Woody Johnson’s plane from England to New Jersey was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean while his brother, Jets CEO Christopher Johnson, was officially introducing Robert Saleh, the head coach he just hired to lead the team out of the darkness in which it’s been mired for the better part of the past decade.
Sure, general manager Joe Douglas and team president Hymie Elhai had their input, but ultimately Saleh was Christopher Johnson’s hire.
With Woody Johnson — whose four-year term as Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom ended Wednesday with the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president — about to resume his role as the Jets principal owner, this was his younger brother’s last act as the man in charge.
Time — more specifically games won or lost — will tell whether Saleh is the head coach to end the Jets’ 10-year playoff drought and, dare we say, turn them into Super Bowl contenders.
But if Saleh is who the Jets believe he is, then his hiring will end up being the lasting legacy of Christopher Johnson’s four-year run calling the shots for the team and erase the mistake he made in hiring Adam Gase two years ago.
Saleh succeeding will forever change the narrative for Christopher Johnson, who has been the most recent object of Jets fans’ ire as an incompetent CEO who hired a bad head coach in Gase, fired general manager Mike Maccagnan at the wrong time of year and oversaw a franchise that went 18-46 on his watch.
If, in a year of two, Saleh has fumigated the stench from the losing that has engulfed the team’s locker room and is leading the Jets to the postseason, then Jets fans (if they are being fair) should credit Christopher Johnson for getting it right.
If Saleh is the culture-changer the Jets believe he is, Christopher Johnson will be the first person to tell you he’s disappointed that it took this long to find the right person. He’ll tell you that he holds himself accountable for being too loyal and patient with Maccagnan and Gase and perhaps not making changes earlier than he did.
But, at the end of the day, if he has gotten this right — and by all indications (albeit without a game being played) he has — then who gives a damn about the period when he got it wrong?
Make no mistake: When Saleh was in New Jersey last week, he was interviewing the Jets as much as they were interviewing him. Saleh had choices. He was on a private jet from New Jersey to Florida as soon as he concluded his two-day visit with the Jets to go meet with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie in Palm Beach.
The Jets, after interviewing Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, with whom they’d already scheduled a second talk, acted swiftly, because they knew Saleh was their man.
As much as Christopher Johnson chose Saleh, Saleh chose him and the Jets.
“When you meet Christopher, he’s such a genuine, well-hearted human being who displays an incredible amount of humility,’’ Saleh said. “When you sit and talk with him, you can feel authenticity. When I walked out of the building, I thought, ‘There’s no doubt this is home.’ ’’
In fairness, the official introduction of Saleh was done via a Zoom call with reporters, not inside a large auditorium packed with reporters firing questions at him. But, unlike Gase two years ago, Saleh “won the press conference.”
Granted, successful press conferences don’t win division titles, but the tenor of Saleh’s meeting with the media was light years different from that awkward introduction to Gase two Januarys ago.
While Gase seemed uneasy, Saleh exuded confidence, but not cockiness. While Gase waffled when asked about his vision for the franchise, Saleh spoke specifically and assuredly about his plan.
While Gase looked like he couldn’t wait to escape that auditorium, Saleh was completely comfortable in his skin. Saleh looked like he belonged. Gase never looked like he belonged.
So, maybe Christopher Johnson got it right this time, not that he’s the type to publicly revel in it.
One of Christopher Johnson’s finest attributes, as Saleh identified, is his humility. He has never sought the spotlight. He enjoys being able to walk to a restaurant with his wife for dinner in the West Village and not be recognized.
He did badly want to build the Jets into a winner on his watch while Woody was in the U.K. He didn’t do that. But maybe, just maybe, with this hiring of Saleh, along with Douglas, the general manager he hired in June 2019, Christopher Johnson has set his older brother up to succeed.
And has flipped the narrative on his own flawed legacy in the process.