The Giants. The Jets. Two teams in transition, fighting for one city … despite both playing, practicing, and operating in a different state altogether. In one corner: a roster with Eli Manning, Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, and a noted lack of Odell Beckham Jr. In the other: a squad with Le’Veon Bell, Adam Gase, and a quarterback with the best jawline in football. On Thursday, The Ringer is breaking down the state of the NFL in New York City—and the players, personalities, and memes that define its marquee franchises.
The college students in the big, rowdy house in East Lansing partied like it was 1999, because it was. “Everybody was ecstatic,” recalls Ryan Van Dyke, one of the quarterbacks on that year’s Michigan State football team, which earlier that October day had defeated its archrival, no. 3 Michigan, 34-31, despite the Wolverines’ Tom Brady throwing for 285 yards and two touchdowns. Twelve hours after kickoff, as the clock ticked past midnight, everyone was deep in celebration. Well, almost everyone.
It was nearly 1 in the morning, as Van Dyke tells it, when a latecomer arrived. Adam Gase, a student assistant for the football program, had been busy at the office debriefing from the big game but had finally come home for the night. The partygoers at his house greeted him warmly. “We were like, Goose is here!!!” recalls Van Dyke, speaking by phone from Michigan late last week, his voice briefly transforming into an evocative impression of himself and his buddies in full high-five, we-have-a-friend-named-Goose form. (“I’ve never called him ‘Adam’ in my life,” Van Dyke says of Gase, about whom he’s been making Top Gun references since they were in high school.) Goose was less effusive.
“He literally hung out with us for like 15 minutes and then went to bed,” Van Dyke remembers; Gase wanted to be up bright and early the next morning to get back to watching film and thinking about football. “An old soul,” is how Van Dyke describes Gase. “Like, I think he had a different viewpoint than a lot of us in terms of what he wanted to do when he grew up, so to speak.”
Twenty years later, the 41-year-old Gase has grown up to be the newest head coach of the New York Jets, who hired him early this year to take over a 4-12 team that has a thrilling big young lug of a quarterback in Sam Darnold but that hasn’t made the playoffs since the Mark Sanchez–Rex Ryan era of 2010. Old though Gase’s soul may be, he is one of the NFL’s five youngest head coaches, and one of only two, along with Denver’s Vic Fangio, who didn’t play football in college. Instead, he has worked his way up obsessively through the college and professional coaching ranks, bit by bit, learning and listening and sleeping too little, collaborating with football minds like Nick Saban (at MSU and LSU) and arms like Peyton Manning (with the Broncos), leaving lasting impressions on former colleagues each stop along his way.
“He stood out far, far and above anybody else that I ever had as a student assistant,” recalls Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who coached at Michigan State in the late ’90s and gave Gase his first big assignment: re-creating the 1994 self-scout report Pees had used with the Cleveland Browns, except about the Spartans offense. “His work ethic was off the chain,” says Derek Dooley, now the offensive coordinator at Missouri, who was part of the LSU coaching staff in the early aughts when Gase was a graduate assistant helping coordinate 48-hour recruit visits. “This Gase kid, he is pretty good,” former Detroit Lions president Matt Millen recalls LSU coaches telling him when he was seeking young staffers following the 2002 season.
That Gase kid has now seen a lot. He has been that eager student assistant in East Lansing, licking envelopes and building spreadsheets. He has been that under-the-radar rising NFL coaching talent in Denver, getting promoted again and again, all the way to offensive coordinator. He has been that green head coach getting fired by Miami after three middling seasons and a 23-25 overall record—and he has been the guy hired less than two weeks later, a few weeks into 2019, to be head coach of the division rival New York Jets. And as he prepares for New York’s opening kickoff against Buffalo on September 8, Gase faces his biggest assignment yet: shaping the developmental trajectory of the franchise’s most precious resource in Darnold, while shouldering the decades of hilarity and hopelessness that accompany the position of head coach of the Jets.
Joining the Jets is a little bit like moving into a new house that is stately and beautiful and centrally located and also haunted by bitter, creative ghosts. What may look cool and alluring from the curb has a way of revealing something more chaotic and absurd on the inside, kind of like the trajectory of Sanchez’s career. “It’s hard to win in New York,” Millen says. “There’s all these expectations. There’s more eyes on you.” That much was clear at the new Jets head coach’s introductory press conference on January 14, when all eyes were on Gase. Specifically, on Gase’s gaze: big, perplexed, easily startled. Like so many Jets fans over the years, his eyes seemed to be wondering: How the hell did we all find ourselves here?!
The response was predictable, clickbaity headlines like “Adam Gase memes: Jets coach makes bizarre face (video)” and absolutely heroic columns like “Behind Adam Gase’s crazy eyes is an intensity for football that Jets fans will love.” Days later, when Gase was asked about the dumb frenzy on ESPN Radio, it kicked off a second wave of stories about his reaction. “I don’t have Twitter, Instagram, I don’t read the internet, I don’t watch TV,” he said. “All that stuff is irrelevant to me. To me it’s pollution of the brain. I really don’t care.” It all seemed like an adequately weird beginning to a historically strange job.
Pre-Gase, the Jets have had 18 head coaches since their debut as the New York Titans in 1960, and 16 of them lost more games than they won during their time leading the team. These numbers don’t include Bill Belichick, who was technically named head coach twice but never actually coached a Jets game. (What was meant to be an introductory press conference for him in 2000 turned into a surprise resignation speech before he fled north to the less gangrenous grass in New England.) But it’s not just the big losses that have made the position so infamous, it’s all the little things too; six decades have a way of adding up.
The organization’s first coach, Sammy Baugh, was hired in 1960; by 1962, he was being passive-aggressively demoted at training camp, told to go coach the placekickers. Weeb Ewbank coached the Joe Namath–led Jets to a win in Super Bowl III, still the franchise’s lone title. His successor, Charley Winner, failed to live up to his last name. Lou Holtz had never coached an NFL game when the Jets hired him in 1976, and after presiding over a 3-10 effort and trying to get Namath to sing fight songs, he never coached an NFL game again. (“God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros,” was Holtz’s self-assessment.)
There was the time the Jets let 43-year-old Pete Carroll go after one 6-10 season because Leon Hess, then the team’s owner, learned while on vacation in the Bahamas that the Eagles had fired coach Rich Kotite after seven straight losses. He decided to snap up Kotite, telling the media: “I’m 80 years old and I want results now. … I’m entitled to some enjoyment, and that means winning.” Kotite coached the Jets for two seasons, smoking cigars and going 4-28.
Bill Parcells came blustering in, with his shiny teeth and late-stage DGAF vibes and on-again-off-again friendship with Mike Francesa, and in three seasons went 29-19, the best results in terms of winning percentage of any Jets coach, but he made the playoffs only once. Herm Edwards got the Jets to the postseason three times, but his most famous contribution to Jets history was reminding the world that you play to win the game!!!
Eric Mangini ratted out the Patriots for filming a Jets game from an unauthorized location and for that is a real patriot, even if his reward for launching Spygate was new owner Woody Johnson installing a 38-year-old Brett Favre as quarterback against his wishes. Todd Bowles, the team’s most recent coach before Gase, kicked off his tenure by finding out that his quarterback, Geno Smith, had been punched by a teammate, breaking his jaw.
Most memorably, there was the ur-Jets coach, the king troll, the platonic ideal of the charismatically embattled coach, a man seemingly engineered in his football dad’s mad lab to be backpage-friendly in the New York tabloid environment one day. And was Rex Ryan ever! He bantered and talked about lap bands and got outed for really, really loving feet. He beat Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the playoffs but lost in the AFC championship game twice. He got a tattoo of his wife wearing nothing but a no. 6 Jets jersey, Sanchez’s number, and also the number of consecutive seasons Ryan managed to stay employed by New York, longer than any other Jets coach since the ’80s, or since Ryan was finally fired in 2016.
Which brings us to the present, and to Gase, who so far has slipped seamlessly into the longtime culture of the Jets organization by making a few good old bold and erratic moves. In January, it was just those roving eyes in motion: good, wholesome content! In May, though, it was much more high-stakes and intense. Less than three weeks after the NFL draft, and following a free-agency period in which the Jets added $100 million worth of contracts, the team abruptly fired general manager Mike Maccagnan and installed Gase, briefly, in the role. (The New York Times rather politely pointed out that such odd timing “is often interpreted as a sign of organizational bungling and disarray.”) Reports that Gase had disagreed with, most notably, Maccagnan’s high esteem of pricey new free-agent acquisition Le’Veon Bell made things slightly awkward between the coach and his new running back.
By mid-June, the Jets announced a new GM, Joe Douglas, whom Gase knew from when they both worked for the Chicago Bears in 2015, and who “probably likes my insanity a little bit,” Gase said. Douglas isn’t the only one in the inner circle; when Gase came to New York, one of the people he brought along with him was his father-in-law, linebackers coach Joe Vitt. (That said, Gase didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat even for his family.) But while the optics of the front office ouster were mildly Machiavellian, in many ways it was worth making the drastic move in May rather than letting an unworkable situation drag out until December. “You have to have everyone in the same boat,” says Millen. “Get the people in and rowing in the same direction. Because if a guy starts rowing opposite of you? Forget it.” It was, in a sense, one more bold scheme in Gase’s offensive playbook, a quick strike.
Before Gase landed for his first head-coaching job, in Miami in 2016, he had earned a reputation around the league as a creative play-caller adept at working with both quarterbacks and receivers; he rose from scouting assistant to offensive coordinator, coaching both wide receivers and quarterbacks along the way. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas called Gase “like family.” (He also called him “Goose.”) Jay Cutler once bought him a custom suit!!! (He also had the best passer rating of his career in 2015, the year Gase was the Bears offensive coordinator.) As quarterbacks coach in Denver, Gase worked with Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning in back-to-back years, a true test of his ability to manage very different games and personalities. “Where do you go from divine intervention?” Van Dyke jokes, referring to the time Tebow won a playoff game by throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Thomas on the first snap of overtime. The answer turned out to be: You go to Manning and wind up having a record-breaking offensive season.
But being on this side of the ball wasn’t always Gase’s thing. At Michigan State, Gase worked closely with Pees, the defensive coordinator. (“Once I told him what I needed, I got it,” Pees says. “I got it on time and I could tell he was very excited and anxious to do it.”) He also caught the eye of the head coach, and when Saban decamped to LSU, Gase was the only staffer he brought along with him. During Gase’s early-aughts years at LSU as a graduate assistant and a recruiting assistant, he was part of a staff that also included Jimbo Fisher, Kirby Smart, Will Muschamp, and Freddie Kitchens as a graduate assistant. “You know, I never viewed him as an offensive guy,” says Dooley. “I always thought he was going to be a defensive guy, because that’s what he was doing.”
Gase’s eventual transition to the offensive side took off in earnest when Mike Martz was hired as Detroit Lions coach, found Gase impressive, and kept giving him more things to do. All the time Gase had spent working on those self-scouts for Pees soon paid off. “The best way to learn about offense is on the defensive side,” Millen says, “because all you do is study on offenses. That’s all you do.” These days, it’s Gase’s own offensive tendencies that get sliced and diced and analyzed by his staff. “I got enough people reminding me in-house of how predictable I am,” he joked to Sports Talk Florida in 2017.
For years, the history of New York Jets quarterbacks has been a lot like the history of New York Jets coaches: crowded, messy, disappointing, never dull. In the time period since Eli Manning took over as starting quarterback for the Giants, who play in the same stadium, the Jets have fielded 14 different starters. But only one of those starters has been Sam Darnold, the 22-year-old from Capistrano Beach, California, who has the look of someone who ought to be wearing a midcentury varsity jacket at all times and has the talent to help the Jets reemerge as an AFC power.
With a background as a defensive coordinator and three straight last-place finishes in the AFC East, Bowles was clearly not the ideal guy to shepherd Darnold through the early days of his professional football career. Can Gase be? When Gase was first promoted to quarterbacks coach in Detroit, the team’s starter, Jon Kitna, was five years his senior and as much of a mentor to Gase as vice versa. By the time Gase worked with Cutler, or Kitna, or Manning, they’d all been around the block a few times. Still, all these players were part of Gase’s football education. He may not have played in college like nearly everyone else, but he benefited from a more bespoke curriculum.
“People make a big deal out of playing,” says Dooley, “but most of the bad players become better coaches. Good players always have a hard time, ’cause they can’t understand why players can’t do it the way they did it.”
Of all the players Gase has worked with, he’s yet to have so much power over the development and trajectory of such a raw, promising athlete as he does with Darnold. But in Gase’s three seasons in Miami, his influence on quarterback Ryan Tannehill never entirely lived up to the “QB guru” reputation that preceded him. Tannehill doesn’t have Darnold’s upside, but he had been the third quarterback drafted in 2012 behind (want to feel old?) Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, and under Gase he played some of the best football of his career. He raved about their relationship, praising “the cohesion of our two minds.” He also tore his ACL and missed the middle season of Gase’s tenure and inspired this cryptic Gase barb about HIPAA and made it difficult to really parse the impact Gase had on a nonestablished quarterback. By snapping up Gase so quickly after he was fired by the Dolphins this winter, however, and by executing on the sweeping front office changes he insisted upon earlier this summer, the Jets signaled that they think Gase is Darnold’s, and by extension the franchise’s, guy.
I love Adam Gase #Finsup pic.twitter.com/XUdVhrzhvT— THEFUTUREISBRIGHT!!!! (@miaphinsfootbal) October 15, 2018
Just as the future of Gase’s career is inextricably linked to his quarterback, the origins of it, more than 20 years ago, involved the indirect influence of a quarterback. Van Dyke was a high school sophomore, and Gase was a senior when Michigan State’s Pees came to Marshall High to check out Van Dyke. Pees probably wasn’t expecting to leave with a hot tip from the Marshall head coach about some prospective off-field student assistant—this kid Gase—but he left his card as a courtesy for Gase anyway. When Gase arrived for his freshman year at Michigan State, he wasted zero time showing up at Pees’s office and letting his work speak for him. It was like Rudy, except with computers and nicknames derived from Top Gun.
Van Dyke wound up at Michigan State also, playing 24 games for the Spartans and throwing 14 touchdowns. As Van Dyke acclimated to his new collegiate system under Saban, Gase would go out and catch pass after pass from him. “I was kind of the guinea pig,” Van Dyke says. “He would work with me, on me.”
These days, Van Dyke is something of a position coach himself; he runs private training sessions for quarterbacks, some as young as 7. He also coaches his 5-year-old son in Little League. Their team name? The Jets. “I’m like, you want to talk about full circle?” Van Dyke says. “Here’s my high school teammate, who’s the freaking head coach of the New York Jets.” When he puts it that way, it almost sounds like a great job.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Gase coached Aaron Rodgers.