FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The New York Jets entrusted the 2018 season to a rookie quarterback, Sam Darnold, who went from good to bad to good. Typical growing pains. Now they’re on to what will be a watershed offseason, and once again they’re relying on a rookie. Two, actually.
CEO Christopher Johnson and general manager Mike Maccagnan, neither of whom has coordinated a head-coaching search, are in charge of finding the replacement for Todd Bowles.
Unlike Darnold, they have no margin for error. Sorry, no growing pains allowed. Over the next few weeks, they will interview several candidates and ultimately will make a decision that shapes the future of the franchise. The right coach, teamed with a potential star quarterback in Darnold, could catapult the Jets into a new era of prosperity. The wrong choice will mean more misery for the team and could stunt Darnold’s development, which would qualify as a high crime and misdemeanor.
If you’re a Jets fan, you have a right to feel a bit uneasy.
“This is my first time in the big chair doing this,” said Johnson, who became the acting owner in 2017 when big brother Woody Johnson left to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Christopher Johnson is the most down-to-earth rich guy you’ll ever meet, and he cares deeply about the team. He’s a players’ owner, respected by the locker room, but the undeniable truth is he’s a novice when it comes to picking a coach. Does he know enough football to get inside a candidate’s head? Does he have the correct vision for the team? Will he pick an X’s-and-O’s guru to develop Darnold or will he look for overall leadership qualities to lead the 53?
Johnson made one thing clear: It’s his call. He will make the final decision.
Jets CEO Christopher Johnson is conducting his first head-coach search. Seth Wenig/AP Photo
Say this for him: He’s got guts, deciding to take a hands-on approach. His big bro went the other way, hiring a consulting firm for the 2013 GM search, which yielded the overmatched John Idzik. Woody Johnson also sought outside help for the concurrent GM and head-coach searches in 2015, using former NFL executives Charley Casserly and Ron Wolf as consultants. That resulted in the Maccagnan-Bowles pairing, which turned into Splitsville on Sunday night with the firing of Bowles.
“Look, I don’t think that anybody should be too confident going into a coaching search, because so much depends on it,” Johnson said. “People say they’re super confident about their ability to find the right coach. I think they’re a little too optimistic.”
Call him pragmatic.
Truth is, Johnson believes the Jets are a terrific landing spot in large part due to Darnold, $100 million in cap room and the appeal of the New York market. As Johnson said, “If you make it here, you’re a freaking legend.”
But that doesn’t mean the Jets will hit a home run with this hire. For one thing, they’ve already narrowed their approach, saying they won’t give total control to a coach and will retain the current power structure. That means the new coach and Maccagnan will be on the same level, both reporting to Johnson. That setup has inherent flaws, and it created fissures in the Maccagnan-Bowles relationship, yet Johnson has no plans to change it. He’s convinced there’s nothing wrong with the structure.
There’s also the issue of Maccagnan, who has only two years remaining on his contract. Can the Jets attract a top candidate if he suspects the GM could get fired in a year? That would mean a new GM, which puts the coach in a precarious position. The Jets lived it with Idzik and Rex Ryan, and they could go through it again if the team fizzles in 2019.
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Johnson didn’t issue a playoff ultimatum for Maccagnan, but he essentially put his GM on notice. As much he praised Maccagnan for Darnold — basically, the reason he gave a mulligan — the acting owner knows the talent level isn’t close to where it needs to be.
“I’m never going to have a mandate, but this team has to get better,” said Johnson, commenting specifically on Maccagnan. “Mike knows that. Mike knows that in all ways this team has to get better.”
Now Johnson and Maccagnan will be sitting side by side in the interviews, probing candidates. Maccagnan needs to pick the right guy because his future is riding on it. At the same time, his uncertain long-term status could make it awkward during the interview process. Will he downgrade a qualified candidate if he senses that guy might angle for control of the roster after a year?
You have to wonder if it might be the case with former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, the only known candidate with the credentials to seek total control. Maccagnan doesn’t have final say on the choice, but he’s in a position to influence Johnson. Would he recommend a coach who might be a threat to his authority?
Maccagnan has been around the league for more than 20 years, so he has contacts and knows the game. He was involved in coaching searches with his previous team, the Houston Texans, but only on the periphery.
“For the most part, for me at least, this will be the first time going through this role right now in terms of my responsibilities,” Maccagnan said.
He’s a rookie at this. So is his boss. They can’t afford a pick-six on their first NFL pass.