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John Idzik Fired, and Rebuilding in New York

A very unhappy marriage

A very unhappy marriage

After two seasons on the job, Jets general manager John Idzik was fired on Black Monday. Idzik has been loudly criticized for his personnel decisions — more on this in a bit — but even the anti-Idzik crowd would recognize that firing a general manager after just two years is unusual. Firing a general manager who drafted the defensive rookie of the year in one of those two seasons, and who never was permitted to hire his own head coach, only adds to the perception that Idzik’s tenure in New York was unique.

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.

The Media

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.

  1. There were several bad Idzik signings, and this was one of them. []
  2. 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? []

  3. Or, at least, it didn’t with Ryan around. []
  • Mack

    Great article. Dead on from start to finish.

  • Nice read, but Oof! “The Jets are in a better position now than they were two years ago.”

    That’s like saying I’m in a better position now after a bitter two-year divorce settlement because I got my crazy ex-wife out of my space. I have to sell my house, move into a tiny run-down apartment, share custody of my kids, and give my ex-wife half! How is that better?

    It’s worse… much , much worse. Yeah, it’ll get better, eventually. But right now it sucks… just like the Jets. They stink, and have few playmakers, and are missing a quarterback with no reliable one in sight where they draft or available in Free Agency.

  • And the Richard Sherman note is laughable. I’m a Seahawk fan, and even I admit that’s luck finding a cornerback All-Pro in the 5th rd. You don’t ignore the cornerback position early in the draft to set up finding Richard Sherman in the 5th rd.

    https://twitter.com/JOBOOZOSO

    • dave crockett

      To Joe B.
      You don’t pass on high draft picks on potential all-Pro talent, but I think you confused the example with the point. The author states clearly that the secret is finding starting caliber talent, cheap. Sherman is the prototype, not the baseline.

      Just staying in Seattle at CB, as any Seahawks fan knows, it isn’t just Sherman. It’s Brandon Browner (CFL), Maxwell, Lane, Simon, and more recently Burley — none of those guys cost above a 3rd round pick. All at minimum quality rotation players or starters.

      • Ajit

        IF that is true, why the hell did they waste their money extending people like Sherman and Chancellor anyways? Since they have a perpetual motion machine on defensive backs right?

  • I think one of the things you hit on with this is why nobody else wanted this job. Its just the nature of the sitution in NY. While the Jets had plenty of options with their salary cap when Idzik took over I think other GMs just saw it as a job to let somebody else do and then they can maybe come in after the tearing down of the team. Kind of like what went on with the Knicks where you bring in someone just to tear it down and then effectively fire them after that.

    It was going to be hard for Idzik to change opinions here. Most were negative on him from the start and it didnt help that he seemed to be around the Jets 10th choice for the job. He needed a home run and he never got it. While Richardson was the DROY it was a weak class and Richardson isnt a bondafide star along the lines of the big time pass rushers. If Richardson was the defensive version of Beckham (which admittedly would be a crazy level of play) Idzik might still be here.

    The other thing is that he let go some favorites among fans/media and failed to replace them which is a killer. I thought drafting Dee Milliner after trading Revis was just an awful move from the point of self preservation. It immediately brings up comparions and on top of that Milliner had some dings that were there which makes the pick look worse. Similarly they did the same with Cromartie with Patterson looking to be the clear veteran replacement. It just looked bad. Even the Geno/Sanchez thing blew up on him, though not as bad as it could have been. These were his boldest moves and the payoffs were not great.

    Even if he was planning on saving for the future he failed to communicate that in a manner that made people believe it or understand it (I couldnt make heads or tails out of what they were doing (for every penny saved there was a Chris Johnson type signing) sometimes). And again it was one of those things that hurt him personally. Revis was the bad guy when he got shipped out. The way his holdouts/demands had been run in the media and then countered by the former Jets FO firmly turned the fans against Revis’ way of doing business. Revis is essentially the anti-Tom Brady with that stuff. But when Revis went and signed for cheap and the Jets were not spending a dime it made it look like Revis was right all along that the team was being cheap.

    Maybe he should get credit for not playing the game that way and working with or trying to use the media to his advantage, but it gave him no chance. He just gave everyone so much ammunition to go after him and never had a comeback to defend himself. Id be stunned if he was ever interviewed for a GM position again. It completely ruined any chance he would have.

  • Red

    Sometimes I wonder…why would anybody want to be a public figure in New York? Is the glamour really worth all the extra scrutiny and criticism?

  • Mike h

    i like your work chase, but idzik really dropped the ball on his own, with a very badly manged press conference, that left the fans with the feeling that he was clearly overmatched for any public speaking let alone the ny media.

    Secondly, him not addressing the cb issue in free agency left him for a reach in rd 3 for mcdougle, if he signs Drc at a minimu, it allows him to add an additional wr in th deepest wr pool in ages. H walks away with amaro, but there were a lot of wrs to grab in rd 3. And if you whiff on cb in the free agency, how about going strong at cb in rd 1 and build your future with two young cbs in a system like Rex’s where he really really needs a strong cb, idzik didn’t communicate this.

    A ton of draft picks, and really not too much to show for.

    He did a good job with ivory, the Revis trade and Richardson, the jury is out on milliner and certainly geno has not looked great, amaro looks solid, and Pryor could be ok, but close to 20 picks, do you feel confident you want him choosing your next high pick?

    After his bogus press conference and body forward to date, I don’t

    And Teflon Rex, good riddance.

  • Pollio

    Good article. Any potential GM under consideration for the Jets needs two basic answers from Woody. What realistically is your goal and how do you expect to get there. This organization needs a long range developmental plan with the fortitude to execute it. This means that the FO and coaching staff must be on the same page. Synchrony between the two is most important. Quick fixes shouldn’t be the rule. As for the NY media, successful performance by the Jets will become unattractive to most of them. You can’t fight success.

  • Tom Ruix

    Mike H. great post could not agree with you more. 20 picks and 5 players from two drafts Milner, Bohanan, Richardson, Calvin and Amaro. They all looked to be players in this league. 5 players out of 27 draft picks is now where near enough to field a competitive team if you plan is to build through the draft. If you want young players to take snaps they had better make the team (4 players cut from this draft) and not get injured.

    He let the qb competition that he preached about so much it was a mantra never develop, Geno the living tun over did set a nfl record 40 turn overs in 30 nfl games. He regressed to the point he should never start another game in the nfl .

    At a point in the system when you need corners and Flowers (from KC) becomes available you had better do what you have to to get him here. Instead he does nothing. Even if he doe not last two years you get help for Calvin P but instead you let the cb situation effect your rookie safety and play him out of position.

    Idzik screwed himself by not doing enough once he got injuries, case in point he had the money and knew he needed help for a young qb so he signs Decker (not a bad signing) but he should have signed another receiver (Tate, Saunders, Jackson) he does nothing and panic trades for Harvin who may not be with the team next year. He did not pick a receiver till the 4th round and Evans was injured so where is the help fro the young qb at the start of the year.
    There were games when Greg Salas and David Nelson were starting, that’s a Gm doing his job…….

    He messed up on so many levels building this team it was almost a complete break down. he has money hoarded and it is being reported he never started negotiating a contract with Mo Wilkerson? I thought hte idea was so you can you sign your own young players but he never approached him and he is alienated?

    I wish I could go to work and candy crush all day because he was not addressing football matters.

    The Jets needed a new start with a coach and gm working towards the same goals

  • dave crockett

    As a Seahawks fan in football, but a lifelong Mets and Knicks fan who has lived ALL over the US, I can say the with confidence. No other fan base is as obsessed with media as those of New York teams, with the Jets the worst of the group. Somehow, you can’t tell people that is dumb beyond comprehension to willingly grant sensationalist media de facto Board of Directors control over a franchise.

    I just feel like, what did people think a rebuild would look like?

  • Tim

    @dave crockett
    The Problem with the rebuild was that nobody in the organization really spoke about it clearly. It was always “we want to win now, we want to win tomorrow”. Woody sad i want more than 8 wins. Like almost every year in spring Rex made his comments about having the best defense in the league and what a great team they are. So it’s was difficult for the fans to understand what’s going on. Off course woody want to sell his expensive tickets so he can’t sell the fan base rebuilding mode.

  • Curtis

    I think the only people who DONT think the Jets are in a better place than 2 years ago are Jets fans. I feel sorry for them. The mediocrity they have to deal with every year from this team, and it being an NY team changes their mindset on everything to do with football. There’s zero patience, no sympathy for the team or team officials, and just generally a lot of negativity. This isn’t because of the actual Jet fans personalities themselves, it’s them being fans of a franchise that continuously promises so much and delivers so little. Getting your hopes up every year over and over again and those hopes getting eventually crushed are what makes Jets fans different from any other fans. You can have optimism before a season but the it’s like the football gods teased the Jets by giving them 2 AFC championships in a row which is probably the 2nd worst feeling in sports (losing in the semi-finals) but it happened twice.. In a row. Jets fans are the most diehard fans when you think about it because they’ve been through thick and thin for 50 years and still come out every year and support their team. Instead of rambling on, I do think Idzik left the Jets in a better position than when he got there. Their defensive line is among the top in the league now, DeMario Davis looks like an MLB the Jets can build around when David Harris departs the team, Marcus Williams looks like a diamond in the rough that they found in such a terrible season for the secondary, the WR group looks awfully better than 2012-2013, the running game looks great and Ivory specifically looks like a great find and well worth a 4th rounder, and there’s loads of cap room… So yes, there are holes. Of course there are, for a 4-12 team. But this situation is not nearly as dire as the hellhole Idzik stepped into. I’m not saying he made this team great, but rather saying he improved it in his tenure here, no matter what he “didn’t do” in hindsight. Now a new GM and coach can walk into a situation where they get to hire their new staff, improve the roster which shouldn’t be too much of an issue for a 4-12 team and win games.

    • McGeorge

      Reply to Curtis – (the website doesn’t let me reply directly, maybe because it’s my first time posting).

      The Jets are worse off than 2 years ago, because all their players are older, and Idzik only acquired one good young player (Sheldon Richardson). (Maybe ODay Aboushi will be ok).
      Marcus Williams might develop into an average player, it’s possible. I wouldn’t say diamond in the rough.

      >.I think the only people who DONT think the Jets are in a better place than 2 years ago are Jets fans

      What fans (of other teams) think the Jets are better off now than 2 years ago? If they get a good GM and competent HC they will be. But the team is weaker and I doubt many fans think otherwise.

  • McGeorge

    1. The Jets were not in salary cap hell when Idzik took over. This is well explained on Over the Cap. The Jets had a number of veterans who were easy to cut, bringing them below the cap.

    2. Idziks drafting was very poor, other than Sheldon Richardson, every pick has been a bust or a disappointment. Well, maybe Oday Aboushi will be serviceable. As fro Dee Miliner, he wasn’t stellar at the end of 2013, he was ok, got lucky and made a pick on a badly thrown ball, and played better than earlier in the year. As teh #9 pick overall, he’s been a bust so far. Maybe in his 3rd or 4th year he will be good, the jury is still out. But you can’t say he looks like he’s going to be good.

    3. The handling of the Corner Back situation was poor. You can’t start the season with no corner backs. That’s like forfeiting a couple of games. McDougle was a 3rd round pick. What team counts on a 3rd round pick to be a contributor? Thats unsound planning. More like praying. Milliner got an ankle sprain, ok , bad luck. Dimitri Paterson was awful in pre-season, then went awol and got cut. There were other alternatives , not just the highly priced Dominique Rogers Cromartie. They tried to save a little on Corner backs and ended up with nothing. So I disagree with you that it’s worth it to save a million. It’s worth it if you can pull it off. But he didn’t and teh Jets corner back situation was a disaster. That’s all on the person with the responsibility of acquiring players – the GM.

    Other than drafting Sheldon Richardson and trading for Chris Ivory, Idzik did nothing right. II was on board with the Revis trade, and still am. The terms he got were nothing special. I suspect any GM would have got that.

    Idzik got fired after 2 years because he stank. He wasn’t entitled to a third year. It was smart of Woody Johnson to recognize he made a mistake.

    Idziks philosophy is sound, but he didn’t have the skills to pull it off.

  • M Kelly

    Did John Idzik write this article? OMG…Can you get any more excuse making?

    You know why Idzik was fired.

    In two drafts (19 players) he drafted ONE player that paid a benefit in his tenure here. Milliner was hurt all this season and was a train wreck most of last season. Geno was/is a disaster. Calvin Pryor was lost all season and benched in favor of an UDFA. Jace Amaro was mediocre at BEST.

    Then look at his FA signings. Mike Woodson, Stephen Peterman, Antonio Garay, Braylon Edwards, Dmitri Patterson…

    Come on…

    Then finally he was a train wreck in front of the media at his press conferences. His midseason press conference this year is the reason he was fired. He NEVER took responsibility for anything he did. It was always “team this” and “group decision”. You NEVER felt that he was in charge and that the buck stopped with him.

    That’s why he was fired and why no other team will touch him.