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Woody Johnson's frugal approach can work, but only if GM delivers

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The owner who once ordered his football people to get Brett Favre off his Mississippi farm and bring him to New Jersey ... who signed off on a Mark Sanchez contract extension after a mediocre year ... who doled out a $21 million guarantee for a 31-year-old guard (Alan Faneca) and cut him two years later ...

That owner stood outside his $50 million practice facility Thursday and tried to explain why his New York Jets have the lowest cash payroll in the NFL.

"When I grew up, I always had a reserve, and you don’t spend your last dollar," said Woody Johnson, who grew up an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.

The entire scene was incongruous, a billionaire -- the owner of a New York sports franchise -- telling us about the importance of saving dollars for a "war chest." The whole-thing is Wilpon-esque. New Yorkers don't like cheap skates unless they're bringing home championships, and the Jets haven't had one of those in nearly a half century.

Johnson has come a long way. In the 2000s, he was considered an impulsive, win-now owner who had a little Steinbrenner in him -- George, not Hal. He's done a 180, angering a fan base that looks at a roster with obvious holes and wonders why the team didn't spend more money in the offseason.

The Jets have $21 million in cap room, the second largest amount in the league. Meanwhile, the fans are paying big bucks because the Jets have the sixth-highest average ticket price. That's what you call an imbalance.

Johnson, in one of his periodic state-of-the-team sessions with reporters, was grilled with questions about the team's cap management. He kept throwing out the phrase "sustainable success," but what he really was saying is this:

I tried it the other way with Mike Tannenbaum as my general manager. That didn't work and it cost me a fortune. Now I'm going to give the John Idzik method a shot.

The Idzik Way is to build slowly, emphasizing the draft and supplementing with free agents. He won't pay outrageous salaries (see: Darrelle Revis) even if it means sacrificing in the short term. Idzik is the anti-Tannenbaum, which means he's reactive instead of proactive. Tannenbaum was ultra-aggressive. Sometimes it backfired, but it also got the Jets to the AFC Championship Game in back-to-back years.

"We’re trying to build through the draft," Johnson said. "We’ll do an occasional free agent, but the free agent market is not a panacea. So we’re trying to make wise investments to build a team through the draft and try to build a sustainable team."

Here's the thing with Johnson: He doesn't have his own philosophy, so he attaches himself to those who do. He's a wealthy chameleon, changing colors. A decade ago, he was free-spending owner because his GM -- Tannenbaum -- was a deal maker and a risk taker. Johnson ran out of patience after the 2012 debacle and hired Idzik, who convinced the owner that slow and steady was the way to a Super Bowl.

Yes, slow and steady can work. Look at the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers -- teams that prefer to stay out of the pricey free-agent market. Suddenly, Johnson is a patient owner (even though he says he's not), a believer in John the Deliberate.

"That’s one of the reasons I hired him, because he is deliberate," Johnson said. "He does look at these decisions in a holistic way in terms of how they’re going to effect the team (and) long-term success. I think he’s very good at that."

The buzz among agents is that Johnson, burdened by stadium debt, has tightened the purse strings because of cash-flow problems. He insisted that Idzik has no spending restrictions, that he can spend as he sees fit.

The bottom line: Johnson is asking his fans to bet on Idzik, a career cap guy with a limited scouting background who never interviewed for a GM job until the Jets came calling. The man who wants to build through the draft has delivered only one star-caliber player in his first two drafts, Sheldon Richardson, and his free-agent acquisitions have been questionable at best. His biggest splurge, Eric Decker, can't stay on the field because of a hamstring injury. His handpicked quarterback, Geno Smith, is trending toward "bust."

It's not hard to figure out where this is going. In a couple of years, when the roster is thinned out because of the unproductive drafts, Idzik -- his rear end on the hot seat -- will break out the checkbook and start spending to fill the holes. The payroll will be soaring, and Johnson will be outside his palatial practice facility, explaining to reporters that he'll spend whatever it takes to build a championship team.