In retrospect, the decision that may wind up ruining Idzik’s career was the one to agree to take the vacant Jets job. Recall that Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell chose Jacksonville over New York, in a move that foreshadowed some of the problems Idzik would encounter. Chief among them: rebuilding in New York — and in particular, with the Jets — is just not like rebuilding in other places. The Jets were 6-10 and coming off back-to-back seasons without the playoffs when Idzik was hired. New York was in a clear rebuilding situation: the Jets cap situation was in terrible shape, and the talent had been depleted. This was going to take some time.
Idzik came from Seattle, where John Schneider took the Seahawks from 5-11 to 7-9 and 7-9 in his first two seasons. Now recognized as one of the best GMs in football, Schneider may well have been fired after two years had he compiled that resume in New York and had the same strained relationship with the media that Idzik had. At a high level, Idzik planned to do in New York what Schneider did in Seattle, or Ted Thompson has done in Green Bay: build through the draft, spend money wisely, and patiently construct a roster. With the Jets — and in particular, due to the media that covers the team — that plan leaves very little margin for error.
Idzik started off his campaign very well. He was backed into a corner as soon as he arrived, placed in a no-win situation with the team’s best player, Darrelle Revis. Despite having poor leverage, Idzik was able to extract a 2013 1st round pick and 2014 4th round pick from the Bucs for Revis. Idzik turned those picks into Sheldon Richardson (outstanding!) and Jalen Saunders (not so outstanding!).
Idzik inherited a team that had found itself in salary cap hell; in fact, that was one of the main reasons the previous GM, Mike Tannenbaum, had been fired. But there were some quick fixes to slash the payroll — cutting Jason Smith, Bart Scott, Eric Smith, and Tim Tebow would shave about $21.6M off the ledger, for example — and Idzik picked those low-hanging fruit without issue. The real question would be how would Idzik shape the salary cap going forward. And here we run into the first New York issue. The Jets entered the 2014 offseason with lots of salary cap room: what would Idzik do with that money?
Being a Tough Negotiator
Idzik let several players, most notably Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, visit with the organization and begin contract negotiations, only to exit without reaching a deal. Idzik came under fire from the Jets media for being a tough negotiator, and was labeled “a rigid negotiator who isn’t willing to stretch whatever value he has assigned a particular player to get a deal done.”
The Jets had a lot of salary cap room to spend on free agents, a fact not lost on either the Jets media or NFL agents. By being a tough negotiator, Idzik did in fact cause some short-term pain. But the easiest thing in the world for a GM to do is simply throw in an extra $500K to “get a deal done.” But is that the best strategy for long-term success? Idzik’s stance showed that he would be a disciplined negotiator, putting agents on notice that he would not be bullied in negotiators. It was that same stance that got him to eventually convince the Bucs to give up a large haul for a player the Jets were forced to trade. Being a good general manager means having a walkaway point in negotiations, but the New York media turned this into Idzik either “being in over his head”, being “too rigid in negotiations”, or, laughably, “intent on tanking the team so he could fire Ryan.” Idzik chose the tough road — any fan could say “just pay the guy 5% more and get him in the door! — but he was criticized for that decision.
The problem with a four-year plan is that there may be some hiccups early on. In New York, one needs to be very adept at dealing with the media during those hiccups. John Idzik was not very adept at dealing with the media.
Not spending enough money
Related to the point above, Idzik was blasted for saving too much cap room. Never mind you that dollars saved today carry over to tomorrow, the media turned Idzik’s prudent approach to free agency as him either being “cheap” or, again, “in over his head.” In a vacuum,the “patient approach to free agency” is widely praised as the correct one. But in practice, it can lead to a lot of criticism.
The vast majority of players paid in free agency look overpaid with the benefit of hindsight. There is also very little correlation between money spent on free agents and team success/improvement. Signing veterans also takes snaps away from young players, a critically important part of the development process for a general manager intent on “building through the draft.”
Take cornerback, for example. Idzik was loudly criticized for his failure to land any cornerback in free agency other than Dimitri Patterson, who was cut before the start of the season due to off-the-field issues. 1 But had the Jets signed an extra veteran or two, that could have taken away snaps from Dee Milliner (2013 first round pick), Darrin Walls (young corner who played well in limited action in 2013), Dexter McDougle (2014 third round pick), or Brandon Dixon (2014 sixth round pick). The Jets also had Kyle Wilson (2010 first round pick) still on the roster, and while he was likely not viewed as a developmental player, it would have been reasonable to think he would provide a baseline level of player if the youngsters didn’t develop.
As it turned out, McDougle tore his ACL in early August, Milliner was injured in the first preseason game and wound up missing most of the year, Patterson went AWOL in late August (and was later cut), and Dixon was cut at the end of August. And Walls turned out to be fool’s gold. So yes, the cornerback situation went ugly in a hurry. But in retrospect, it’s still not clear that Idzik made the wrong call in how he chose to address the position. 2
Suppose the Jets spent an extra $10M on cornerback in the offseason. That may have bought the Jets a couple more wins, but what is a 6-10 season worth? It would also mean New York would have ten million dollars less available to them in 2015. And it would have deprived them of the chance of seeing if any of their cheap cornerbacks could turn into a poor man’s Richard Sherman, which is the real secret for finding long-term success: finding valuable NFL starters for cheap. We still have zero film on McDougle, a player the Jets were very high on prior to his August injury. Had he stayed healthy, would Idzik’s decision look wiser today?
The Jets were not on the verge of winning a Super Bowl this year, and spending more money on cornerbacks would have meant the 2015 Jets would have a worse set of draft picks and less money to spend. It would also have limited the amount of snaps given to young players. This is the other side of the “build through the draft” coin: there are some growing pains involved with rebuilding. Building through the draft doesn’t mean having a 100% success rate on draft picks: it means giving your home-grown players a chance to develop into quality NFL players.
Here is how Peter King opened his MMQB column after week 17, when discussing the Jim Harbaugh fallout in San Francisco:
This organization was totally tight the first year or so Jim was here, but lately, especially this year, it was always, ‘Sources say this, sources say that.’ You cannot run a successful organization with one side of the building leaking stuff to hurt the other side of the building. And it never stopped.
The Jets were as leaky as any team in the NFL prior to Idzik’s arrival, with Mike Pettine in particular being widely speculated as the source of some of the leaks. Idzik vowed to bring a Belichickean model to the Jets. And Idzik kept that word, saying very little to the media in his two years in New York. The problem is that the leaks didn’t stop. Whether the source of the leaks was from Ryan or one of the members of his camp is unknown, of course, but there’s no doubt that the media chose Ryan over Idzik during the 2014 season. And if the leaks did come from Ryan, then as between Rex Ryan and Idzik, the media would hear just one side of the story.
Given the teflon treatment Ryan was given during his final few months in New York, it’s fair to think that Ryan (or his agent) may well have been connected to the leaks. It’s not hard to see the connection between the reporters who would give a soft touch to Ryan’s short-comings, criticize all things Idzik, and oh-by-the-way be the ones breaking Jets news. Idzik tried to be above the media, and that simply does not work here.3
New York is not Seattle: being New York brings with it additional hurdles that outsiders can’t quite understand until they are here. The Jets are an even more challenging beast to tame than other New York teams, including the Giants. Reporters covering the team have figured out that style sells over substance, and the loudest voice is the most important voice. A couple of Jets beat writers saw career advancement through ripping the Jets, and the rest of the media covering the team took notice. To those not in New York, it may be hard to understand the impact the media can have here, but the tabloid style of journalism has become the standard, thanks to the domino effect of the success enjoyed by those who first began writing those articles. One only needs to read a handful of pieces by media covering the Jets to notice that these are different in kind, not just degree, than the type of articles covering other teams. “The sky is falling” sells, but “Person A hates Person B” sells even more; when in doubt, print both.
Idzik underestimated the power of the New York media, which turned the fan base against him, which in part sparked Woody Johnson’s decision to fire him. Idzik thought he could avoid a fight with the media by simply declaring that he would not engage. By keeping his hands by his side, he got pummeled.
Had Idzik been a better GM — had he been a bit more successful with his draft picks, had he made a few better decisions in free agency — he would have likely avoided the axe, but he was still never prepared to deal with the New York media (and, in particular, with a New York media with which Ryan had expertly cultivated his relationship).
You can also see this in how some in the Jets media have reacted to the news that
is a leading candidate for the new head coach position. But pro-Marrone articles do not sell papers or deliver hits; as a result, the sharks have circled on this hire as well.
Idzik did some positive things during his time here, and the Jets are in a better position now than they were two years ago. New York has a high draft pick, a ton of cap room, and more talent on both sides of the ball today than they did in the aftermath of the Revis trade. The next GM does not have a total rebuild ahead of him, because he does not first need to tear down the existing structure. But the next GM would be wise to learn from Idzik’s failures with the media. Even wiser would be Johnson understanding the significant of this relationship when he makes the decision on who that person will be.
- There were several bad Idzik signings, and this was one of them. [↩]
- Here is what Gang Green Nation wrote about the Jets secondary in July:
Dee Milliner struggled mightily last year, but seemed to find his stride by the end of the season. His late season splash is very encouraging, but he needs to stay healthy, and continue to grow for this season to be a success. Dimitri Patterson is a proven vet, who can step right in, and contribute. If he can stay healthy (Big if), he can be moved around to the slot or outside, and thrive. Darrin Walls saw limited time last season for us, but he made the best of his chances. There were times when he seemed like the only DB worth a damn out there. It is still yet to be seen if he can hold up to an extended role. The rookies are rookies, and even though they have some OTA hype, we should temper our excitement. As mentioned, this group has a lot of potential, but those question marks need to be answered on the field before they can even be considered anything more than below average.
We all know how things turned out. But isn’t a rebuilding team better off giving snaps to young players who could develop into something special (while on cheap contracts) than to pay middle-of-the-road veterans? [↩]
- Or, at least, it didn’t with Ryan around. [↩]