Robert Saleh clearly had a message to deliver Sunday night, first to his team then to the media.
“We’ll see these guys again,” Saleh slipped in during an answer in his press conference after the 20-12 loss to the Bills.
The Jets coach is a skilled chess player and he showed once again that he was thinking a few moves ahead with this comment. He immediately changed the subject from the mistakes the Jets made to lose the game, took the negativity out of the locker room and told his players he believes in them, even after two losses.
It was the latest shrewd move from Saleh, who has proven this season he is the right man for the job.
“When we met with Robert, I was struck by his presence,” Jets chairman Christopher Johnson said at the time of Saleh’s hiring in January 2021.
That presence has helped transform a moribund franchise into one that is fighting for a playoff spot with four games left. Now, the turnaround has not all been about Saleh’s slogans and energy. Better players have helped immensely. But you also can’t overlook how well Saleh has navigated this season and steered the Jets through choppy waters to this point.
Sunday’s playoff promise was the latest example of Saleh turning a negative into a positive.
The biggest moment of the 2022 season, of course, came when Saleh decided to bench Zach Wilson for Mike White just before Thanksgiving. It may have looked like an easy decision to make from the outside after Wilson’s terrible performance on the field in New England and behind the microphone after the game, but benching the No. 2-overall pick 20 games into his career is a monumental decision for a head coach.
Saleh was wise enough to recognize he had to make the move for a team that is good enough to not just make the playoffs, but win in them. He saw that Wilson’s postgame comments could cause his team to split at the seams. He acted quickly and decisively and managed not to embarrass Wilson in the process despite busting him down to the third team and inactive status.
People inside the Jets were blown away with how Saleh handled what could have been a week that saw the train come off the tracks. If the Jets do make the playoffs, Saleh’s decision to make White the starter will be seen as the definitive moment of the season.
But it is not the only time that Saleh pressed the right buttons. Go back to Week 1 after the Jets lost to the Ravens and it felt like we were watching the Same Old Jets finding a way to lose. Saleh announced he was “keeping receipts” the next day, again telling his players he believed in them even though critics pounced and mocked him. The Jets pulled out a miracle win in Cleveland days later.
When Elijah Moore requested a trade, Saleh did not blink. He benched Moore for a week, loved him up in the media and then gradually got him back involved in the offense. Moore is now smiling and producing again for the Jets.
Saleh’s steady hand has gotten the Jets to 7-6. Now, he needs to guide them home over these final four games.
“The encouraging thing is we can go toe-to-toe with anyone,” Saleh said Monday.
The Jets proved that again Sunday in the loss to the Bills, who hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Jets have lost to two 10-win teams in the last two weeks, but played both the Vikings and the Bills tough and neither game was over until the final seconds.
The Jets enter this week on the outside of the playoff race after their loss and the Chargers’ and Patriots’ wins. But this is far from decided. The Jets face the Lions, Jaguars, Seahawks and Dolphins with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance.
“What’s cool about this is we have four playoff games because every team we’re playing is fighting for a playoff spot, even Jacksonville is looking for some help,” Saleh said. “So every game is going to have major playoff implications. This is an awesome experience for our group and it just makes things more rewarding, especially if you can get it done. “
Saleh believes they can and it is hard to bet against him considering what he’s done this season.