Jets owner Woody Johnson is root of team's ongoing problems

It’s impossible to identify all the culprits who have helped turn the Jets into a losing outfit, but the root of the problem is clear: Woody Johnson.

There’s no denying that the owner cares deeply about his franchise. He probably showers in a Jets baseball cap for Pete’s sake. He feels your pain so much that it has clouded his judgment. He is a well-intentioned guy wandering through the NFL wilderness without a guide for two decades.

Johnson desperately wants to fix the problems that have plagued this star-crossed franchise, but he simply doesn’t know the right way to go about it. He isn’t connected enough in league circles to consistently make wise choices. He is easily influenced by a distraught fan base.

Johnson’s blunders have contributed more to the organization’s struggles than any botched draft pick or questionable coaching call.

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“He has a passion for the game,” said Charley Casserly, who was Johnson’s lead consultant during the general manager and head coaching searches in 2015. “It’s important to him. He cares about winning. He’s committed financially to winning. He’s gone to the pocket book when he’s had to go to the pocket book.”

Nobody can ever call Johnson cheap, but he has made poor choices that have been significant barriers to progress through the years. He’s had his fingerprints on some dubious player acquisitions along the way like Darrelle Revis, who has cashed in and checked out this season.

People who have worked for Johnson believe that he can be easily persuaded largely due to his shaky football acumen. He loves to play devil’s advocate, asking plenty of questions, but he can be swayed to your point of view if you present a strong enough case. He just doesn’t know enough about football personnel matters to counter with sound solutions.

The key, former employees suggest, is to get in his ear last. The last man in often gets his way.

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Most of all, Johnson just wants to feel a part of the action. He abhors secrecy within his building. It’s the reason why he fired Eric Mangini after a winning season. Rex Ryan survived year and year despite missing the playoffs partly because he was brilliant at keeping the owner in the loop.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jets react on the bench in the fourth quarter vs. the Colts.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jets react on the bench in the fourth quarter vs. the Colts.

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Johnson’s decision to set up a power structure in which Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles report directly to him with the general manager having control of the 53-man roster is fraught with problems.

He had a traditional front office model for years with Terry Bradway and Mike Tannenbaum that called for the coach to report directly to the GM. It was a smart approach that gave more power to the big-picture guy.

Here’s why the Jets’ current set-up won’t work: Maccagnan and Bowles aren’t accountable to each other… and Johnson doesn’t have the depth or breadth of football knowledge to settle disputes. His primary confidant is attorney Ira Axelrod, who has sat in on GM interviews in the past. Johnson isn’t particularly close to any former coaches or general managers, who can give him solid football advice. In other words, he’s basically out there by himself.

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Although about a quarter of the league employs a somewhat similar set-up with the GM and head coach reporting directly to the owner, there are inherent problems due to Johnson.

The Giants, for example, have an engaged and informed owner in John Mara, who is in the building every day and even sits in on personnel meetings.

Johnson, who declined comment through a team spokesman, pops in for practice whenever he pleases (maybe a couple times a week, maybe not). He can be a good listener, but what will he realistically be able to offer Bowles and/or Maccagnan to sort out football issues? He just doesn’t know enough about those matters.

Although Bowles certainly feels more comfort (and authority over his players) with a direct line to the owner, the best thing for the organization would be for him to report to a football guy. Johnson should have hired a football czar to oversee Maccagnan and Bowles if he didn’t want to institute the traditional model.

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Johnson hoped to replicate the synergy that he felt from the Seahawks, whose GM and coach report directly to the owner (with the coach having final say on the 53), when he flew to Seattle to interview Dan Quinn nearly two years ago.

“It’s more about who are you going to listen to more?” Casserly said about an owner’s interaction with key decision-makers. “I feel you should listen to the general manager more, because he’s going to have the big picture in mind. It’s going to be his job to evaluate the coach and coaching staff and what’s going on on the field. And the owner is going to want to hear that.”

Bowles’ decision to start Ryan Fitzpatrick for a 3-7 team rather than hand over the reins to Bryce Petty exposed the flaws in Johnson’s structure. The head coach discussed his quarterback situation with his staff before settling on the player that could best help out in the short term even the Jets were out of the playoff picture.

“That’s a bad formula, because coaches are naturally going to be short-sighted,” said one front office executive. “Assistant coaches are coaching for their jobs every year. They’re only worried about this year. If you were in their shoes, you’d be exactly the same way. Bowles needs to be managed by a football guy that can step in and make an executive decision.”

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Johnson obviously doesn’t fit that description. He once famously quipped that “you can never have too much Tebow” at a time when the lightning-rod scrub quarterback was slowly sabotaging Mark Sanchez.

Johnson later fired Tannenbaum, but kept Ryan, setting the stage for a miserable shot-gun marriage between the coach and new general manager. Johnson made the ill-fated decision to hire an executive search firm to find Tannenbaum’s replacement because he didn’t have an NFL confidant. The result was epic disaster John Idzik, who predictably clashed with Ryan.

An accountant masquerading as a football man would have been a failure in any circumstance, but Johnson unwittingly accelerated Idzik’s fall by forcing him to inherit a head coach. The owner should have kept Tannenbaum for one more season or fired both the GM and head coach. Instead, Johnson made more of a mess.

It’s been a recurring theme during his ownership. Johnson has made too many rash decisions to help generate temporary buzz or mollify angry fans. He probably needs to bring aboard more people who will challenge him too.

The man in charge has been the biggest problem, but it’s never too late to change.

The future direction of the Jets depends on it.

Tags:
nfl
new york jets
woody johnson
todd bowles
mike maccagnan

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