There’s been plenty for coaches to watch the last few weeks, as NFL offseason programs have started to ramp up with the summer approaching.
Robert Saleh has actually taken more from listening.
“We have so many new faces, both offensively and defensively,” the Jets coach told me from his house Sunday morning. “And what’s been encouraging through Phase II was to hear it. I always listen to volume, a player’s voice and volume on whether or not he’s understanding. The more he understands, the louder his voice will get. It’s confidence in communication. And so offensively, defensively, as Phase II went, as we went to the last week of Phase II, you could hear the volume of practice increasing in terms of communication.
“It’s players speaking to one another, having alerts, being aware of things. So from that regard, it’s good. And you anticipate when it gets faster this week, it’ll have to rebuild again, trying to get comfortable doing it while competing against their teammates.”
Organized team activities begin, in earnest, Monday morning across the NFL.
In layman’s terms, it really means, finally, football practice can begin. The way the league’s offseason sets up, Phase I of the offseason program is for classroom work, lifting and running; and Phase II is for the beginning of on-field instruction. Phase III, which contains each team’s allotted OTAs and mandatory minicamp, allows for nonpadded, noncontact competitive action out on the field for the first time.
So no, this isn’t what you’ll witness in training camp. And yes, everyone still has a long way to go. But for a team like Saleh’s Jets, this is the first chance to see all the new pieces assembled for the first time. Laken Tomlinson lining up opposite Alijah Vera-Tucker. Garrett Wilson catching the ball from Zach Wilson. Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson II lining up on the edges of the secondary and front seven.
“The athletes, we’re excited about for sure,” Saleh continued. “Obviously, we believe they fit our system, and fit what we’re trying to get accomplished. Our front seven, it is long and athletic, we’ve got a bunch of three-techniques and a bunch of rush ends—throw four guys on the field and let’s go play. And we got C.J. [Mosley] and Quincy [Williams], and revamped the entire back end …
Saleh went on for a while on the roster before stopping and pivoting.
“But if you’re really going to comment on something, Albert, it’s gotta be the character,” Saleh said. “And the shift to guys who love this game and love working, love their teammates, love hanging out and want nothing more than to win.”
Today’s a new day for everyone in the NFL, as on-field work ramps up. All have big plans.
With that established, Saleh isn’t making any proclamations about where all this will lead the roster he and GM Joe Douglas have revamped over the last 17 months. But this much is for sure—he likes who he’s going to work with.
There are lots of pro football stories out there worth your attention, even though it’s May.
And to me, somehow, even being in New York, the Jets are one that’s overlooked. They’ve got a quarterback going into his second year with an exciting playing style but not a ton from his rookie year to go off of. They’ve brought in five first-round picks over the last two springs, thanks to the Jamal Adams trade. They were major players in free agency in each of the last two offseasons.
The time to turn the corner, it would seem, is now, with Douglas heading into his third full year at the helm, and the honeymoons for Saleh and Wilson soon to expire.
“I think no matter what type of roster you think you have, and this is where I get cliché on you, I apologize—but it’s the urgency at which you approach every day,” Saleh said, when I asked if urgency to win is ramped up now. “We have this ‘all gas, no brake’ mantra here; what does it mean? It means you go to bed better than when you woke up. Which means you wake up every morning and put your best foot forward and you do everything you can to be your personal best—not the best, but your personal best.
“And you’re trying to PR every single day. And you hope, if we do that as a collective group, we’ll love our results. Obviously, the main goal is to win. Obviously, we’re trying to win Super Bowls, all that stuff. But none of that happens unless you really understand the process and how to get there.”
Which, then, comes back to that detail of what he’s heard out on the field through the first two phases of this spring’s offseason program—to him, the tone, inflection and force in the players’ voices show they’re starting to get it, which is one of a few reasons why, even if he won’t say it explicitly, the volume in his own voice paints a picture of optimism.
And yes, to be clear, Saleh is excited for Phase III.
“I think anytime we can get on the grass—I’ll speak for any coach in football—we love being on the grass with our guys,” he said. “The film room is great, the weight room is great, all that stuff is great. But there’s nothing better than being on the grass with the guys. So for that, I’m always excited, when we get those opportunities.”
But there are also some specifics that he and I covered, as to just why this team at least has the look of one that could make a significant jump in a division with perhaps the NFL’s best team (the Bills), its preeminent power of the last 20 years (the Patriots) and another up-and-comer that’s been pretty aggressive itself the last couple of months (the Dolphins).
That, of course, will have to start with the quarterback. It’s no secret that the Jets have a lot riding on the 22-year-old who went No. 2 in the draft 13 months ago, after a rough rookie year that included three wins, nine touchdown passes, 11 picks and a month missed.
The good news is that the lessons of 2021, as the coaches see it, have sunk in for Wilson. In particular, Saleh cited the time he missed, and in particular a game he was out for—the Jets’ 34–31 upset of the eventual conference champion Bengals, in which journeyman backup Mike White threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns—as valuable in showing Wilson where he needed to grow.
“Where I think he’s really, really focused is on the more important parts of the game, rather than what he perceived the game to be a year ago,” Saleh said. “A year ago, it felt like he was trying to find ways to make every play, rather than just taking what the defense gives you—and the defense is always giving you something. It’s just a matter of taking it. He’s really learning about space, and he’s able to say, Well, shoot, there’s space. Let me get the ball to my athletes, and my athletes will go make plays.
“And I think the starting point for that trigger was the Mike White game against the Bengals. … Mike just played quarterback. He executed the offense and did an unbelievable job doing it. I think from that point on, [Wilson] has really changed, at least in those meeting rooms. That part has been fun to watch.”
The idea, Saleh continued, is to feast on layups, and be judicious shooting three-pointers (so to speak).
“Every once in a while, you’re going to have to do something special,” Saleh said. “But Tom Brady is Tom Brady because he wasn’t afraid to take layups. And he’s done it, for it seems like 100 years now. But there are other quarterbacks; they all do it. Like [Patrick] Mahomes is the coolest example for me, because everyone goes crazy for his splash plays, but he will play small ball all day with you if you let him.
“And I think once Zach realizes that the small-ball element is what creates the explosive plays, and gives you the opportunity to create explosive plays, that’s where I think you’ll see all the special traits he possesses.”
One thing that should help is having a growing line (how left tackle Mekhi Becton plays is a big swing factor there), and young weapons like Elijah Moore and Garrett Wilson to throw to, with veterans like Corey Davis and C.J. Uzomah complementing them. And for his part, Wilson has come back thicker and stronger and, per Saleh, “He’s got a mullet going …”
Which might be the one thing from Wilson this spring the coach hasn’t really approved of.
“I’m bald; I don’t like hair,” he said, laughing. “But he’s in a really good place, I’m just excited to get him to the competitive part. I’m really excited for training camp to be honest with you, because Phase III isn’t going to be overly hard. You get to training camp, and the competitive juices are flying again; that’s gonna be exciting.”
Also exciting: how the new pieces on defense are fitting together. This, really, is where Saleh and I went initially, when he was taking me through how he can hear the difference this year in the on-field communication versus where it was at this point in 2021.
“Defense is where most of the communicating happens,” he said. “The offense lines up, they do their thing; the only one really doing the talking is the quarterback, making his checks and all that stuff, and maybe the center making some Mike points. Defensively, you’ve got to make all the adjustments, and there was a lot of communication happening.
“Lamarcus Joyner missed all of last year, and we added Jordan Whitehead, getting D.J. Reed in there, there’s new faces on that back end. Those three guys in particular, understanding the nuances of our scheme and what we’re being asked to do. The entire safety group, for the most part, is relatively new. … And you can tell they were getting comfortable as Phase II came to a close. Now it’s just, can you take it to Phase III, and let’s roll into training camp.”
It’s good news, too, because so much of Saleh’s defense is predicated on playing fast. That the communication is working well this early on the back end, with mainstays like Mosley handling it on the front end, should have everyone in a good spot going into summer.
The makeup of the team is getting to where Saleh wants it. And this is probably where there’s some risk of sounding a little cliché again. But the truth is that the general vibe of the team is one thing you actually can read a little into this early in the season, and seeing scenes like Wilson leading teammates into Madison Square Garden for Rangers playoff games does have more than a little meaning for the coach—and maybe as much as what they’re doing inside the team’s walls at this time of year.
“The attendance we got was phenomenal, which I’m sure it’s phenomenal for everyone in Phase I and II, even with it being voluntary,” he said. “But I look at it in the way they hang out with one another. You go to the cafeteria; everybody’s hanging out with one another. You go to the weight room, and they’re laughing. On the practice field, they’re talking in stretch lines. There’s just an energy to them.
“You’re seeing them at baseball games together, they’re golfing together; it’s not come to work and leave and everyone goes their separate ways. Guys are hanging out when they leave here. These guys actually like one another, and like being around one another; and I think that’s cool.”
These things, of course, still have to stand the tests of time, injuries and the inevitable losing streak. But Saleh and Douglas have been pretty intentional on the types of guys they’re bringing in—and that part of the equation does seem to be adding up now.
O.K., so now the truth about why no one’s really talking up the Jets right now: The track record is not good. Since making the AFC title game after the 2010 season, New York has gone 8–8, 6–10, 8–8, 4–12, 10–6, 5–11, 5–11, 4–12, 7–9, 2–14 and 4–13, and made the playoffs precisely zero times.
That’s 11 years of futility. The challenge of breaking the mentality that surrounds a drought like that, a mentality that the other shoe is always about to drop, remains there.
“And that’s the hard part,” Saleh said. “But you go back to the question you asked, about what stood out. You have to understand process. Football is not easy, and so the process of football, and the process of getting to game day is hard. It’s not for everyone. The weight room, the rehab, the hitting, the grind on your body, it is brutal. And so if you do not love this game, you will not enjoy the process.
“If you do not enjoy the process, you’re not gonna put everything you can into the process, which means you’re not going to be your best on Sunday. So that goes back to the whole thing we’ve been trying to accomplish here, in bringing in guys who love everything about ball. Because at the end of the day they’re gonna maximize who they are. And you trust that if they maximize who they are, it’s gonna be good enough.”
It’s hard to say, in May, whether it will be. But even if Saleh wasn’t making any grandiose predictions that a breakthrough was coming, it really wasn’t hard to sniff out how he feels.
“We’re gonna keep that focus,” he continued. “Now, we’re a super young team and we’re going to try to grow up as fast as we can. But I love the direction we’re going.”
And Monday morning should be another step in figuring out how soon they get there.