Fewer than three weeks after the New York Jets landed a promising 2019 draft class, CEO Chris Johnson fired general manager Mike Maccagnan, as first reported Wednesday by ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Jeff Darlington and confirmed by the team. Vice president of player personnel Brian Heimerdinger was also fired. New head coach Adam Gase, who said in his introductory press conference in January that he had no interest in making personnel decisions, has been named interim GM.
On the surface, the timing of the Maccagnan firing is puzzling. He just ran New York’s 2019 draft, earning praise from analysts. But he also spent lavishly in free agency this spring, giving $27 million guaranteed to former Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell, a price that reportedly irked Gase for all the reasons we’ve learned about running backs and value. On April 26, the second day of the NFL draft, Maccagnan told reporters, “I don’t think I’m really going to sit here and comment about my job,” and denied two reports that a rift had developed between him and Gase.
“I’ve actually had a very good working relationship with Adam. Quite frankly, as I’ve said before, he has a very good sense of humor. He makes me laugh quite a bit, which is one of the reasons why I like working with him.”
But the same day, ESPN’s Rich Cimini reported that Chris Johnson was so concerned about the working dynamic between Gase and Maccagnan that he began spending more time at the team facility to personally oversee them. Johnson, who took over ownership responsibilities after his brother and Jets owner Woody Johnson was named ambassador to the United Kingdom in 2017, released a statement Wednesday confirming the move.
”I came to the decision to make a change after much thought and a careful assessment of what would be in the best long-term interests of the New York Jets,” Johnson’s statement reads.
Firing a general manager after the draft seems counterintuitive, but it’s an increasingly common practice. In 2017, three GMs were fired between the draft and training camp: Buffalo’s Doug Whaley and his entire scouting staff were fired fewer than two weeks after the draft, the Kansas City Chiefs fired GM John Dorsey two months after trading up to draft Patrick Mahomes II, and the Carolina Panthers fired GM Dave Gettleman two weeks before the start of training camp. It seems that owners are more afraid of wasting months of the old front office’s draft prep and forcing the new staff into a time crunch more than they fear the old front office doing a poor job in a lame-duck tenure. As Michael Lombardi wrote for The Ringer in 2017, “Why pay everyone and then let them share your secrets around the NFL?”
That line of thinking makes less sense with Maccagnan, who has been among the worst drafting executives since taking over the Jets gig. The Jets ranked 31st of 32 teams in players drafted from 2015 to 2018 that are still in the NFL, according to a study by salary-cap-research website Over the Cap. Two of Maccagnan’s three second-round picks—wide receiver Devin Smith and quarterback Christian Hackenberg—washed out of the NFL by 2018, an astonishing figure considering over 90 percent of second-rounders taken since 2015 are still in the league. Perhaps realizing his bad luck, Maccagnan traded New York’s three other second-rounders to move up and draft Sam Darnold in 2018, which will be his lasting legacy with the team. Before the Darnold trade, he may have been remembered for assembling a team so bad it was accused of tanking, or perhaps drafting Hackenberg, who failed to keep the starting job for the AAF’s Memphis Express.
Maccagnan was hired in 2015 on the same day as former head coach Todd Bowles. In an unusual organizational restructure, Woody Johnson had Bowles and Maccagnan report directly to him, eschewing the more traditional dynamic where a coach reports to the GM. Christopher Johnson fired Bowles in December, but surprisingly allowed Maccagnan to stay despite the subpar rosters he put together. The younger Johnson returned to the conventional structure by allowing Maccagnan to be involved in the hiring search for Bowles’s replacement. They settled on Gase, who reported to Maccagnan and was named interim GM on Wednesday.
In Maccagnan’s defense, the 2019 draft class looks promising. The no. 3 overall pick, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, is ferocious on the field and just happy to be here off it. New York picked up a first-round talent in the third round by stopping Florida pass rusher Jachai Polite’s freefall, and then, later in the round, the team got a potential starter in USC tackle Chuma Edoga.
But while the draft class looks solid (they all do in the offseason!) Maccagnan spent lavishly on risky players in free agency, as GMs whose jobs are in jeopardy tend to do. He signed former Baltimore inside linebacker C.J. Mosley to a contract that will give him $41 million guaranteed at signing over the first three years, which is 50 percent more than the amount guaranteed at signing for next-closest inside linebacker, Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. It’s also more than twice as much guaranteed money at signing as any other inside linebacker in the league not named Luke Kuechly. Maccagnan also signed Bell and gave $17 million guaranteed apiece to receiver Jamison Crowder and defensive end Henry Anderson. He also tried to give Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr $33 million to switch to a full-time pass rushing role, but Barr reneged on the deal and returned to Minnesota for less money. Even without the Barr deal, Maccagnan gave out more than $100 million of guaranteed money at signing just two months ago.
Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas has been floated as the top candidate to replace Maccagnan. While it’s strange that Maccagnan would be allowed to run New York’s draft rather than firing him along with Bowles in December, at least there is a precedent for that decision. But ownership signing off on the risk-laden signings Maccagnan made in free agency is the type of organizational malpractice that has made the Jets a laughingstock for so long. The timing of Maccagnan’s fire is odd, but the autonomy he had in free agency is a far bigger indictment of Chris Johnson’s leadership than allowing Maccagnan to finish the draft.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Woody Johnson as Chris Johnson’s father; they are brothers.