Robert Saleh has been growing on the job since he was hired before last season to turn a desperate Jets franchise around, change its culture, deliver it playoff berths and compete for championships.
On Sunday in Seattle, Saleh will — for the first time as a head coach — coach against one of the men who’s been most influential on his NFL coaching career, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
In one of the many cool twists of fate the NFL seems to deliver on a regular basis, Saleh’s Jets absolutely, positively have to defeat the Seahawks at Lumen Field or else.
Or else is mathematical elimination from the playoffs, which would be a crushing blow to the 7-8 Jets, who were once 7-4 and rolling and now must win their final two games to have a chance to make the playoffs.
More than a decade ago, Carroll threw Saleh a lifeline when he hired him as a defensive quality control coach for the Seahawks in 2011, shortly after Saleh and the entire Texans defensive coaching staff had been fired.
“I had a 3-month-old at the time, my wife and I, and she’s panicking because she’s wondering where our next meal is coming from because I didn’t have a contract,” Saleh recalled Wednesday. “And the good Lord came off the top ropes and sent me a blessing. [I’m] always appreciative to Pete and all the things that he did for me and my family.”
Saleh and his wife, Sanaa, have had five more children since then and, now, at the pinnacle of his coaching life to date, he’s no longer worried about feeding his children.
Saleh credited Carroll, among the many successful coaches he’s worked with, as perhaps the most influential.
When Carroll was head coach of the Jets in 1994, he broke the mold for NFL head coaches who stereotyped as strict disciplinarians. Carroll was a quintessential players’ coach, installing a basketball hoop adjacent to the practice field and regularly conducting H-O-R-S-E competitions with players and coaches.
When he signed former U.S. national soccer team goalkeeper Tony Meola to give him a go as a kicker, he brought a soccer net to the field and had his 300-pound offensive linemen take penalty kicks on Meola in net. It was, as you can imagine, quite a scene.
Things haven’t been that loose or willy-nilly under Saleh, because he’s still in the process of finding himself as a head coach. But there’s little question that there’s some Carroll influence in Saleh’s style as a head coach, beginning with the ownership and trust he bestows upon his players.
Saleh called being on Carroll’s staff, along with assistants Gus Bradley, Dan Quinn and Ken Norton Jr. “a godsend.”
“One of the greatest learning lessons I got was that I can be a little bit of Pete, a little bit of Gus, Ken Norton Jr., Gary Kubiak — all the great coaches I’ve been around, Kyle Shanahan,” Saleh said. “I can mold myself into that, and everything will be great when we’re winning. But as soon as adversity hits, my true character is going to reveal itself. And if I’m not truly connected to that person that hits adversity, there’s going to be a disconnect that breaks trust.”
Trust is one of the most powerful connections Saleh has with his players, according to Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley, one of the team captains.
“He doesn’t sugarcoat things,” Mosley told The Post Wednesday. “That’s where most of his respect comes from. You know exactly what he wants and how he wants to do it.”
Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said he watched Saleh from afar having watched the 49ers “because of how they got after it on defense” when Saleh was the San Francisco defensive coordinator from 2017-20.
“Now, being here with him and understanding him, he really puts an emphasis on the players to lead this thing and drive it,” Rankins told The Post. “And it’s not something that’s fake, it’s not something he just talks about. It’s truly how he believes an organization should be run and a great team should be built.”
Saleh has had his share of issues to navigate of late, beginning with the quarterback shuffle that’s taken place with benching the ineffective Zach Wilson and then having backup Mike White knocked out for two games with cracked ribs.
The Jets, too, take a four-game losing streak to Seattle on Sunday, something else that’s weighing heavily on Saleh.
Saleh is impossibly positive, another of Carroll’s most powerful traits. His four years as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator meant playing Carroll’s Seahawks eight times, so he said, “The nostalgia of it all has kind of worn off.”
His respect for Carroll, however, has not.
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