Final Thoughts on The Jets Old Front Office
Sar I, if you're listening you'll no doubt love the penultimate paragraph :)
The Jets finished off the restructuring of the front office today when it became known that Assistant GM Scott Cohen and Director of Football Administrations Ari Nissim would not be retained moving forward. Along with former GM Mike Tannenbaum these three were likely the three most powerful men in the Jets organization and responsible for shaping the organization over the last few years. This pretty much finalizes the break from the last regime as the Jets move forward in a new front office and approach to the salary cap and the building of a team . With that in mind I wanted to go back and look over the run that this group has had.
In many ways I’ll always feel a bit tied to this group. Tannenbaum was promoted to GM in 2006, Nissim was hired in 2007, and Cohen in 2008. 2008 was when I officially launched the nyjetscap website with planning beginning in 2007 so a lot of what I have discussed and learned about football has been observing and commenting on the decisions of these three. When I began the attempts to be an “amateur capologist” in 2007 I was pretty bad at it. If you go back and read some of my work from 2008 its really bad, but over time I got much better at the analytical side of it and really it was from getting a chance to watch from the outside as an organization was built from nothing into a contender before falling back down again.
There was a time when Jets fans were hailing Tannenbaum as “the best GM in the NFL” as early as 2007 simply because the team shocked everyone by making the playoffs in 2006. Many of those same people are the ones who now say he didn’t belong running an NFL franchise. Whenever a group gets fired like this the immediate thoughts will always be failure because that is the most recent memory in everyone’s mind. But when you look back at the job that was done failure is not the word that comes to mind. Incomplete maybe, but not failure.
I really thought the Jets turned a corner in 2010. I never bought into one title game making a difference (too many teams make 1 title game) but when they made it to a second one I felt the Jets had arrived. From a front office perspective the Jets, at that stage, were one of the best run organizations in football, in my opinion. They built the team the right way. There was never a quick fix that was going to occur so they turned to the draft in 2006 and 2007 to build a team with depth and what they felt were core building blocks of a team. The team carefully navigated the salary cap in 2007 planning for a run in 2008 when the young players were ready for the limelight and could see their performance improved with the addition of key veteran players. The Jets almost always moved on from players at the right time and brought in players when they could still contribute. It clearly worked as the Jets were arguably the best team in the NFL in 2008 before Brett Favre either got injured or stopped caring, and then in 2009 and 2010 the Jets were very close to making the Super Bowl. It was a good three year run.
Were things perfect with the team? Obviously not. The Jets began to get a reputation for overpaying for free agent players, Alan Faneca and Bart Scott probably being the best two examples, but they mitigated those risks with contract structures. While the Jets ended up falling victim to the uncapped years accounting rules, they had brought Faneca in as a stabilizing presence between two young draft picks with every intention of walking away with minimal cap pain in 2010.
Scott was brought in to change the culture of a team which he did before being one of the factors that saw it break apart. Twice the Jets re-worked Scott’s contract to be team friendly, once just months after he signed it and again in 2011 when they got Scott to agree to a paycut provided he received guaranteed salary. At the time most casual observers and statistical tracking sites claimed Scott was one of the best performing interior linebackers in the NFL. Nobody will give them credit for the move but that was as proactive a move as you could find.
Some of the contracts that the Jets signed were very unique and in many cases team friendly. I was always so impressed with what the Jets did with Mark Sanchez in 2009. It was a contract designed to get all the pain out of the way early to the point where if he failed the cost to release him was minimal. Contrast that with the contract for Matt Stafford who is a cap killer for the Lions and even is he busted would have been impossible to move away from. The Jets didn’t fall into the trap of the 5th or 6th year “salary cap void” for their rookies opting instead for things like franchise tag provisions that gave the team more time to decide on their course of action with the player.
The team negotiated their fair share of great contracts and took their chances on high upside low cost players via trades. D’Brickashaw Ferguson took a contract that was so low in real guarantees as well as dead money that it was arguably one of the best deals in the NFL for a high level player. The Jets made moves to bring in players like Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Antonio Cromartie on low cost contracts where the expected performance was going to exceed the cap charges for the players. From a budgeting standpoint on a win now team it helped mask the failures of the 2008-2010 drafts in the short term.
The Jets were, at times, tough negotiators. Clearly the drama with Darrelle Revis has been well documented since day 1. The Jets overpaid Revis as a rookie for the ability to have him at a reasonable rate in the 4th and 5th years of his rookie deal. Of course that led to a Revis holdout where the Jets wisely stood firm before the head coach forced their hand and led to a compromise of sorts. It still ended up being a good contract for the Jets despite the high payouts. Why would I say that? When you have big name media folks in both the NY market and nationally out there complaining that Revis is underpaid, you know those words are coming from inside Revis’ camp. If they are complaining just two years in it means the team got a good deal.
Rightly or wrongly the Jets negotiated salaries downward for many mid tier starters such as Mike DeVito and Matt Slauson. This past year a similar strategy was used for Holmes. These are moves that are planned years in advance when signing players to contracts that contained escalator clauses which had no guarantees attached to them. It didn’t always work, players like Faneca and Thomas Jones resisted, but the Jets made sure to make it known that if you didn’t play ball you were not playing ball with the Jets. It’s a cold business but these are the moves that teams make thinking they can win a title.
The front office was always big believers in building the team chemistry through the offseason programs and the Jets compensated their players with workout payments more than almost any other team in the NFL. It was a strategy that promoted incredibly high participation rates from their entire squad. In the later years the Jets began to build more holdout protection into their contracts by including reporting bonuses towards the end of the contract terms to ensure a player had a financial incentive to report to camp and not try to hold out.
I’m sure that the guys would like to have a mulligan on a few moves. Speaking strictly from a contract standpoint the Jets probably went overboard on the guaranteed money. Would David Harris have really had options outside of the team at this kind of pay? Doubtful. Would Holmes have had those kind of guarantees from any other team? Doubtful.
They also seemed to fall into the trap at the end of being a champion for an idea rather than objectively analyzing the idea. While they were forceful with players who were relatively under the radar guys like DeVito they did not take the same approach with players who were significantly worse such as Eric Smith and Wayne Hunter. Those were players who should have been on veteran minimum contracts in 2012 but the Jets refused to budge and I have to think that in part was from the excessive criticism those two players received for being on the wrong end of far too many SportsCenter highlights.
Of course the biggest disaster was the extension of Sanchez, which undid almost all of the good they gained when they negotiated his rookie contract. In some ways I understand what they were doing. The Jets saw that there was a QB market growing at a ridiculous rate that was going to see Joe Flacco earn upwards of $20 million a season. To lock up your QB for under $14 million a season is smart cap management. The problem is that it was just misguided judgment as to what Sanchez was. Sanchez wasn’t Eli Manning. Sanchez was Joey Harrington. It was a terrible judgment call. Now its not Sanchez’ cap hits that have sunk the Jets but the dead money that hangs over their head if they cut him this year.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions of the Tannenbaum era is going to be the thought that the Jets were in “cap hell” and that the salary cap destroyed the team. “Cap hell” is a situation where the cap dictates the moves that your franchise is forced to make. It’s a situation where you cant sign free agents because of the cap. It’s a situation where you are forced to cut productive players you want to keep because of the salary cap. In general you cant compete because of the salary cap.
I think I can safely make the leap of faith that outside of those within the organization itself I probably have as deep an understanding of the Jets cap the last few years as anyone. I saw the phrase “cap hell” first pop up in 2007 which was part of the reason why I began the website as I wanted to see if things were really that bad with the team. It wasn’t the case then but it was being reported as such. Its one of the problems with people getting a cap sheet with no context to the cap sheet and just reporting a number. One of the goals of my websites is to explain what those cap sheets mean, even if my sources aren’t as good or the numbers not perfect.
In 2009 Mike Lombardi, now General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, began a campaign over at National Football Post basically lambasting the Jets for being in such a bad cap situation, reporting that the team was $30 million over the cap due to the spending of the year before. In that case he didn’t even have the right numbers, but just the lack of context from someone who worked in a front office was pretty bad. This carried over to Pro Football Talk and the Jets cap became the talk of the town. The Jets were never in cap hell nor were they ever $30 million over the cap. The Jets had two high priced cap charges on the books that year, one was Kerry Rhodes and the other Calvin Pace, due to high roster bonuses that were designed to be converted to prorated bonuses. At the end of the day the Jets had enough money to make Bart Scott the highest paid ILB in the NFL and not cut anyone of merit.
In 2012 we had the same talk about “cap hell” and how the cap was keeping the Jets from signing more players. It was never the case. The Jets flirted with Peyton Manning in the offseason. The cap was never an issue, it was the talent pool available for the team. This past season we have heard nothing but talk of cap hell and how it was the 2nd worst in the NFL (the Raiders being the worst). Why? Because Jason Smith had a huge cap hit with no dead money? Because Bart Scott had a high cap charge with minimal dead money? The fact was the Jets ended up around $17 million under the salary cap with almost no dead money on the books. It wasn’t painful. I outlined ways for the Jets to get to $30 million under the cap with no issues. They didn’t go there but they could have. Next year the team will likely end up with over $30 million in cap space.
The fact is the Jets could have kept Revis and LaRon Landry and Dustin Keller if they wanted to. They chose not to. Since 2007 no matter how many times people have said the Jets lost a player due to cap I cant recall any player that was cut for anything besides play on the field. Most of the players the Jets lost this year cant find a job. That has been the case for years. The only player who the Jets downgraded via trade/cut was Rhodes, who simply did not get along with the head coach. For the most part the Jets effectively allocated their cap dollars among the team often using the renegotiation process to bring higher cap deals back down to levels that came closer to matching the on field production.
Salary cap has never been a real problem for the Jets. Never have they fallen into the trap that the Cowboys fall into where they are loading deals with voidable years to keep a team together. Other than the Revis deal they have never gone that route and his situation was unique. They have never used exotic NLTBEs to avoid cap charges in the present and damage the future. The Jets have always kept the books flexible to work within the framework of the current contracts and not significantly damaging their future. In the 7 years since 2006 ended the Jets have been big spenders in 3 years and only in 3 years would I say the Jets held cautious on spending.
What sunk the Jets was the poor drafting from 2008 thru 2010. For whatever reason that has often been overlooked this year in lieu of the salary cap discussions. If the Jets had found a way to move up in 2008 and grab Matt Ryan rather than standing firm and getting Vernon Gholston we wouldn’t even be talking about this today. Too many poor decisions which led to the Jets being too filled with downtrending veterans with nobody to pick up the slack. You can only mask the problems with free agency for so long and for the Jets the clock struck 12 somewhere halfway thru the 2011 season.
Looking from the outside there were philosophical changes that seemed to begin in 2011 and really peaked in 2012. I tend to think that was tied to Rex Ryan’s upbeat personality taking the organization over but it was at that time where the Jets started to break away from what got them to the dance and instead chasing dreams and overguaranteeing dollars to players who may not have deserved it. They went from risk averse to very risky and in this case almost no risks worked out.
But, at the end of the day, we got a competitive team that nearly made a Super Bowl and for a little while became the talk of the NFL world. They were always in a position to have money at their disposal and improve the team through a variety of means. Other than the bookend seasons of 2007 and 2012 there was never a time when this team was not competitive and they should have made the playoffs from 2008 thru 2011 if they were a mentally tougher team in December. Who know where we will be 5 or 6 years from now, but I do know if John Idzik, Rod Graves, and whomever else they bring in have the same success as Tannebaum, Cohen, and Nissim they will be hailed as the greatest thing since Joe Namath and as soon as it goes down will be vilified as they are shown the door.