It is often said that NFL coaches comprise a fraternity, an itinerant pigskin brotherhood that often begins as young, underpaid interns and evolves over the years -- and can lead to the Holy Grail ... a job as an NFL head coach.
Sunday's Week 5 game between the Jets and the visiting Miami Dolphins is not only the renewal of one of the most bitter and entertaining rivalries in the AFC East, if not the entire NFL, but it will also serve as an unofficial reunion among some of the team's coaches. The most prominent of which is the long-standing relationship, and friendship, between Jets second-year HC Robert Saleh and 'Fins rookie HC Mike McDaniel.
The two coaches, who many believe to be among the brightest younger minds in the game, first encountered each other some 15 years ago, when Saleh was an intern working with the defensive unit of the Houston Texans. After a coaching change, the Texans hired Gary Kubiak away from Denver, who took along McDaniel (then a coaching intern under Broncos' HC Mike Shanahan for his hometown team since age 22) as an offensive assistant.
"So, I was an intern, my first year in the NFL," Saleh, 43, said. "I thought I was rich, making five bucks an hour. And I was all alone in this massive staff room. And when Dom Capers was relieved of his duties and Vic Fangio, I was his assistant. I technically didn't have a coach's contract, so I had nowhere to go, my internship was going all the way through the middle of February , end of February, somewhere in there. So, I was just hanging out. I knew they were hiring Coach Kubiak; they lost a playoff game.
"And before the rest of the staff got there, I flew back in town, went to his press conference, introduced myself, took out some of his boxes, just trying to be around to be present. They showed up, Mike McDaniel and everyone showed up, Kyle Shanahan, all those guys. We went out to a couple of dinners, and I was just trying to immerse myself. Just a fly on a wall, hanging with Coach and answering whatever questions he had with regards to the building. And as he might recall, I went into his office and was like 'Coach, I want to be here.' I had offers to go with Coach [Dom] Capers but I wanted to be in Houston, I wanted to be with him, and luckily for me he kept me along."
McDaniel, who also worked with Saleh during their time with Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers, has a take that was a bit different than Saleh's.
"Well, he was a squatter when he first got the job in Houston ... which was hilarious," McDaniel, 39, said during a press conference earlier this week. "So, I came with Gary Kubiak and Troy Calhoun from the Broncos, and in Houston we had an office, and there was one guy in there when I got there, and it was Robert Saleh. He hadn't been terminated and he had been working with Dom Capers [on the previous staff], I think he had like two more weeks of pay or something.
"He did an excellent job of just forcing his hand, getting face time with the head coach. He just sat in there all week. I think I go there on Tuesday, and he just sat across from me awkwardly in this room ... and he just waited there until like Friday, when he barged in and told [Kubiak], 'Hey, I really want to work for you.' There are a lot of those stop-gaps at the beginning of Robert Saleh's career. Always a sponge. Always unbelievably smart."
The "reunion" of the two coaches at MetLife Stadium will bring together a couple of AFC East teams that appear to be on the rise. The Dolphins (3-1) have supercharged their offense with the addition of WR Tyreek Hill, teamed with Jaylen Waddle. The Jets (2-2) have been bolstered by an influx of young talent, led by QB Zach Wilson and a slew of impressive draft picks over the past two years. And though Miami has been riven by injuries (most notably to QB Tua Tagovailoa), the Dolphins have dominated the head-to-head series by winning 10 of the past 12 meetings between the teams. In addition, the Jets are 0-12 in recent games against division rivals.
All that puts the two friends and professional rivals in a strange position -- rooting for the success of the other as long as they don't face each other from opposition sidelines. Saleh, for one, says the situation is uncomfortable, but that's life in the big city.
"I hate it, I hate it, I hate it," Saleh said. "But I am happy for him. It is probably similar to how Kyle [Shanahan] and [Buffalo HC] Sean [McVay] are. I know they are very close with one another and here they are this past weekend playing on 'Monday Night Football.' It is never easy. But at the same time, a tremendous amount of respect for him and what he is doing. And hopefully we can flip it to where we are the top two teams in the division every year and we can keep this rolling."
In addition to Saleh, McDaniel worked with Jets' offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur with the 49ers, and extends to working and friendly relations with DC Jeff Ulbrich, receivers coach Miles Austin, offensive line and run-game coordinator John Benton, defensive line coach Aaron Whitecotton and linebackers coach Mike Rutenberg.
"Very, very, very good relationship working and personal," McDaniel said, referring to all the connections. "So that's why I have a clear-cut vision of what it's going to take for our guys to be happy with their performance on Sunday, because I know how detailed and passionate and how much energy those guys are in wherever they're at New York, New Jersey. Those guys are preparing for us."