Honeymooners, no more: Why 2022 is big for Jets' Robert Saleh, Joe Douglas

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets coach Robert Saleh likes to wear a black T-shirt that has "60%" emblazoned on the chest. No, it's not the percentage of cotton in the shirt. It's certainly not the team's winning percentage over the past decade. (If that were the case, the T-shirt would say 34%.)

No, the shirt is a nod to the Navy SEALs and their secret to mental toughness -- aka the 40% rule. Loosely translated: When you're so exhausted that your mind is telling you to quit, you've actually reached only 40% of your body's potential.

Saleh, infatuated with the SEALs, preached the message all summer to the players, coaches and pretty much everyone in the organization, which explains why 60% T-shirts have popped up around the building. His mission in his second year is to push the Jets to a new limit, to make them find that elusive 60%.

"To do that," he said, "you have to go to a dark place."

The Jets, of all teams, know dark places.

They've gone 11 straight years out of the playoffs, the longest active streak in the NFL and tied for the longest in franchise history. Saleh, 43, wasn't even born when the Jets played in their only Super Bowl back in January 1969. He and general manager Joe Douglas, 46, have infused the organization with optimism and hope, but the fan base is getting restless and wants its leadership tandem to deliver results.

It doesn't want to hear about moral victories and carefully crafted marketing campaigns that highlight the emerging youth on the roster. It wants to see tangible progress, meaning wins.

"I still believe we’re going to win championships here," said Saleh, reiterating what he said on the day he was hired and repeated during the toughest times of a 4-13 campaign.

No one expects the Jets to win a title this season, or even make the playoffs in the loaded AFC, but they should be more competitive than last year. Eight of their 13 losses last season were by double digits, including 41- and 28-point losses to the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, respectively.

They went 0-6 in the AFC East for the second straight year, the longest divisional losing streak (12) by any AFC East team since realignment in 2002. In his first team meeting in April, Saleh hammered the 12-game skid as part of his overall theme: We must close "the gap" in 2022.

The honeymoon is over, folks.

"The goal is to be playing meaningful games down the stretch," said Douglas, reciting a relatively modest goal but one that hasn't been accomplished since 2015.

This is Douglas' fourth year. He walked into a dysfunctional situation with a roster devoid of talent, and he has done a commendable job -- except for an unproductive 2020 draft -- of replenishing the roster with young talent. Still, he doesn't have much to show for it -- a 13-36 record. This is a pivotal year for Douglas, who signed a six-year contract.

Saleh received a five-year contract, aligning closely with Douglas, the person he reports to. It seems like a lot of security for the two top football men, yet there's a layer of mystery around the organization because neither man was hired by owner Woody Johnson, who returned last year from an overseas diplomatic post for the Donald Trump White House.

Johnson, who attends most practices and is very involved in the football operation, wants to win now -- or at least see real progress. How much patience does he have?

"I feel like we're certainly a more talented team than we've ever been," said Douglas, acknowledging the expectations are higher than at any point during his tenure.

The roster is more talented than last season, no doubt, yet they have no players in ESPN's NFL Rank top 100. The Jets are all about the kids -- five first-round draft picks over the past two years, including quarterback Zach Wilson. All told, they have a league-high 13 former first-rounders on the 53-man roster, including seven drafted by other teams.

Saleh likes to say their roster is "built, not bought," which he believes is conducive to long-term success, but the Jets actually have one of the highest payrolls. Their active cash spending is $257 million, which trails only the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints and Bills, according to OvertheCap.com. Those are teams coming off multiple winning seasons; the Jets haven't posted a winning record since 2015.

When owners spend a lot of money, they want bang for the buck.

For the Jets, so much hinges on Wilson, who has almost as many knee injuries (two) as starting wins (three). The physical talent is there, but he has yet to demonstrate any consistency. The futures of Saleh and Douglas are tied to Wilson, whom they selected second overall in 2021. If he fails, they fail.

Wisely, Douglas surrounded his quarterback with a cadre of promising young skill players -- wide receivers Elijah Moore and Garrett Wilson and running backs Michael Carter and Breece Hall. Hall, who the Jets took in the second round in April, already has some in the organization thinking he might be one of the most talented players on the roster.

But they're all in the range of 21-23 years old. They can grow up together.

"It's exciting to see where we're headed," said backup quarterback Joe Flacco, 37, the team's elder statesman. "I still think we're so young in certain ways, and we haven't won the last few years, so we're still at the point where we're gaining our confidence and proving it to ourselves. We're not going to get completely over that hurdle until we go out and actually do it."

Douglas built the defense to align with Saleh's philosophy -- an athletic front four that goes 10 deep and attacks in waves. They used their top draft pick (fourth overall) on press-man cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, a mild surprise because of Saleh's history of taking unheralded corners and plugging them into his zone system. Gardner should impact third down, when they typically dial up more man coverage than on first and second downs.

Here's a guarantee: The defense will be significantly better than last season.

The punchline: It can't get worse, as the Jets finished last in yards and points allowed (a franchise-record 504).

ESPN analyst Troy Aikman saw some bright spots last season, noticing on tape how the defense flew around the ball, reminiscent of what Saleh did with the San Francisco 49ers when he was their defensive coordinator. The Hall of Fame quarterback said he mentioned it to colleagues, telling them, "This Jets defense, they're going to be pretty good."

Then he worked the Jets' dreadful loss to the Indianapolis Colts on a Thursday night, when they allowed a season-high 260 rushing yards. Aikman said the Jets "could've stayed home and been more competitive," yet he still sees potential for the unit. And the team.

"I do think the Jets have a chance to be really good," he said. "I don't know if it's a mirage or not, but I like what they're doing, and I like Robert Saleh and I do like Zach Wilson."

Saleh was part of a successful rebuild in San Francisco, but that didn't come to fruition until Year 3, with a trip to the Super Bowl. Several key players blossomed at the same time, and Saleh expects that to happen with the Jets. It should. After all, the roster includes eight top-36 picks, seven of whom were drafted by Douglas. The exception is defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who was picked by the previous regime.

The goal is to develop players who seize the big moments. Saleh mentioned Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Aaron Donald as those kind of players.

"What's great about this team is I know we have them," he said. "It's going to be so fun to watch this team grow up in terms of who those dudes are, who steps up in the fourth quarter."

In other words, which dudes find that extra 60%.