the Jets when he took over the team.
“He went in there and said, ‘All right men, we’re going to throw the ball 27 times in the first half, and we’re not going to throw it at all in the second half.’ The point is he was giving a vision of what he wanted with the team. This is how we’re going to operate.”
One of Bowles’ biggest strong points: communication.
“He gets more said in a few words than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Casserly said. “That’s an asset. He’s man-to-man with people, and I think the players appreciate that. He isn’t afraid of anybody.”
Maccagnan makes all right moves
Casserly’s recommendation of Maccagnan — and Johnson’s willingness to hire him — has been equally important to the equation. Maccagnan, a longtime scout, goes back to Casserly’s early days in Washington, and he was Casserly’s first hire when he became GM in Houston in 2000.
“Mike came in with a plan, starting with free agency,” Casserly said. “They didn’t get everybody they wanted, but they filled the positions of need, starting with cornerback.
“You get Buster Skrine, then the Darrelle Revis thing falls into their lap and they execute the contract, then Antonio Cromartie follows Revis. They re-signed David Harris out of the box and Marcus Gilchrist was a guy Todd wanted in his system.”
And then the two trades that have been so instrumental in the team’s success: the first for Bears receiver Brandon Marshall and then the deal for Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The two have since gone on to form one of the best quarterback-receiver tandems in the league — but only after Fitzpatrick took over at quarterback because Geno Smith suffered a broken jaw in a locker-room fight with IK Enemkpali on Aug. 11.
“Marshall was the right place at the right time,” Casserly said. “And with Fitzpatrick, the light went on for him, finally. He’s a smart guy who didn’t always play smart. Now he’s a smart guy who’s playing smart. Nobody would have said in August you’d win 10 games with him as your quarterback, but it’s a credit to him and the guys around him.”
Terrific work all around by Bowles, Maccagnan and the roster they’ve assembled so quickly yet so meticulously.
And credit to Casserly and Wolf for recommending to Johnson the right guys for the job.
“They’ve done a heck of a job,” Wolf said of Bowles and Maccagnan. “To be part of something like that makes you feel really good.”
Top 5 moves of the Bowles/Maccagnan era:
1. Trading for Brandon Marshall. Maccagnan got Marshall for a song (fifth-round pick and a seventh-rounder in return), and he has produced one of the best seasons of any NFL receiver with 101 catches for 1,376 yards and a career-high 13 touchdowns.
2. Trading for Ryan Fitzpatrick. Maccagnan traded a conditional seventh-round pick to acquire Fitzpatrick as a backup to Geno Smith. But he became the starter after Smith was punched by linebacker IK Enemkpali in a locker-room fight, and has enjoyed a career year with 29 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. His playing time turned the draft pick into a sixth-rounder, which is still well worth the price.
3. Signing Darrelle Revis. The Jets’ former first-round pick wanted to return to New York after a year with the Patriots, and Maccagnan signed him to a long-term deal to solidify what had been an awful secondary. Maccagnan also added defensive backs Buster Skrine, Antonio Cromartie and Marcus Gilchrist.
4. Drafting Leonard Williams. With Washington deciding to take Iowa guard Brandon Scherff, that meant USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams was still on the board at No. 6. Considered by some scouts to be the best player in the draft, Williams has turned into a productive full-time member of the Jets’ defensive line rotation.
5. Re-signing David Harris. The Jets’ reliable inside linebacker was an unrestricted free agent, but Maccagnan acted quickly in re-signing him to a three-year, $21.5-million deal shortly before the free-agency signing period began.