Robert Saleh’s climb from defensive intern to NFL head coach is not surprising to the people who have been in meeting rooms or on the football field with him.
Saleh is driven to succeed and to put his players in positions in which they can be successful. He did that as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator the last four years, and now he’s expected to do it as the Jets’ head coach.
The Jets were impressed with Saleh’s vision for the team and his leadership ability and chose him over eight other candidates, giving him a five-year contract.
The Jets have missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons. Whether Saleh can change that and how quickly will depend on the roster he and general manager Joe Douglas assemble. But Saleh, an intense and emotional coach, knows how to motivate players and get the most out of them.
Gus Bradley, recently hired as the Raiders’ defensive coordinator, has worked with Saleh on two teams. He said Saleh’s intensity and passion are "authentic," that he relates well to players and that they respond to him.
"He can make it uncomfortable, without a doubt," Bradley said by phone. "He can challenge them. There’s a standard to Robert Saleh. But he’s going to do it with an overall energy level.
He’s not a demeaning-type coach, but he’s an expectation coach. There is an expectation and there’s some non-negotiables to that. I think because he’s so consistent and it’s authentic, that’s where he’s had success."
That’s also a big reason the Jets chose Saleh, whose NFL career began in 2005 as a defensive intern with the Texans.
Bradley credits Saleh with a unique ability to take something that may seem complicated and make it simple. He inspires his players and has their respect.
"He’s able to rally men," 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said this season. "He’s a leader of men. That goes a long way."
Shortly after Saleh’s hiring was announced, Sherman tweeted that the Jets "got a great one!"
Saleh was the Seahawks’ defensive quality control coach from 2011-13. Bradley, who was Seattle’s defensive coordinator the first two years, said Saleh was "organized, meticulous and efficient" and that his responsibilities expanded because he proved he could handle it.
Bradley later became the Jaguars’ head coach and Saleh spent three years as the linebackers coach there. Bradley could see Saleh’s head-coaching potential. "He can relate to players, and when he puts plans together, it’s a really, really clear picture of what they’re trying to accomplish," he said. "He’s not telling them what to do. He shows them what it’s going to look like.
"You hear Richard Sherman talk about Robert Saleh as a teacher and as a motivator and a leader. That’s in high regard because Sherm is very sharp and knows what a good team or a good unit looks like. That was a great credit to Robert and he’s been able to lead the whole unit."
In Seattle, Pete Carroll tasked Bradley and his staff with changing the defensive scheme. Saleh was part of a group of coaches that included Ken Norton Jr. and Kris Richard that helped design a dominant defense whose secondary became known as "The Legion of Boom." Seattle was the stingiest defense in 2012 and 2013 and won a Super Bowl.
In San Francisco, Saleh still ran an aggressive 4-3 scheme similar to Seattle’s, but he put his stamp on it. The 49ers have been a top-five defense the past two seasons.
"He added some things that he always wanted to do," Bradley said of Saleh. "He’s innovative that way. The changes he made were really good, really good concepts. The players really bought into it and it made the package even stronger."
Saleh is expected to hire 49ers passing coordinator Mike LaFleur as the offensive coordinator, but Bradley said he will be involved in all areas.
"He understands offense, special teams, defense, salary cap, scouting, player acquisitions," he said. "He’s just very well-rounded. He can take it all in. You never see him get overwhelmed."