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Robert Saleh remains optimistic that Jets are headed in right direction

Head coach Robert Saleh of the Jets looks

Head coach Robert Saleh of the Jets looks on in the first half against the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

He’s 2-7, his defense has performed miserably over the last month, he’s on his third starting quarterback of the season, and Jets fans are sounding increasingly frustrated about the slow pace of progress under Robert Saleh. It’s as rough a start as a first-year coach could expect, and the outside noise that grows louder with each loss doesn’t make things any easier.

Yet Saleh remains unfazed and unwavering in his belief that this team will turn things around. When that will begin to happen he can’t predict, but he knows it’s coming.

How difficult has it been for the former 49ers defensive coordinator? Not as much as you might expect.

"I don’t know if I’d call it a rough go," he told Newsday. "We knew coming into this year that we had a very young team, and the growth and maturation was always the focus of what we were trying to get done with this group. Losing is never easy, and it’s never accepted, either. But at the same time, if you’re only focusing on the results, you’re really missing the big picture as it pertains to how much better are we getting every week. Sometimes the results don’t show the growth, but we see it."

Yes, Saleh is frustrated that his team has given up 175 points in the last four games, a hideous run that simply cannot continue regardless of the level of competition. Yes, he wants to see more consistency from his offense, which has at least shown some signs the last few games — last week’s blowout loss to Buffalo notwithstanding. But he remains convinced the approach that he and general manager Joe Douglas are taking — building through the draft and being selective in free agency with twentysomething players — is the way to go.

His background lends itself to the team he is trying to build.

"I’ve been very fortunate in my career in the NFL that I’m approaching 20 years and this is the fifth team I’ve been on and the fifth rebuild," he said. "Was there in Houston when Gary Kubiak took over a 1-15 roster. Went to Seattle with Pete Carroll. Went to Jacksonville with Gus Bradley when that thing was trying to get turned around, and going to San Francisco after a few years of being in the cellar when we got there with Kyle [Shanahan].

"I’m very comfortable in talking with Joe Douglas and we’re very confident in the direction that the organization is going. We’ve all been in these situations before, we’ve all seen these things through, and we are really excited about the young group we have and the progression that they’re making. We know that the playing time they’re getting now, while frustrating at times, is going to be freaking awesome in the very near future. Those are the things we’re working toward."

Saleh’s handling of his quarterbacks has come under scrutiny since he had to replace an injured Zach Wilson last month, but he has zero issues with how he has decided on who plays. From Wilson to Mike White and now to Joe Flacco for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, Saleh isn’t second-guessing himself.

"One thing I’ve learned is that in football, whatever decision is made, you’re always going to leave yourself open to [second-guessing]," he said, "but when we look at the quarterback decisions, we feel comfortable with every direction that it’s been.

"Zach had a wonderful [Organized Team Activity] and did a really nice job in training camp, and we felt really good about him coming into the season — and we still feel really, really good about him and the growth that he’s going to make. An injury gave us an opportunity to check out Mike White, who did a really nice job in his three starts and obviously, with Joe Flacco being in the building, giving him an opportunity. For this particular week, this one was easy. Flacco’s experience puts us in the best position to win, and that’s always going to be at the forefront of our decisions.

"But to say there’s been controversy, I don’t think it’s been a controversy. It’s been what the natural flow of the quarterback [situation] has given us."

In the end, Saleh believes that the team’s roster reconstruction will be a successful one over the long term and will differentiate itself from previous iterations of this team.

"These rebuilds take time, but we’re super-confident in the direction we’re going in," he said. "This Jets organization, it’s the first time it’s truly embarked on something in a long time like this, with all this youth. Usually in a new regime, if you look at its history, it goes hard on veterans to get instant gratification for the new regime, and then it tapers off. They’ve done it repeatedly over the last 20 years or so, and this is the first time the pattern is being reversed, where we are committing to the young players early in hopes that this youth continues to grow and we see championships in a different way."

Yes, he said championships.

"Hell, yeah," he said. "That’s the main goal, man."

It’s a long way from here to there, yet Saleh remains convinced it will happen. in his mind, it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Belichick magic is back

Bill Belichick’s first season in the post-Tom Brady era was a forgettable one. The Patriots were 7-9 — their first losing record since Belichick’s first year in New England in 2000 — and their third-place finish reflected the struggles on offense and defense. Brady’s Super Bowl run in Tampa didn’t help, ether.

But after reshaping his roster in the offseason with the drafting of quarterback Mac Jones in the first round and the signing of key free agents — including linebacker Matthew Judon, wide receiver Nelson Agholor and tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith — the Patriots are 7-4 and again are contending for the AFC East title.

The Patriots have won five straight, including a 25-0 shutout of the Falcons on Thursday night that came just four days after a 45-7 thrashing of the Browns.

"Good to come down here and get a win and get a couple days here this weekend to catch our breath and then be ready to go," Belichick said.

Buffalo came into the season as the favorite to win the division, especially with the Patriots going with a rookie quarterback. But the 6-3 Bills are just percentage points ahead of New England, and the teams will meet twice in a three-week span, including a Dec. 6 Monday night game in Buffalo.

If the Patriots come out of the season with a divisional championship or even a playoff berth, it will have been one of Belichick’s best regular-season coaching jobs. He hasn’t been named the league’s Coach of the Year since 2010, and his former linebacker, Titans coach Mike Vrabel, probably leads the way in this year’s race. The teams will face one another next weekend in New England in a huge test for both coaches.

Game of the week

Kansas City is back in first place in the AFC West after an early-season wobble, the Cowboys have recovered from an upset loss to the Broncos with a thrashing of Atlanta, and now the teams will face one another in a potential Super Bowl preview in Kansas City.

It’s a dream matchup on paper. The Cowboys lead the NFL in yards per game (433.9) and points per game (31.6). The last time the Cowboys led the league in both categories was 1971, when they won Super Bowl VI.

Kansas City’s offense ranks fourth in the NFL. Adding to the storyline: Patrick Mahomes grew up not far from AT&T Stadium and was a Cowboys fan as a kid.

"I was a pretty big Cowboys fan growing up," Mahomes said this past week. "My dad was a big Cowboys fan, so we went to games and stuff like that. It’ll be cool to play against them. I’ll have a lot of family members up at the game. Hopefully they’re cheering me and not the other team."

Where have the punt returns gone?

Strange but true: Through 10 weeks of the NFL season, there have been zero punt returns for touchdowns. How rare is that? Well, it’s never happened through 10 weeks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. In fact, there have been at least two punt return touchdowns in every previous season by now.

There have been no major rules changes regarding punt coverage or blocking, unlike kickoffs, in which wedge blocking has been curtailed to reduce injuries and touchbacks were moved to the 25-yard line in 2016 as a means of limiting kick returns and thus lowering the injury rates on that play.

While this year might be an anomaly in the absence of punt return touchdowns, Giants special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey traced the decreased production at least in part to the recently adopted kickoff rules.

"With a lot of touchbacks, the ball is coming to the 25-yard line, and with two first downs, you’re in plus-territory," he said. "Now the ball is going to be punted down inside the 10 or the 15, and your chances to return for a touchdown diminishes, as opposed to the ball being backed up. You punt from the 10, you catch it at the 40 or whatever, you get the chance to return it. It’s just hard. The opportunity to return a punt for a touchdown is not as prevalent because of where the ball starts, for the most part."

Cam-Rivera reunion

Cam Newton and Ron Rivera were together for nine seasons in Carolina, and the quarterback and coach went to the Super Bowl after a 15-1 season in 2015. Now the two will face off against one another when Rivera brings the Washington Football Team to Carolina to face the Panthers.

Newton, who was signed before last week’s game against the Cardinals, has been named the Panthers’ starter by coach Matt Rhule.

Newton ran for a 2-yard touchdown and threw a 2-yard scoring pass to Robby Anderson to stake the Panthers to a 14-0 lead in an upset win over the Cardinals.

"I’ll be back in Charlotte. That’ll be probably the bigger thing more so than anything else for me," said Rivera, a popular coach while in Carolina. "The thing I really appreciated about my time there were the people . . . I’m pretty much going to try and stick to the mantra that this is a business trip."

Extra points

What makes the NFL the best league in pro sports is its unpredictability. Look no further than this season for proof that the "on-any-given-Sunday" saying is alive and well. And look at this stat as evidence: For the second straight week, four teams — the Dolphins, Panthers, Vikings and Washington Football Team — began the week with a losing record and beat the team that started the week in first place in its division. That’s the most such wins in Week 9-10 since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger . . . Kansas City wideout Tyreek Hill is third in the NFL with eight touchdown catches and has 66 TDs in 84 games. With a touchdown on Sunday against Dallas, Hill would tie Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss for the second-most touchdowns by a player in his first 85 career games. The only one with more: Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (81) . . . Dallas cornerback Trevon Diggs’ eight interceptions are tied for the most by a player in his team’s first nine games of a season since 1990 (Doug Evans of the Panthers in 2001). Interestingly enough, Evans didn’t get another interception the rest of that season. Diggs has just one pick in his last three games combined . . . Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is 12-0 against NFC teams. The Ravens will face the Bears on Sunday.

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