NEW YORK — Like so many others in the sports world, Woody Johnson loves Ted Lasso. Unlike the others, the Jets owner loves the breakout Apple TV hit in part because it pokes fun at people like him.
“It’s great,” Johnson said in an interview last week. “It’s a criticism of anybody like me that enters football, that they’re like Ted Lasso and don’t know anything about football. Ted Lasso didn’t know anything about soccer, but he was successful. Jump on the saddle. I like the dramatization of a coach, sorting through problems, empowering everybody, bringing people up, recognizing talent, recognizing everybody is equal in the building.”
This, despite the fact that the Jets serve as a punchline in one episode. Back home, if a team was playing poorly, we don’t call ’em unlucky. What do we call them, coach? Response: New York Jets.
“I’m happy about it,” Johnson said, laughing. “At least we’re on the front of everybody’s minds. Just spell it right: J-E-T-S.”
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From there, Johnson slipped into a brief reverie, musing aloud about what it would be like if the Jets won the Super Bowl again, how the memories of games played at Shea Stadium would be rekindled. That Johnson is sitting in a conference room at his Rockefeller Center office adorned with LeRoy Neiman paintings of Joe Namath and Don Maynard, circa 1968, seems fitting. That was, after all, the last time the Jets inspired art instead of jokes. Fifty-three years later, the Jets are still searching for Namath’s heir apparent and for Namath’s success.
For the last 21 seasons of that pursuit — some good, more not so — the Jets have belonged to Johnson. The most recent years have been especially difficult. It has been a decade since the Jets last made the playoffs, the longest such drought in the NFL. The merry-go-round of coaches, general managers and even first-round quarterbacks has spun wildly, meaning the team has lacked the kind of alignment of vision and timing that is the bedrock of the winningest teams. Over the last five seasons, the Jets have gone 23-57, the worst record in football.
As with his team, though, this season feels very much like a fresh start for Johnson, too.
Johnson has been away from the Jets for much of those last five years — the first when he was deeply involved in fundraising for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the next four while he served as the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, a post that required he divorce himself completely from the team’s operations.
Johnson’s younger brother, Christopher, took over. Johnson said he gave his brother no advice when he turned over the reins, because Christopher knew what to do. He had been involved with the team since Woody bought it — he was, in fact, one of the biggest proponents of Woody buying the team in the first place.
That left Woody to watch games on television, usually in the middle of the night, pacing, cheering and screaming alone in the ambassador’s residence so he wouldn’t wake anybody up. Being an ambassador was so all-consuming for him — “The job is pretty much every 15 minutes. There’s big opportunities and big problems,” he said — that he said it was not hard for him to be disconnected from the team and he talked to his brother about the Jets only very infrequently.
“Sometimes to compliment him on the one or two games we won last year,” Johnson said, smiling. “Just brotherly conversations, but he was in charge. I didn’t know what was happening day to day.”
That might have been for the best. The Jets bottomed out last season, winning just two games, but somehow still angering fans who wanted them to be even worse, so they could have the first overall draft pick and the chance to land quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars, one spot ahead of the Jets’ Zach Wilson. Johnson returned from London earlier this year, after Christopher had already turned the franchise’s page by hiring Robert Saleh as the head coach, pairing him with general manager Joe Douglas, whom Christopher hired in 2019, and team president Hymie Elhai, who had been elevated to that job by Christopher a couple months after Douglas was hired.
Johnson said there is plenty of crossover between running a team and running an embassy. It’s all management, and it’s all about getting buy-in from the most important people so that everybody is pulling in the same direction.
That did not always appear to be how things were functioning in London. Last summer, the State Department’s internal watchdog wrote a report that said Johnson had “sometimes made inappropriate or insensitive comments on topics generally considered Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)-sensitive, such as religion, sex, or color.” The department’s Office of Civil Rights conducted an inquiry and concluded the allegations amounted to unsubstantiated workplace harassment. The story made for a few days of ugly headlines back home, but Johnson does not want to discuss details on the record, beyond saying his wife was furious that he was accused and the allegations go against everything he has been about. He considered them so baseless he has not addressed the accusations with players or coaches.
Even in strictly football terms, successful management hasn’t been much easier to attain. A series of shotgun marriages, consultant-advised hires and which-way-is-the-wind-blowing decisions created a franchise that felt perpetually out of sync, with competing agendas sometimes scuttling any hope of progress. The view from across the pond gave Johnson enough distance to recognize when there wasn’t synergy — his word — between players and coaches, perhaps more sharply than he would have detected them at close range.
In the months since he has returned, Johnson has seen what he believes is a culture change brought about by the brain trust his brother put in place. He has sat in on the morning team meetings Saleh conducts, where the coach delivers brief messages — life lessons, Johnson calls them — about things like what it means to be a professional. What Johnson describes seeing and hearing in the last few months is what he believes has to exist for a team to be successful and which, even by Johnson’s own admission, has not been in place for the Jets.
“I think we’re all coming into the building the same way — new,” Johnson said. “We’re coming in with a fresh view of the New York Jets, the team, the management and the building. I’m energized. I just think there’s harmony in the building I hadn’t seen for the first 15 years that I see now. A lot is due to Hymie and Joe and Robert and wanting to include everybody. And realizing that the business side and game-day operations and the marketing side and the media side is all one and the same. It’s not them and us. It’s the New York Jets and everybody is included, including the groundskeepers.”
He continued: “If you look at teams that have been successful, all have similar paths to success. One is continuity. It’s hard to do. If things start going off track it’s ours to change. That’s something you shoot for — get a team together, particularly getting management and coaching together. I wouldn’t have made changes if I had it right. I’d like to get to the point where I don’t have to change. I feel optimistic where we are right now, because I’ve been to the morning meeting with Robert. I’ve watched Joe interact with his scouts, interact with the building, the way he interacts with Hymie, for instance, they have very good relationship in a way I never saw before. I never saw this relationship where the building was all one. I saw where the building was all football and (Bill) Parcells used to lock the door. Now, there’s a lot of smart guys in business. You can bounce a lot of ideas off these guys, coming up with a point of view that is useful.”
Just a week before the season starts, Johnson is relaxed which, at least from the outside, seems to be his permanent state. He gives a reporter a tour of his office, noting that it is on one side of the promenade that bisects Rockefeller Center from Fifth Avenue — the English Channel, he calls it. He talks about the design of the space, which features slogans about the commitment to the community painted on the walls, and how much he looks forward to the gradual return of his workforce this fall. This office has pieces of Jets memorabilia, but few signs that its occupant was also an ambassador. Those things are in his office at the Jets training facility in New Jersey. He especially loved a photo of Winston Churchill that was in his London office.
While Johnson gets ready for football to start, he is also making plans to build a park on the bucolic property where Betty Wold Johnson, who died last year at age 99, lived in New Jersey. There is an enormous tree in the middle of the Jets’ practice fields in Florham Park, N.J. Why wasn’t it removed when Johnson constructed the team’s sprawling facility? Because his mother noted that the tree was shaped like a V — for victory — and so it stayed.
Johnson, as much as any NFL owner, is a relentless optimist. Every organization thinks it has finally hired the right coach or drafted the right players, of course. But Johnson’s approach is a constant, and is somewhat startling, given the sometimes-prodigious evidence to the contrary his team has produced.
“I’m never down. I don’t worry and I don’t get down,” Johnson said. “If I’m down, it’s for a couple hours. You get your feel if you go out to the parking lot on Sunday. We just lost five games in a row and I go out to the parking lot on Sunday and it’s like we never lost a game. People are ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to win, we’re going to be so loud today that you’re going to be so proud of us. We’re cooking and I got my kids, my grandkid, my niece came in. We’re going to win.’ And that’s what the cycle is. So you adopt that yourself. When you lose a game, you have to be optimistic because the players have to see there is hope for next week. They’re watching you. You’ve got to make sure they get their rest, take care of their body and make sure they are ready for install on Wednesday.”
Five years is a long time in sports and business, and both had changed a lot for the Jets in Johnson’s absence. When he returned, he asked a lot of questions and he has made some changes himself.
Johnson has made himself more visible on social media, where he personally approves or writes all of the Twitter and Instagram posts produced by a small social media team that go out under his name. He responds only to positive posts — he likes emojis — but he views this as an opportunity to speak directly to fans and to do a little brand extension, by attracting people who are outside of a football team’s normal silo.
Inside the silo, Johnson plans to be more visible — particularly to players — than he has been in the past.
“You participate in decision making without being obstructionist,” Johnson said. “Every owner goes through this — how hands off, how hands on. I think I was hands off. I think you have to get to know your team. And they have to know you know them. You have to go to practices, and talk to them, make sure they know. I’m for them as long as they are a Jet. And when they’re not a Jet.”
Johnson is doing his best to help one of the newest Jets. Wilson will start his first NFL game on Sunday, but in the buildup to the season, he drew a heady comparison from Tony Romo to Patrick Mahomes. Johnson smiles and shakes his head a little at that, and maybe unintentionally echoes a famous Bill Parcells statement: “He’s not in Canton yet.”
Johnson raves about Wilson, too, but he is all but imploring fans to be patient with a young quarterback and a young team. Stability is the goal, after all.
“You’ve got to let the young man experience the NFL and the speed,” Johnson said. “College is great, but in the NFL all the players are good and all of them want to do their job. It’s going to be challenging. Being a first-year quarterback in the NFL is maybe the hardest job you can have anywhere in life. He’s not sitting behind Brett Favre for three years. He’s out there on his own in New York. His parents are way out and his girlfriend is maybe not in town. He’s got a new family and it’s the team. Let’s not set the expectation that every single game he’s going to be this or that. Rather, seeing how he develops and how he protects himself and how he approaches the game. I love what I’ve seen so far.”
In the past, both Johnsons have been criticized, deservedly, for listening to fans, media and whoever is whispering in their ears when making decisions about the team. That, as much as anything, is what has to change for the Jets’ fortunes to improve. The time away allowed Johnson to see the aftermath of such a scattershot approach. With another clean slate, Johnson’s definition of success has had to change first.
“I’m not going to put a quantity on it,” he said. “It’s the perception that the team is advancing, both in culture, on the field, the feeling of the group, the strength of the team, that we’re all in this together. We have to like each other, respect each other and have each other’s back. I want to win every game. There’s never been a game in 20 years I thought I was going to lose. I always think I’m going to win.”
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