The Jets have reached an agreement for Robert Saleh, the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, to become their next head coach, the team announced Thursday, and — if all goes well — to lead the team out of a stupor that has left it without a postseason appearance for the past decade and as the butt of a running joke.
Saleh, 41, who is of Lebanese descent, is believed to be the first Muslim Arab American head coach of an N.F.L. team.
Saleh is not the Jets’ first nonwhite head coach: The team was also run by Herm Edwards (2001-5) and Todd Bowles (2015-18) who are both Black.
Saleh is the fourth coach of color slated to lead an N.F.L. team in 2021, with five openings still to be filled.
At the beginning of 2020, the league had four head coaches who identified as nonwhite — Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, Anthony Lynn with the Chargers, Brian Flores with the Dolphins and Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team. After some shuffling throughout the season, including the recent firing of Lynn, that number could be about the same going into next season.
Saleh’s hiring came several months after the league updated the Rooney Rule, which aims to increase diversity in candidacies for head coaching jobs and certain front office roles. The rule was changed in May to bump up its interviewing requirement from at least one external minority candidate for each head coaching position to at least two. Starting in 2011, the N.F.L. featured eight nonwhite head coaches at the same time, its peak for diversity, but the decline since then forced the changes in the Rooney Rule.
With Saleh and his 16 years of N.F.L. coaching experience at the helm, the Jets hope to end a 10-year postseason drought, most recently extended by Adam Gase, whom the team let go after the team had a dismal two-win season and the worst offense in the league in 2020. Gase was 9-23 over all in his two seasons at the helm.
Along with Saleh’s arrival, choosing a new offensive coordinator will be crucial to the team’s prospects, regardless of whether the coaches will be expected to reinvent Sam Darnold or to work with another quarterback selected in the draft.
“We’re looking for a person with great character and integrity,” Jets General Manager Joe Douglas said earlier this week of the ideal head-coaching candidate. “I think we’re looking for a person that’s going to have outstanding vision of what they want the identity of this team to be moving forward and then what’s the detailed plan on how they want to achieve this identity, someone that’s a great communicator, a great manager.”
Saleh’s performance in his four seasons with the 49ers caught the attention of other teams over the past two years. After the 2019 season, when the Cleveland Browns interviewed — but ended up not choosing — Saleh to fill their head coaching vacancy, San Francisco Coach Kyle Shanahan said: “Whether it’s this year, whether it’s next year, whatever, Saleh is too good and too unique. It’s a matter of time before he’s a head coach.”
In the 2019 season, Saleh became the first Arab American to serve as a coordinator for a Super Bowl team. He received The Sporting News’ Coordinator of the Year award for the team’s performance in the 2019 regular season. After losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, the 49ers this season ranked fourth in passing yards allowed per game, fifth in yards allowed per game and seventh in rushing yards allowed per game, despite missing the playoffs with a 6-10 record.
Several key 49ers — Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, among others — missed long stretches because of injury, and coronavirus restrictions forced the team to practice and play in Arizona for the last few weeks.
Saleh was highly sought after following this regular season, having interviewed with four other teams — Atlanta, Detroit, Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Chargers — and he was planning to meet with Philadelphia before taking on the role with the Jets.
“The New York Jets got a great one! Congrats to them!” Sherman, a 49ers cornerback, wrote on Twitter after the announcement.
Saleh grew up in Dearborn, Mich., home to one of the largest communities of Arab Americans in the United States, and played tight end for Northern Michigan University. He graduated with a degree in finance in 2001 and took a job with Comerica Bank’s world headquarters, thoughts of coaching fluttering in the back of his mind.
After the terror attack on the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Saleh decided to pursue his N.F.L. dream. His brother David had been in the South Tower, escaping before it collapsed. In that moment, Robert Saleh decided that life was too short to not give coaching a chance.
“His love and passion for football is ultimately why he wanted to get into coaching,” David Saleh, told The Detroit News in 2020. “He just didn’t want to leave the game.”
Even though that moment inspired Robert Saleh to start coaching, it increased vitriol and violence directed at Arab Americans and Muslim people in the United States, a backlash exacerbated by the Trump administration’s effort to bar immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries in 2017.
Matthew Jaber Stiffler, who leads research at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, said that where Saleh grew up, about 95 percent of the high school students were Muslim Arab Americans and that the city itself was almost 60 percent Arab American. Dearborn residents are often the subject of discrimination online, he said.
With Saleh’s hiring, the history of Lebanese Americans coaching in the N.F.L. comes full circle to the Jets. Abe Gibron coached the Chicago Bears in the early 1970s. Most recently, Rich Kotite coached the Philadelphia Eagles and then the Jets, quitting after a disastrous one-win season in 1996.
But many Lebanese Americans who are Christian do not identify as Arab, Stiffler said. Joe Horrigan, a former executive director and historian at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, could not recall any head coaches before Saleh identifying as a Muslim and Arab; neither could Stiffler.
“To have somebody in a visible position, who is proudly Arab, proudly Muslim — but that also he’s just a football coach too, when it comes down to it — it helps to just normalize the experience of Muslim Americans,” he said of Saleh.
In 2002, Saleh went back to school to earn a degree in kinesiology from Michigan State and serve as a defensive assistant. He later had assistant roles at Central Michigan and at Georgia.
His first N.F.L. role came in 2005 with the Houston Texans as an intern, working with Shanahan, who was hired originally as a wide receivers coach in 2006. Saleh worked with the Seahawks as a defensive quality control coach for three seasons, then spent three seasons as the Jaguars’ linebackers coach before Shanahan took him to San Francisco in 2017 as his defensive coordinator.
“He’s going to have the right opportunity come around for him, it’s just a matter of time,” Shanahan said last year.
The time has come.
Ken Belson and Ben Shpigel contributed reporting.