Jim Harbaugh apparently won’t be in the mix for the Jets’ soon-to-be-vacant head-coaching job, with CEO Christopher Johnson on Monday taking the unusual step of publicly refuting a report suggesting that the team will go after the Michigan coach to replace Todd Bowles.
But regardless of which coach the Jets go after once Bowles is shown the door — and there is every reason to believe that will happen shortly after next Sunday’s season-ending game against the Patriots — make no mistake: For one of the first times in recent memory, the Jets’ job will be one of the most attractive in this year’s hiring cycle.
The Jets may be limping toward the finish of a third consecutive double-digit-loss season after blowing a 15-point fourth-quarter lead over the Packers, but the future looks bright for a team that appears to have a legitimate franchise quarterback in 21-year-old Sam Darnold. And along with some other important pieces on the team — including safety Jamal Adams, wide receiver Robby Anderson, cornerback Trumaine Johnson (a disappointment this season but a talented player nonetheless) and rookie tight end Chris Herndon — there is another roster-building tool about to be unleased in March.
The Jets will be flush with salary-cap room — nearly $100 million worth — when the free-agency signing period opens. And that means that general manager Mike Maccagnan, or another front-office boss if the Jets decide to purge both Bowles and Maccagnan, will have the means to go after some valuable talent on the open market.
You give a new coach a franchise quarterback, some decent talent already on the roster, a pile of salary-cap space and a top-five draft pick, and you are talking about a tremendous opportunity. If there isn’t an immediate turnaround on the horizon, there is at least the possibility of sustained success with the right roster moves.
If Harbaugh were interested in the Jets, and vice versa, he’d certainly welcome that kind of scenario. He did terrific work with the 49ers when he turned around Alex Smith’s career and later drafted and developed Colin Kaepernick. And while Harbaugh’s abrasive personality isn’t for everyone, he is a proven coach with a Super Bowl appearance who now oversees one of college football’s marquee programs.
Harbaugh in the New York market surely would be a delightful if occasionally combustible mix, and the coach’s rough-and-tumble style with the media no doubt would heighten interest in the Jets the way Rex Ryan did when he was a back page-producing machine from 2009-14. And despite Johnson's forceful statement that the team isn’t about to pursue Harbaugh, things can and sometimes do change in this crazy world of buying coaches.
For now, it sounds as if Harbaugh isn’t ready to leave his fiefdom at Michigan, where he is the king of the castle, calls all of the shots and gets about $7 million a year. If not Harbaugh, the most sensible choice would appear to be former Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who produced an exemplary career in Green Bay before a second straight season with no playoff berth prompted his ouster.
With a slew of first-time head-coach hires in the Jets’ rearview mirror — they haven’t hired anyone with previous NFL head-coaching experience since Bill Parcells in 1997 — the time seems right to bring in someone who has been through the wars and won’t need to make the adjustments that many coordinators-turned-head coaches have had to make.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t another Sean McVay out there — a little-known assistant who is bright enough to make a seamless transition to the top job. Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has done fine work. Dave Toub has done a terrific job as the Chiefs’ longtime special teams coach. Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor is considered a rising star in the coaching ranks. Former Texas A&M head coach Kliff Kingsbury has Patrick Mahomes’ development on his resume.
McCarthy wore on Aaron Rodgers as time went on in Green Bay, and it seemed inevitable that the Packers would part ways with the head coach to put a fresh set of eyes in place for Rodgers, who remains one of the NFL’s very best at what he does. But put McCarthy or another qualified offensive-minded coach with Darnold, who already has shown definitive signs of progress since returning from a foot injury last month, and this team will start going places very soon.
The hiring process is set to begin in about a week, and there will be plenty of intrigue as the Jets and several other teams making changes seek their new head coaches. In fact, the Harbaugh situation already has kick-started the speculation.
Whoever winds up as the Jets’ coach will have a promising future with a franchise quarterback, a ton of free-agent spending money and a top-five pick in April.
Not many of those jobs available. Some coach is about to get lucky.