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Sometimes You’re Damned If You Do And Damned If You Detroit

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 11: Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh of the San Francisco 49ers looks on during the NFC Divisional Round Playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Levi's Stadium on January 11, 2020 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

In an homage to the timeless gainsay, “Wabbit Season! Duck Season!” the National Football League is closing hard on the end of its general manager/coach hiring frenzy, and of those hirings we can say the following:

1. The general managers are as interesting as ever, which is to say not at all. They will continue the long line of tie-wearing functionaries whose principal job is to sit next to the owner on game day and tell him or her why the talent is plentiful but the coach is the problem. This is also known as the Philadelphia Banshee Two-Step.

2. While the rest of the world is marveling on the crystalline weirdness of Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, we should spare a thought for Robert Saleh, the new coach of the New York Jets, who is about to prove that you shouldn’t go home again unless the alternative is worse. Which in this case it kind of isn’t.

Saleh, formerly the defensive coordinator for the 49ers, was pundit-ordained and therefore mortally locked as the next coach of the Detroit Lions, largely because he is a Michigan man (well, Michigan State man, but the mitten is the mitten), but chose the Jets instead because of their long history of being exactly like the Lions, only microscopically better. He even shunned the shameless advocacy of a Michigan congressman to take a job that seems like more like 8-to-12 in Ossining than 8-to-12 wins.

In short, Saleh, who was interviewed often and by multiple teams, decided that the Jets were better than home. That’s quite the indictment on home.

The Lions have the more accomplished but older and more expensive quarterback. The Jets have an ancient running back you’ve heard of (Frank Gore), and the Lions had Barry Sanders as recently as 1998. The Jets have the better defense and the spectacularly worse offense. The Jets have the 1 p.m. Eastern TV slot in perpetuity, and the Lions have Thanksgiving. The Jets have the same old undercompetent owners in the Johnson boys, and the Lions have a new owner in Sheila Ford Hamp upon whom no football pedigree is known except that she only needed five months to figure out Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, which speaks well of her.

But all this demands the question of why people think so much less of the Jets than the Lions, when in fact they are the Marx Brothers mirror scene in Duck Soup, only without the choreography or laughter. Maybe it’s because the Jets are loud-bad while the Lions blend into bad like beige wallpaper. Maybe it’s because Jets fans keep thinking there must be more to this than 5-11 while Lions fans long ago accepted 5-11 as their lot in life. Maybe it’s just a trick of the light and the Jets job is actually and demonstrably better, since the Lions are seeking a defense-minded coach to fix a unit that (throat-clear and mic-check here) ALLOWED THE SECOND-HIGHEST POINT TOTAL IN THE HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE.

Still, you have to go with your gut here and say that the Lions job and the Jets job are essentially the same job, and either way Saleh is already up to his eyelids in it. In the new global world in which we live, Urban Meyer is going to catch more attention in Jacksonville than Saleh will in New York City, so while the locals will still be demanding that the Jets win last year’s Super Bowl or declare Saleh a favorite to be the first new coach fired, the national view will be on Florida, where the Jags are at least nominally worse than both the Lions or Jets. But at least they are competently bad, since they won their first game, then realized what a pointless exercise that was and lost the next 15 to guarantee themselves Trevor Lawrence. That’s a commitment to the bit the Jets couldn’t show, and that the Lions never demonstrate since they have had the first pick only twice since 1950.

Maybe that’s what lured Saleh to New York: aside from Jacksonville, the greater organizational ability to stink on command for the good of the company. But that’s still a trick you only get to demonstrate once before people start looking at you like you’re the next Adam Gase and want your head in a bag out by the dumpster. And the over/under on that date is November 2023, because while Robert Saleh might be a fine hire, he still went to the Jets, and when it comes to the ratio of immovable objects to irresistible forces, the smart play remains the Jets falling harder than anyone can hold them aloft.

You know. Like the Lions.