By Albert Breer
June 17, 2019
Back when he was The Turk for the 2001 Ravens on Hard Knocks, or rolling the dice in letting his Baltimore contract run out to pursue career advancement, or breaking through with a VP job in Philly, this would probably have qualified as the last place Joe Douglas would expect to reach the top rung of the NFL’s scouting ladder.
But there he was two Fridays ago, when it all came together.
“This is crazy,” Douglas said from his new office on Thursday. “I was in my house. But because there was so much commotion going on with the kids—there were kids everywhere—I was walking around back and forth upstairs and I was on and off the phone. And I went to my room and there's a desk in our bedroom and I was sitting at the desk, and then the kids would run in and I’d walk out.
“So finally I barricaded myself in my youngest daughter's room. I had to have my phone calls, and get some peace and quiet, so I shut the door. And I'm sitting on my daughter's bed in a room with pink walls.”
And that’s where he processed everything: the initial rumors of interest from the Jets in April, all the tumult that organization had gone through since, his interview five days earlier, and the negotiations over the 48 hours or so prior that promised to set his family up financially for decades to come. The decision coming would be life-changing for his family. For Douglas it was 19 years in the making. All of it, right there in a place that wasn’t exactly stirring thoughts of third-and-2.
“Making the decision to be a New York Jet,” Douglas said. “I hung up the phone and looked around. I was like, ‘Wow, I never thought it’d go down like that.’ It was pretty funny.”
The decision wasn’t easy. Douglas knows the vast majority of personnel men only get one shot at being a GM, and the Eagles’ success and stability gave him flexibility to be patient. He’s also aware that the job in front of him has its challenges—he’s the fourth guy to serve in the position for the franchise this decade, and there are reasons for that. But he’s at peace now. Douglas is the Jets' new GM. It’s full steam ahead.
Here’s the other thing Douglas did 10 days ago while he was sitting there in his daughter’s bedroom: He canceled his vacation.
Normally, coaches and scouts go to their lake houses or beachfront properties in the middle of June to shut it down for a month or so. Douglas had plans, as he always does.
Now? He went to North Carolina for his mom’s 80th birthday this weekend—the one thing he didn’t take off the calendar. He checked back into the hotel where he's spent the past week, he’ll be back in the office Monday, and he’ll be there right on through the return of all the football people in mid-July.
“This is a lot different than most of my summers,” he said. “I’d tell you in the past, I'd usually be getting ready to head to Outer Banks or maybe Ocean City, Md. for a couple of days with the family and kids. That's not happening.”
There’s a lot to catch up on. Ahead of his interview two weeks ago, Douglas watched tape of four games of the Jets defense and six of the Jets offense from last year, so he could speak with some depth at his meeting with acting owner Christopher Johnson.
Since then, he’s learned more. He’s gotten to know Johnson and an organization that looked, at least to us on the outside, like a five-alarm fire in mid-May. He’s gotten through most of the team’s 2019 tape. He’s acquainted himself around the building. And he’s gained some perspective. Over about an hour on Thursday, Douglas and I covered that perspective, top to bottom. What can we distill for you from the conversation?
Leaving Philly wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t just because there were some pratfalls waiting for him 90 minutes north in Jersey. It was also because of where the Eagles are, which both promised to insulate his place as a hot young executive and provide chances to compete for championships.
“I really feel like that franchise, that football team, they're firing on all cylinders,” Douglas said. “It's as deep of a team as I've ever seen there. And that's including the ’17 team. There's a lot of good going on. And so that made it a really tough decision.”
The next question, obviously: Why did he leave? That relates back to the Saturday night dinner and Sunday interview he had with Johnson.
“Even just within five minutes, your first instinct is like, ‘Christopher Johnson is a really good man,’” Douglas said. “He's extremely genuine. He's extremely sincere. He's a direct communicator. He believes in a lot of the same things I believe in when it comes to the successful teams—people, chemistry, teamwork, selflessness. The more I talked with him, the more I knew.”
Of course, Christopher Johnson will eventually hand the reins back to his older brother Woody, whenever Woody returns from his appointment as U.S. Ambassador to the UK. That could happen as soon as next year, and it was a concern of most of the candidates who considered the job. It sounds like Douglas at least got it addressed. Asked if he was concerned about it, Douglas said, “No. Without going into the details, I feel good about the situation, and I feel great about Christopher.”
He doesn’t see this as a teardown. Douglas was part of one with the Bears in 2015. “[GM] Ryan [Pace] has done an amazing job in Chicago,” Douglas says. And Douglas was also part of a job that required more fine-tuning than fumigation, alongside Howie Roseman in Philly three years ago. It’s clear how he sees this one, in relative terms.
“It was not a teardown there, and I don't think it's a teardown here,” Douglas said. “And frankly, those two are much better situations than when me and Adam [Gase] walked into in Chicago in ’15.”
There are some pretty valuable lessons he’s taking from the infancy of Roseman’s reemergence atop the Philly football operation, and that’s how important it is to bring the building back together after a tumultuous couple years. Within a couple months, the Eagles extended veterans Zach Ertz, Lane Johnson, Vinny Curry and Malcolm Jenkins. And that summer, they got star DT Fletcher Cox done too.
“[Roseman] knew the building was fractured,” Douglas said. “He knew that the players needed a safe harbor. And he wanted to send a message to the homegrown players that if you do right, you're going to be cared for—we're not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And I think that went a long way.”
When I asked Douglas if he felt like he had to bring the building back together like Roseman did in Philly, he answered that he didn’t want to judge those that came before him. But, very clearly, and regardless of what happened before, he knows the building needs to be together.
“With all the highs and the lows and the adversity you face, it's just important to have strong relationships and try to cultivate strong relationships around the building, not just on the personnel side or the coaching side but really around the building,” Douglas said. “We're all in this together. We're all pulling in the same direction and everyone wants to feel part of it. So I think that's important, to have a building unified.”
He has watched a lot of Darnold. We mentioned that Douglas watched six games of the Jets on offense and four on defense before his interview. The reason for the disparity is he wanted to have a feel for the quarterback. So he looked at two early-season games of Darnold’s, then the Jets’ final four games, the four that came after the now-22-year-old returned from a foot injury.
“Sam did a really nice job coming back from injury,” Douglas said. “Just seeing him seeing him, he's not a guy that hung onto the ball for very long. He's able to go through his progressions quickly, I like his feet in the pocket, I like his pocket awareness, he's got a nice quick release, ball spins out of his hands, he throws an accurate ball, he can escape. … So he’s an interesting guy. I mean, he’s a good player.”
While he was digging through Darnold, Douglas saw what he believes is a better-than-advertised group of skill players. Robby Anderson, in particular, impressed Douglas, especially when the new GM popped in the Denver tape from October. “He's a tough weapon for defenses to match up with, he can get behind you and he can challenge the defense vertically. That was a very pleasant surprise.”
Douglas added the tape also confirmed the things he, and the Eagles, liked about tight end Chris Herndon before the 2018 draft. And, having been in the AFC North and NFC East, he has plenty of background competing against new additions Jamison Crowder (“really savvy, quick, really good route-runner”) and Le’Veon Bell (“probably one of the best running backs in football”).
The defense is strong up the gut. This one is obvious, based on investment. The Jets will line up two top-5 picks on the inside of their defensive line, two big-ticket free-agent signings as off-ball linebackers, and two top-40 picks at safety. They should be good through the middle of the defense. And they are, as Douglas sees it.
“You talk about baseball teams, you want to build from the inside out, I think this defense is strong, strong up the middle,” he said.
Douglas hit all the obvious ones. He just said, “golly,” when Leonard Williams’s name came up, mentioned that Avery Williamson was on Philly’s radar as a 2018 free agent, called Jamal Adams “as fierce a competitor as you'll find in this league”, and noted how he was in Baltimore when C.J. Mosley was drafted in 2014. But beyond just that, he added, “I was pleasantly surprised with their interior depth.” He knew ex-Steeler NT Steve McLendon from his Raven days, and liked DT Nathan Shepherd coming out in 2018. Both those guys showed up in his evaluation of what will be behind Leonard Williams and third overall pick Quinnen Williams. Again, Douglas doesn’t feel like he’s starting from scratch.
There was good reason for Douglas to call off his annual away time over the next few weeks, and it’s not just professional. The Jets’ North Jersey home is, as Douglas puts it, “right at the point of uncomfortable” in distance from his home in South Jersey, about 90 minutes away (without traffic). So he and his wife have been huddling on moving a little ways up the I-95 corridor this summer.
“I never wanted to be a sleep-in-the-office guy, not when I have little kids,” Douglas says. “This game keeps you way enough.”
And it will in the interim, too, with Douglas planning to be in the office daily right until the start of camp. He had his first personnel meeting with the coaches on Wednesday. Now, with most of the football staff off, he’s going to try to use the next few weeks to forge relationships with those on the business side.
That will happen when Douglas takes breaks from his study, which has moved to practice tape from the spring (both OTAs and minicamp) “I've watched tape from last year, but I haven't watched this team all together.” There are obvious holes on the roster, to be sure, in the areas Douglas didn’t mention above (corner, edge rusher, offensive line). He’ll get to work on solutions for those.
He’ll also be communicating with Gase, whose work, along with John Fox and Vic Fangio, with that barren Chicago roster in ’15 certainly left an impression on Douglas, enough that the new head coach’s presence became a draw. “I know what kind of coach he is,” he said. "I know that I can make it work with Adam.”
Eventually, he’ll get to take a breath and let it all sink in. That hasn’t happened quite yet, and maybe it won’t for a while. But he knows, and knew back when he was staring at those pink walls, what he signed up for. And considering where the Jets have been the last few months, there’s a lot of work to do.