Despite a short list that includes a Super Bowl champion, two other experienced NFL head coaches and three up-and-coming NFL assistants, the Jets suddenly seemed intrigued by two NFL outsiders -- Baylor coach Matt Rhule and USC offensive coordinator-turned Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury. They are clearly not afraid of hiring a college coach to lead their franchise.
Even though they probably should be.
There is a lengthy list of college coaches who turned into NFL failures, including the likes of Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and Chip Kelly - three tremendous college coaches who combined to go 55-72 in the pros. The lone two successes since 2000 have been Jim Harbaugh and Bill O'Brien, both of whom previously had NFL experience.
But for every Harbaugh and O'Brien there's a Rich Brooks (1995-96 Rams), Bobby Petrino (2007 Falcons), Mike Riley (1999-2001 Chargers) or Greg Schiano (2012-13 Buccaneers). The transition can be tough, especially for a younger coach who doesn't know what the NFL is like. It can be a culture shock for everyone involved.
That's not say it can't work perfectly. Jimmy Johnson helped turn the Cowboys into a powerhouse in the 1990s after jumping from Miami with no NFL experience at all. It's just that he's the exception, not the rule.
Of the two college coaches the Jets were considering -- Kingsbury became unavailable on Tuesday -- Rhule does have NFL experience, though it was only one season (2012) as the Giants assistant offensive line coach. He impressed many people there, before he left to become the head coach at Temple. The 43-year-old is a stern and tough coach, but a likeable guy. And the way he turned the Temple program around, going from 2-10 to two 10-win seasons in just four years, got him right back on the NFL radar.
He's a much more reasonable choice than the 39-year-old Kingsbury, who is the next head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. He had a losing record (35-40) in his six seasons at Texas Tech and never topped the eight wins he had in his first year. He is considered a young, offensive genius and a quarterback whisperer for his work with Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum, and Johnny Manziel (at Texas A&M). But his only NFL experience came when he kicked around the league for three seasons trying to make it as a quarterback.
Rhule at least has shown a knack for building programs, as he's also started to do in his two years at Baylor. Kingsbury seems more like the shiny, new thing in the league's search for the next Sean McVay. But both of them would enter the NFL with the same disadvantage.
"The NFL is a different place," said one NFL executive. "You have a captive audience of 18-year-olds in college. You're the king of that castle. In the NFL you're dealing with grown men. Some of them are rich and feel entitled. It takes a strong voice, a credible voice to manage that (locker) room. That's where so many college coaches fail."
The NFL game is different too. There are no easy, non-conference games on the front end of the schedule. There are no obvious mismatches to exploit week-after-week. In college, a good scheme can result in a lot of quick wins. NFL coaches, though, tend to catch on to those quickly.
And there's also the matter of building a staff -- a very underrated part of an NFL coach's job. Rhule seems to have more of an advantage here, but it can be hard for college coaches with limited NFL ties to lure many of the most coveted assistants. It's also worth noting that the media in the NFL is far less fawning -- especially in New York.
Those are a few of the reasons why most of the coaches who successfully made the jump from college to pros -- Dennis Green (Stanford to the Vikings), Bobby Ross (Georgia Tech to the Chargers), even Hall of Famer Bill Walsh (Stanford to the 49ers) -- had extensive NFL experience on their resume. They understood what it took to succeed in and handle the pros.
Do Rhule and Kingsbury? That would be a hard argument to sell to Jets fans. Kingsbury might have been a great choice for Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, but again, he was a losing coach in college -- and not exactly at a major program, either. Rhule, who is a defensive guy and has no history of developing a young quarterback, has a taste of the NFL in his background. But he also is 8-17 in his two seasons at Baylor. It's a program on the rise, but it's far from there yet.
Kingsbury likely wouldn't have been the Jets' choice anyway -- an NFL source said they knew he was likely headed to Arizona. But would they still hire Rhule? That would be a heck of a leap of faith for the Jets to take in what might be their most important coaching hire in decades. They finally have their franchise quarterback. They have $100 million in salary cap space to spend. They fully expect to be in the playoffs next season and to be a Super Bowl contender in the near future.
They have methodically set themselves up for what they believe will be a wonderful future. Are they really going to entrust that to someone with no NFL experience?
Why would they want to risk gambling that future away?