FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — New York Jets coach Robert Saleh is a storyteller. Just the other day, he told one of his favorites.
“The camel story,” defensive end Ronnie Blair said with a smile.
In the team meeting, Saleh described a trip to the zoo with his kids, how they observed the camels and got into a conversation about the camel’s unusual body parts. Each foot has two giant toes, he explained, which helps them walk in the desert. Their long lashes protect their eyes from wind-blown sand. The two humps serve as energy storage.
No doubt, some players were thinking, “Where’s coach going with this?”
In the end, Saleh told his players they, too, have unique traits, which allowed them to reach the NFL. To survive in the league, he said to them, you have to apply those gifts because they make you special.
Just like that, it all made sense. There’s a lot of that happening around One Jets Drive.
Welcome to their new Camel-ot.
After two disappointing seasons under former coach Adam Gase, the Jets have a new leader, a new energy and a new way of doing business. Saleh has captivated the organization with his upbeat demeanor, streamlined practices and, yes, folksy stories, which he adopted from his mentor, Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
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Saleh is widely known as the fist-pumping, chest-bumping former defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, but there’s another side to him. There’s a quiet confidence players appreciate.
“One thing I love about coach Saleh is he’s very confident in what he’s trying to push,” Jets linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “When someone is confident, you don’t have to be overbearing. You don’t have to come on strong. It’s not rah-rah. It’s not the movie-scene speeches. It’s just, ‘We practice this way, we believe in this.'”
Guard Greg Van Roten said, “You’d see him on ESPN and stuff, jumping around, and you’re like, ‘This guy needs to calm down a little bit.’ But now, being in his building and around his staff, there’s no doubt as to the culture he’s trying to instill. You hear it all the time: All gas, no brake. Cut it loose. Play fast. Have fun.”
Football wasn’t fun last season for the Jets, who stumbled to one of the worst seasons in franchise history (2-14). It wasn’t all Gase’s fault, but his frowning personality added a layer of gloom. He and Saleh are nothing alike. The only thing they have in common is their home state, Michigan. They’re as different as Woodstock and Carnegie Hall as concert venues.
At practice, Saleh walks through the lines during the stretching period and fist bumps every player. If he’s not doing that, he’s talking to his assistants. Gase usually spent that time off to the side, chatting with reporters. While those conversations sometimes provided insight into his thinking about the team and certain players, they also sent a mixed message to his players. He’d rather be with them than us.
Saleh doesn’t yell during practice. He’s chill, and so are his coaches. They believe in teaching, not berating. Gase wasn’t a yeller, but former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was known for his salty, high-decibel rants.
After the first public practice, Saleh walked over to the bleachers and spoke to a few hundred fans, thanking them for venturing out despite coronavirus pandemic concerns to watch his team. It was a small, but meaningful gesture. Gase’s focus was strictly football, not the fans or public appearances. He once skipped the team’s glitzy uniform-reveal party in Manhattan.
Saleh is the face of the franchise and he embraces it. In the spring, he attended NBA and NHL playoff games at Madison Square Garden, Barclay Center and Nassau Coliseum, playing to the camera whenever his face appeared on the JumboTron.
He is most comfortable in front of the team. Every day, he highlights a specific football technique, showing it performed by a player in three different settings — walk-through, individual period and team period.
“There’s always a very clear message that he wants to get across,” Van Roten said. “He’s showing us, ‘Hey, these are the things we’re going to teach you, this is how we want it applied and this is what it’s supposed to look like.'”
It could be a defensive back in press coverage or an offensive lineman exploding off the ball. Saleh called it the “duality of coaching,” how everyone can learn when a specific skill is taught, even those at different positions.
“The energy he brings is infectious,” Jets defensive end John Franklin-Myers said. “Sometimes you get in a routine where it’s the same thing every day. It’s hard to come to work. But he comes in a room and [his passion] just jumps out. As soon as he gets in the room, you see his smile. You hear his determination speaking to us. When he goes in a room, he captures everybody’s eyes. He captures everybody. You can hear a pin drop.”
The man can hold a room, especially with his stories. They’re his way of breaking up the monotony and teaching a life lesson.
“We all have messages as coaches,” Saleh said. “This can get very redundant to a player, but when you deliver it in the form of a story, it’s more attachable. They’re listening, they’re engaged. Sometimes, they’re like, ‘All right, where’s he going with this one?’ Then they hear your punch line and they remember it.”
“You can tell he puts a whole lot of time into these stories,” said Blair, who played for Saleh in San Francisco. “It’s very important to him and, if it’s important to the head coach, you want to listen.”
Saleh also changed the length and structure of practice. He usually keeps it under the two-hour limit and his schedule includes high days and low days. Tuesday was a high day: Full pads with five team periods, five plays apiece. Wednesday was a low day: Helmets only, with four team periods, three plays apiece. They went back to full pads on Thursday, their most taxing practice of camp.
Old-school coaches might cringe at such a dialed-back approach, but Saleh doesn’t want to beat up his players before the season starts. Maybe that explains why the Jets have fewer soft-tissue injuries than previous camps. He also doesn’t devote much time to 7-on-7 periods, a training-camp staple for other teams. He doesn’t consider them “live” reps because there’s no line play and no pass rush.
Saleh is enjoying what he calls “the world’s greatest honeymoon.” After all, the fans love him and there’s no place to go but up. Eventually, he will have to deliver wins. The Jets own the NFL’s longest active playoff drought (10 years), and the fan base is desperate for respectability. They haven’t had a winning year since 2015, let alone a postseason berth.
Saleh knows how to survive dry spells. He has this story about a camel …