There was a time not that long ago when the perception of the New York Jets general manager opening was that it was so odious a situation that it was better to have withdrawn from consideration than to have allowed oneself to be deemed a finalist. That was 2013, and a search that ended up with John Idzik being hired into what was indeed an odious situation that no GM was going to make much better in the short term.
History has a way of repeating itself. Especially in Florham Park.
Don't get me wrong, the coupling of head coach/interim GM Adam Gase with the next man who signs a contract to be full-time GM of the team (still widely believed in league circles to be Eagles exec Joe Douglas) may enjoy the type of sustained success that has eluded almost all of his predecessors during the time the Johnson family has owned the team. Things might change for the better. It could happen and I believe this roster is primed to take a leap forward in 2019 and Douglas already knows Gase very well and the two have wanted to work together for quite some time. As I have written in the past, Douglas is widely-viewed as one of the most highly-qualified GM candidates around, and is more than worthy of that title. Sam Darnold looks primed to be the franchise QB he was drafted to be. Maybe the Jets are about to break their curse of toxicity and infighting.
But as the interview process is set to formally begin, it's worth assessing where things currently stand. Because I tend to think this hire won't be without some more Jets-tastic quirks and bizarre turns before they get around to actually holding a press conference to announce the person officially teamed with Gase. If my conversations in the past week with people close to several of the candidates the Jets hope to interview are any indication, this could be another doozy of a process. Questions abound. Anxiety is already high.
Two of the calls I received, out of the blue, were almost identical. I was asked virtually the same questions by individuals who are associates of men the Jets want to speak with. This was their inquiry: We hear this is Joe Douglas' job if he wants it and this has already been in the works for months. We're not sure it's even worth it for (name of candidate redacted to protect the innocent) to take the interview when they send over the slip (asking permission to interview him). What do you hear? What would you do?
My response basically went like this: Three GMs I know well who don't have a history of spreading false info were convinced before the draft that Douglas was going to take over the Jets after the draft. If you are owner of a team that has had a hard time getting qualified candidates to talk to you in the past, you don't fire your GM, randomly, in the middle of May and anoint a head coach who has been on the job about four months interim GM unless you have a pretty good idea of who the next guy is. Even Woody and Chris Johnson couldn't be naïve enough to do otherwise, right? Yes, I hear the same as you, that Douglas has what has the makings of a sharp-looking staff ready to go, and his pre-existing relationship would seem to be a trump card here. Perhaps things fall apart with him, and your guy could get the offer … But would you really want to take it under these terms, working for these owners, in this scenario with the last GM just run out of the building weeks after being allowed to run the draft?
They then pretty much said the following: Yeah, that's what I thought you would say. I agree with you. I'm not sure it makes sense to do it. Let's catch up after the holiday to compare notes.
This is the Jets reality right now.
Again, maybe it won't matter a bit if they do finally turn the corner. But I can assure you that as the men the Jets want to interview other than Douglas – George Paton of the Vikings, Scott Fitterer of the Seahawks, Champ Kelly of the Bears – reached out to their network of peers around the NFL over the weekend, not many were urging them to throw themselves fully into this opening. For obvious reasons.
Paton has been super-selective in which jobs he has pursued over the years, withdrawing from consideration in less-than-appealing instances, so other executives are wondering why he would enter this mess right now. After several years where owners have been unfailing loyal to under-performing GMs, there is a sense around the league that an overhaul could be coming to the GM ranks this January, when more attractive jobs should be available, especially for those thought of as highly as him.
"Why would George even take the interview?" said a high-ranking official from a team who has been involved in several GM searches the past four years. "I wouldn't take it. He doesn't need to do that now."
Fitterer has also been a mainstay on GM-candidate lists for several years now and he has a fine reputation and works for a first-class franchise and one of the best GMs in the NFL in John Schneider. He hasn't been one to walk away from openings the way Paton has, but in a league where GMs generally only get one chance to hold that position (rates of recidivism are quite low; you don't usually get a second chance) it can be wise to be careful.
Unfortunately, the situation is murkiest for Kelly, through no fault of his own. The Jets must comply with the Rooney Rule – which has long needed a more comprehensive updating – and interviewing Kelly would qualify them. He knows Gase from their time together at the Bears and Broncos and is more than qualified for consideration on merit alone.
But consider the awkward situation this puts him in. He surely has heard all the same rumblings about Douglas for months – and the fact he has worked with Douglas and has an overlapping network of contacts assures it. He one wants to be used or feel used – though the nature of this rule, whose intent is obviously incredibly well-meaning, often makes it a reality – but Kelly also does not have the extensive history of interviews that Paton or Fitterer do, and has not been a fixture on the GM-search circuit for as long.
So he must weigh all of those variables, as well as how others might perceive him declining an invitation to interview for one of only 32 jobs on the planet. And he must also weigh, especially within the community of minority coaches and execs, whether, by accepting the interview, he is further perpetuating the unintended consequences of the Rooney Rule by being part of what some believe could be something of a sham process with the outcome already preordained before the interview slips were even sent out (like the Raiders hire of Mike Mayock as GM in January).
How is any of that fair to the individual involved? Something that should be a cause of celebration instead turns into a fact-finding mission to try to discern the intent and openness of the search itself, ferreting out motives and transparency. But particularly with the growing trend of owners now whacking GMs post-draft (it's been all the rage with the Chiefs, Panthers, Bills and now Jets doing so in recent years), there is all-the-more reason to tread lightly and have trepidation for most "candidates," in that moves like that aren't made generally unless the next-man-up is basically already in the fold. I asked one minority executive who has been in this situation before what he would do if he was Kelly. He paused for a moment to contemplate where Kelly is in his career, and then told me this:
"Maybe it is easy for me to say, and I could never speak for him, but I think highly of Champ. And I would tell him to politely decline. He is with a good team. He has a strong reputation. His name is out there more, now. You guys are all writing articles about this search. It's May, not much is going on. This is getting a lot of attention. Other owners know his name now. I don't think he needs to take it, but you definitely understand if he does."
That's where the Jets are, in damn-near June of 2019. That's the state of high-level NFL hiring practices, in damn-near June of 2019. Hopefully both change in the very near future. But with no games being played, and OTAs thoroughly overblown, the football world is watching Florham Park closely as spring turns to summer. And the Jets still don't have a real general manager. And yet everyone seems to already know who the next GM is destined to be.