After a crushing playoff loss in January 2005, then-New York Jets coach Herm Edwards decided to change offensive coordinators. He fired Paul Hackett after four seasons and hired Mike Heimerdinger and did it so quickly that Hackett and Heimerdinger actually crossed paths that day in the team facility. As Hackett went in to clean out his office, Heimerdinger arrived to start his new job.
That snapshot pretty much sums up the history of the Jets’ offensive-coordinator job, which should be sponsored by a famous burger chain: In-N-Out.
The Jets will go into the 2018 season with their sixth offensive coordinator in the past eight years, making it one of the least secure jobs in the NFL. There are B-list actors with more security than Jets offensive coordinators, who usually need career rehab after a one-and-done in New York. The last person to go directly from Jets OC to an NFL head-coaching job was Joe Walton in 1983 — an in-house promotion after Walt Michaels was fired.
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The new man in the revolving door is Jeremy Bates, who landed his first job as a quarterbacks coach under — wait for it — Heimerdinger in 2005. No team does strange symmetry quite like the Jets. It was a one-year gig, of course, as the entire coaching staff got cleaned out after a disastrous 2005 season. Bates returned last season as the quarterbacks coach, then got bumped up when John Morton was fired in January after one year.
“It’s exciting,” Bates said of his new job as the offensive boss. “It’s a fun responsibility.”
It’s also an enormous responsibility, because he will have the greatest impact on rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, the hope of the entire franchise. No relationship at One Jets Drive is more important than the one between Darnold and Bates, who will double as the quarterbacks coach. In other words, they will be together for 12 to 14 hours a day, talking ball.
If Bates can mold Darnold into a franchise quarterback, the OC Curse will be history — fittingly, via a player from OC (Orange County, California). It will be a fascinating dynamic because, once upon a time, Bates was a Darnold in the coaching profession: young, talented and so full of potential. He had a chance to be Sean McVay before anybody knew about McVay.
Bates was a coordinator by age 34, but he was fired after only one year (2010) with the Seattle Seahawks. He did one season as the Chicago Bears’ quarterbacks coach (2012), then took a four-year break from the NFL. At the time, he was regarded by those in the industry as a smart coach who needed to improve his people skills. He spent part of his hiatus in the mountains, hiking the Rockies while seeking clarity in his life. By all accounts, he gained maturity and perspective during his time away.
“There are a lot of things I’ve learned,” Bates said. “I did take a little sabbatical. Anytime you get fired, you can look at it one or two ways: You can either not think about it and try to become a better person and a better coach, or you can just move on. I obviously took a lot of time by myself and thought about some things, and I look forward to seeing how they turn out.”
There’s an air of mystery surrounding Bates because he hasn’t called plays in eight years, and a lot has changed in the NFL in that span. He also hasn’t developed a young quarterback since 2006, when he was Jay Cutler’s position coach with the Denver Broncos. So, no, Bates isn’t walking into this job with the “hot assistant” label. Still, there are reasons to believe he can succeed:
• He has a prized pupil. Darnold, drafted third overall, is the Jets’ best quarterback prospect since Mark Sanchez in 2009. You can’t mold a hunk of clay into something special unless … well, you have actual clay.
• He and Darnold are an ideal match. Their personalities are different — Bates is fire, Darnold ice — but their approach to the game is similar. They’re blue-collar grinders.
Schematically, Darnold should be a perfect fit in Bates’ offense, the Mike Shanahan version of the West Coast system. It’s a quick-rhythm passing attack that also allows the quarterback to throw on the move, one of Darnold’s strengths. His 79.4 accuracy percentage last season on quick concepts (three-step drops) ranked No. 1 in the country, according to Pro Football Focus.
Bates sees the game through the eyes of the quarterback because he played the position in college.
“It’s awesome that he’s able to sit with us, and that he’s had experience with quarterbacks,” Darnold said. “We’re able to go through the playbook, and he understands what we’re thinking. He’s able to understand when I’m looking at the defense. Even just on tape, if he sees my helmet looking one way or the other, he understands what I’m thinking, just because he’s coached quarterbacks for so long and because he was one. It all goes hand in hand.”
• There’s a single vision on offense. That wasn’t the case last season, as the offense was an amalgam of different philosophies. Morton “wasn’t the right fit for the team,” said coach Todd Bowles, who wanted a better “mesh” between the passing game (Morton’s specialty) and the running game.
The Jets shouldn’t have those issues this season. Bates is reunited with new offensive line coach Rick Dennison, who holds the title of run-game coordinator. Dennison also is a Shanahan disciple. In fact, he and Bates were members of Shanahan’s Denver staff from 2006-08. Back then, Bates and Dennison collaborated on the weekly game plans, with Bates calling a majority of the plays.
“Rick Dennison is a huge bright spot, in my eyes, for the New York Jets,” Bates said. “I was with him for three years in Denver, so we have a close relationship. He is an unbelievable coach.”
• Bates is versatile. He made his bones as a quarterbacks coach, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be pass-happy. He has been involved with some successful rushing attacks — the ’08 Broncos ranked No. 2 — and the word from the Jets players is that he emphasized the ground game during offseason practices.
What team officials like most about Bates is that he’s a teacher, which they believe will help player development. His No. 1 pupil is Darnold. If he can teach Darnold how to be a winning quarterback, Bates probably will get a chance to outlast his predecessors.