FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Woody Johnson never stopped being the Jets’ owner during his four-plus years as the United State Ambassador to the United Kingdom, but this is nevertheless a fresh start of sorts. And a refreshing one, at that, given the sense of optimism now emanating from a team with a new coach, a new quarterback and newfound front-office stability.
"There’s a certain element of being a new owner, in a way," Johnson said Wednesday in his first remarks to Jets reporters since returning from his overseas assignment. "You have a chance to refresh. I can start a little bit anew because I’ve been away for (nearly) five years."
In some ways, the Jets aren’t really all that different from the team he left. They still haven’t been back to the playoffs since 2010. They haven’t had a winning season since he’s been gone. They went through two coaching changes. And they’re now on their second highly-drafted quarterback since he left, with Zach Wilson having replaced Sam Darnold at the team’s most critical position.
But Johnson isn’t alone when he speaks hopefully about the leadership now in place. Robert Saleh is the newly appointed head coach after the two-year Adam Gase debacle. Joe Douglas is now firmly in charge as general manager and has the roster in a more advantageous position now than when he inherited it two years ago. And behind the scenes, recently named team president Hymie Elhai has cultivated an improved workplace. All the latest hires were made by Johnson’s brother, Christopher, who served as the team’s CEO in Woody’s absence.
"I certainly feel (good) after being at practice the last 10 days and seeing the dynamic of the Robert and Joe and Hymie, and having worked together and doing it in a different way that I haven’t seen before," Johnson said. "There’s great harmony here, and I’m really excited about it."
Of course, it’s easy to be enthusiastic when the team hasn’t lost a game, Saleh hasn’t made a questionable coaching call and Wilson hasn’t thrown in his first interception. And Johnson understands that there is much work to be done. But he does see the beginnings of a solid foundation, and for that, there is reason for hope.
"I’m totally in sync with these guys," Johnson said. "I think Chris made some unbelievable choices. I’m very optimistic generally, but I’m particularly optimistic now when I see what happens on the (practice) field."
Johnson’s tenure as owner has seen mixed results since he took over in 2000 after Bill Parcells spent his first and only season as general manager and Al Groh coached just one season. The Jets have been to the playoffs six times and reached the AFC Championship Game twice under Rex Ryan. But they have not played a postseason game since losing to the Steelers in the 2010 playoffs, and Saleh is the fourth coach in the last eight seasons.
As Parcells likes to say, you are what your record says you are. And the Jets’ record simply hasn’t been acceptable through the second half of Johnson’s run.
But if they are to emerge from more than a decade’s worth of disappointment, then this may be their chance.
Saleh already has shown a presence that the players have appreciated, and Douglas has made a series of shrewd personnel moves to put the team in position to succeed. His acquisition of two first-round picks for disgruntled safety Jamal Adams – who is now in what appears to be another contract standoff with the Seahawks – was one of several smart decisions from the 45-year-old GM.
But we’ve seen these reboots end in misery, too – see: Mark Sanchez and Darnold. So there’s still a long way between what the Jets have now and getting back to playoff respectability.
Johnson can only hope the team he comes back to on this second iteration of his ownership stint can finally lose the dysfunction and give its fans something to cheer about.