Days after the completion of the 2021 NFL season, general manager Joe Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh sat down with team reporter Eric Allen for a retrospective with perspective while also sharing their thoughts on where the Green & White is going and where the club needs to go.
No promises. No bombast. But there is a definite sense that the Jets' co-pilots are reading from the same playbook as they go about building a culture and a foundation for next season and beyond.
'Kickstarting the Offseason'
Douglas is preparing for his third NFL draft, at present holding two picks in the first round (Nos. 4 and 10) and two more in the top 38 (Nos. 35 and 38) plus five additional selections in the rest of the draft. Exciting though it might be, especially in light of the strong draft in 2021 and the strong play of the rookie class, the GM was candid about the past season.
"It was a tough year in terms of winning four games," he said. "I feel like today is a good day, it's the start of another action process. Four wins are not where we want to be, so it was a tough year in that regard. Today we kickstarted the offseason. It's been great getting together with the players on exit interviews and hearing them out. There are a lot of reasons to be excited, and a lot of that is because of the man to my left [Saleh], his coaching, his ability to teach and inspire and lead. I feel like we have the foundation in place."
Saleh, who has been a part of several rebuilds across the league, came to the Jets after serving as the defensive coordinator for the 49ers. He brought along a no-nonsense approach and won over the locker room with a clear message.
"I thought he did an amazing job," Douglas said. "They [the coaching staff] didn't dip their toes in the water in terms of player development, they went in headfirst, actually cannonballed. With this young team, we've really embraced the player development aspect. The staff's ability to teach and lead, you saw it as the season progressed. So many first- and second-year players came along and to see their growth, their progress was awesome to see."
That Douglas and his staff hit on their 2021 draft picks is undeniable.
"The draft, that is the foundation of every great team," he said. "To be consistent and successful you have to be able to build through the draft. So the onus is on us as a group, the staff, the scouts, everyone to make sure we're getting exactly the right person for this culture who can flourish."
QB Zach Wilson laid the groundwork for exciting progress next season after returning from a four-game absence, looking poised and confident, and not throwing an interception his final five games. RB Michael Carter led the team in rushing yards and nearly eclipsed 1,000 total yards from scrimmage. LG Alijah Vera-Tucker had the most snaps on the team and looks like he could be a future perennial All-Pro. WR Elijah Moore gave us glimpses of his game-breaking capabilities. On defense, CBs Michael Carter II, Brandin Echols and Jason Pinnock developed as the season went on. Not to be left out, the rookie LBs Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeendealt with injuries, but figure into the team's future.
"No. 1, I think what stands out is how professional these guys were, how they attacked every day," Douglas said. "Their love of the game, it showed on the field when they got out there. The coaches and staff and their ability to develop them has set us on a path.
"Zach made progress, with AVT we feel like he's a left guard who could be the foundation of the offensive line. Carter, Moore, a lot of young players stepped up in big ways. Now they have to continue. We can't take the foot off the gas. We have to come back and be ready to roll."
Speaking about Wilson, Douglas said: "His passion for the game shows every day he walks into the building. He's nonstop football and that's what we love about him, how he's wired and how he wants to prepare, soak in as much knowledge as he can. Watching his progression throughout the year, being in less-than-ideal situations in the back half, not having all the starters at skill positions -- wide receiver, running back, tight end -- and still being able to play efficient winning football and taking care of the ball, those are really good indications."
In sum, Douglas said: "I can't wait to get with coach and staff and lock arms and attack the free-agent evaluation process, the Combine, attack college scouting ... we have a lot of work to do. I am fortunate to have great teammates like Coach Saleh and his staff and we're going to do this together."
Saleh: 'Honeymoon of Being a Rookie Is Over'
Through the challenges of being a first-year coach, dealing with a raft of injuries and the coronavirus pandemic (which sidelined him for a game), Saleh never wavered from his message and his belief in his players. He joined the Jets last January -- "It feels like 10 years ago," he said -- and embarked on a project to change the culture.
"It's been a roller coaster," Saleh said. "There's been some hair-pulling moments, even though I don't have any! It's been a tremendous experience, a foundation's been laid that will allow us to build some of those skyscrapers over the next few years.
"Sometimes we lose sight because of the time crunch -- everyone wants everything now. To have confidence in everyone we bring into the building takes precedence and we have to have confidence in each other. I feel there are so many guys who have taken a giant leap in playing ability from the beginning to the end of the year. Credit to the staff and individual players, and Joe and his staff for the character they've brought in. It's a collective effort. It's something we strive for and won't end with this group. I'm excited about the next group we get to develop and get our hands on."
With his perspective and experience in the league, Saleh has emphasized to his players, particularly the younger ones, the importance of staying on point during the offseason.
"The transition from Year 1 to Year 2 can get lost in this offseason, happens all the time," he said. "To really stay connected and focused because for the first time in life they have more time than they've ever had and more money than they've ever had. Just keep the main thing the main thing. Everything you do from now until September is getting you ready to have a better second year. The message is simple: Stay connected and be prepared to have your greatest offseason, but also the most difficult. It doesn't stop. The honeymoon of being a rookie is over, and we all need to find a way to get better in the second year."
He pointed to the regular-season finale at Buffalo as a kind of signpost along the road to maturity and long-term success. The Jets hung with the AFC East champion Bills until late in the game.
"I'm really proud of the group," he said. "We responded and never went away. It's what you look for in a game -- loud, cold, windy, raining, not ideal weather for a quarterback, ideal for running the football and playing great defense."
He added: "We've been in a lot of fourth-quarter games, within a score. Being able to close the gap is being able to win in the fourth quarter, pulling out close games where our playmakers make a play when one needs to be made. I think we have the right character in building and have an opportunity to add to it. It's a combination of youth, character and excitement and I hope it propels us into the offseason, have a heck of an offseason and hit the ground running with OTAs."
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