By Lenn Robbins
Speaking with the measured, intense passion of a Sunday pastor, it would not have been shocking to see new Jets coach Robert Saleh pull a handkerchief from his breast pocket to wipe a prideful tear from his eye, had he wept. And that wasn’t when he was talking about his brother, David, who survived the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, walking away from the 61st floor in the South Tower.
No, Saleh was asked a question that required a straight, sincere answer.
Why, he was asked, do players like to play for you?
And let’s remember, the former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator perennially fielded a squad that attacked with a fervor Jets fans haven’t seen from their team on a consistent basis in more than a decade.
“Sometimes there’s a notion that coaches coach, players play and I’ve never taken to that notion,” said Saleh “I believe that coaches and players are in this thing together. I believe that the investment coaches put in their players has to be the equivalent of the investment you put in your children. I mean, you got to invest everything you have in your heart and in your soul into those players because they’re relying on you to be their absolute best so they can showcase their skill on Sundays.
“Players feel that investment and they feel you’re giving them everything you have to succeed. I think they can’t help but reciprocate that investment and invest back in you as an individual. So when you get that investment reciprocated on both sides it because personal. And when it gets personal it becomes very, very, very special. That’s the environment we’re trying to create here.”
Good Lord, man! Does Saleh, 41, have any idea how genuine and stirring that response is? Does he not recall that he is taking over a franchise whose environment has been polluted by losing and dysfunction and finger pointing.
If there’s one word to sum up the Jets as a team and franchise it’s this: fractured.
Jamal Adams and Le’Veon Bell couldn’t wait to get out the door.. Defense coordinator Gregg Williams blamed former head coach Adam Gase for his rudderless offense. Gase fired Williams allegedly for a terrible play call after a last-second loss. The Jets lost when they should have won and won when they should have lost.
Here was Saleh, speaking with a genuine intensity, of investment, reciprocity, family?
Saleh knows these foundational moorings. He is one of four children born to Sam and Fatin Saleh in working class Dearborn, Michigan, home to the Ford Motor Company. He has four sons and two daughters with wife Sanaa, who he referred to as the rock on which he stands.
This is how and where Saleh the NFL’s lone Lebanese-American coach learned about the importance of that 1960’s mantra – people power. You invest in others. They invest in you. You build something, such as the Arab community in Dearborn, the largest in the U.S. You don’t want to let your people down and they don’t want to let you down.
You heard thousands of World War II vets utter that very sentiment upon returning to places such as Dearborn and East Rutherford and Levittown. When Saleh, who was pursued by no less than six other NFL franchises, said he chose the Jets because it felt like home, it made perfect sense in this context.
Donning a dark suit with a pale green shirt and matching tie, Saleh spoke with the throaty, harnessed potential of a vintage Mustang. No wonder his mantra is, “All Gas, No Brake.”
“Players really want two things from a coach,” he said. “I’ve always felt this way. One, they want to know you care about their wellbeing. Everyone says it’s a business. I get it but it’s not. It’s a personal investment in people. And the most important people are the ones who strap up on game day and step between the lines. And obviously, can you help them make plays on Sundays to they can get paid as much as possible.”
One might think acting owner (Christopher Johnson) and a GM, (Joe Douglas) didn’t want to hear Saleh utter on meet the press day. The coach wants to help the players get paid more? Well heck, isn’t what investment is all about? Isn’t that how you build a championship, by paying great players great sums?
Isn’t that what “All Gas, No Brake,” suggests?
Saleh is taking the NFL’s sixth most valuable franchise ($3.55 billion) out for a championship run, not a joy ride.
“When we talk about that ‘All Gas, No Brake mentality, [it’s] waking up in the morning, putting your foot to the pedal and having the mindset, again, go to bed better than when you woke up. That’s the mindset we’re going to have and, again, we are very confident that’s going to lead to championships.”
It’s enough to make a Jets fan weep tears of joy.