The Jets believe they are a franchise on the rise with a tremendous future. And now that future is in the hands of a moderately successful college coach who has spent only one season in the NFL.
Matt Rhule, the 43-year-old who spent the last two years as the coach at Baylor, will become the 19th coach in Jets franchise history. That is a major leap of faith for Jets CEO Christopher Johnson and GM Mike McCagnan, considering Rhule went just 8-17 in his two seasons at Baylor, and 36-40 in six seasons as a college head coach, including four years at Temple.
But, in that time, Rhule got himself on the NFL's radar by turning around two lost programs. The Owls went 2-10 in his first season at Temple, but he finished his time there with two straight Bowl trips and two 10-win seasons. And this year, Baylor went from 1-11 in his first season to 7-6 and a berth in the Texas Bowl.
The Jets are obviously in the midst of a rebuilding project they hope will result in a playoff berth in 2019. They haven't been to the playoffs since 2010, haven't had a winning record since 2015, and most importantly, haven't been to the Super Bowl since the 1968 season (Super Bowl III).
That's why they fired Todd Bowles after he finished up his third straight season of double-digit losses. But for most of the early part of their search for a replacement, the favorite appeared to be former Packers coach Mike McCarthy. He certainly was the most accomplished of their eight candidates, having led the Packers to the playoffs nine times in 13 seasons, including four trips to the NFC championship game and a win in Super Bowl XLV.
McCarthy was a favorite of Johnson, according to a source, and was in the mix right until the end. The Jets wanted to do what Johnson said would be an "extensive" search, and they certainly did that. Along with Rhule and McCarthy, they also interviewed former Dolphins coach Adam Gase, former Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken, Cowboys defensive backs coach Kris Richard, and former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who ended up getting hired by the Arizona Cardinals.
Most of those are offensive coaches, which made sense considering their top priority in this search was to find someone who could develop their 21-year-old franchise quarterback, Sam Darnold. Rhule's abilities there are not clear. He has coached on both sides of the ball during his coaching career, but the former Penn State linebacker has no history of developing quarterbacks as a coach.
Rhule, who was born in New York City, has long been respected by people around the NFL, though, even though his lone taste of the league came in 2012 when he was the Giants' assistant offensive line coach under Tom Coughlin. He made a good impression there and has earned positive reviews for his work at Temple and Baylor.
Still, the jump from college to the pros can be very risky for head coaches. There have not been many successful ones who haven't at least had long stints as an NFL assistant. The differences in the game, the mentality of the players, and the pressure from fans and media has consumed many who were successful in college - including top college coaches like Chip Kelly and Nick Saban.
The Jets' hope would be that Rhule will hire a staff with plenty of NFL experience. His choice of offensive coordinator will obviously be a big key.
Unfortunately for the Jets, their track record of hiring head coaches without previous NFL head coaching experience hasn't worked out well over the years. They haven't hired an experienced NFL head coach since Bill Parcells quit in 1999. Each of their ensuing five coaches - Al Groh, Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan and Bowles - were in their first NFL head coaching job.
Only Groh ended up with a winning record, and he left after one 9-7 year. Edwards, Mangini and Ryan did get the Jets to the playoffs, though, and Ryan led them to back-to-back AFC championship games in his first two years.
If nothing else, the pieces for some instant success for Rhule do seem to be in place. Darnold, who had a promising finish to his rookie season, appears to be the biggest one. The Jets will also have $100 million or so in salary cap space to spend in free agency when it opens in March. And they have the No. 3 overall pick in the draft.
They also will be facing a situation where they need to win quickly. Jets GM Mike Maccagnan, who kept his job when Bowles was fired, isn't likely to get more than another season or two if the Jets don't begin to show some progress and return to the playoffs. If they don't win fast, they could be looking for another coach then, too.