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The 5 o’clock club is published several times per week during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.
I’m not looking at this as a one-off article; I intend to write a series of fill-in-the-blank articles over the coming weeks: Who is ____________ and why should he be the next head coach of the Washington Redskins.
Today I’m looking at the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, Robert Saleh.
Click here to see other articles in the Who is ____________ and why should he be the next head coach group of articles
Per Pro Football Reference, this is his coaching history:
This looks like a solid resume for a defensive coach, but perhaps a bit lean for a head coaching candidate. The 40-year-old Saleh has had a phenomenal season in 2019 with regard to his unit’s ranking, but there may not yet be enough evidence to convince owners that he is the right man to lead a team to the playoffs and championship possibilities.
As you can see, the Niners defense is putting up phenomenal numbers this season, but Saleh’s first two iterations were much less distinguished.
Who is Robert Saleh?
If you’d like a really in-depth story about who Saleh is and much of what drives him, I recommend that you read a Sports Illustrated feature from 2017 that talks about Saleh as a man, his family relationships, his football life, how he became a coach and his motivation in life.
I’ll quote just a tiny piece of that article here.
The Seahawks were in the pupal stages of what would become five consecutive playoff appearances and a Super Bowl victory. It was early in 2011, the lockout year, and Pete Carroll was entering his second season on the job.
Carroll, ever the motivator, asked his coaches to create mission statements. Among them was a newcomer, Robert Saleh, a quality control assistant who had come highly recommended to then-defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. “Carroll gave the coaches the task and the challenge of finding out what was very important to us as individuals,” Saleh says, “to identify who we were as coaches … what defined us.”
Saleh, 32 at the time, was not simply a man with an entry-level job in the NFL, but someone who was on a path to daily betterment. As summer morphed into fall, he would become an integral cog in a burgeoning NFL powerhouse. But first, he had to explain his personal philosophy in no more than 20 words.
In short, what do you stand for?
His journey is encapsulated in the 18-word statement of personal philosophy he gave Pete Carroll six years ago:
A commitment to consistently execute the details required to compete at my greatest level; with loyalty and conviction.
Saleh has grazed against the Redskins organization very gently over his career, working for Gary Kubiak and with Kyle Shanhahan with the Texans from 2005 to 2010, and then joining Kyle Shanahan’s staff in San Francisco in 2017. Still, knowing what we know about Kyle, it’s hard to imagine his defensive coordinator coming to work in DC for Dan Snyder.
It’s also difficult to see Dan Snyder getting really excited about Robert Saleh, a young-ish defensive coordinator with close ties to Kyle Shanahan with one great year under his belt.
In fact, the more I look at Saleh’s achievements and connections, the more I believe that the coming months are unlikely to land him in a head coaching spot. One reason may be that the Niners appear poised to make a long playoff run — very possibly as far as the Super Bowl. Not many owners or fan bases are patient enough to wait around that long to get their new head coach, and I think that his limited track record of success as a coordinator, combined with being from the defensive side of the ball, will be enough to make 2020 an “exploratory” year for NFL owners getting to know Robert Saleh. He’s likely to be a serious candidate in 2021 if he can come back with another strong performance as coordinator next season.
Saleh’s NFL career has certainly put him next to some very impressive people — especially on the defensive side of the ball. In addition to working with Kubiak and Shanahan, Robert Saleh worked for Pete Carroll in Seattle and Gus Bradley in Jacksonville — both head coaches with a defensive lean, and with reputations for creative schemes.
Reading accounts of how Saleh became a coach, it is obvious that he loves football and is likely to be a coach for the rest of his life.
Football was a passion for the Saleh family and their hometown of Dearborn, Mich.
Their father, Sam, was a linebacker at Eastern Michigan who spent a training camp with the Chicago Bears. Their late uncle, Ossum, was a guard at Michigan State. Robert and David also played at Fordson High, and David, who has remained in finance, is an assistant coach at Dearborn Heights Crestwood High.
When he was 5, Robert began filling his falls with football as a water boy for David’s pee-wee team. But Robert figured his 17-year relationship with the sport was finished after he was a four-year starter in college at Division II Northern Michigan.
And that’s what was expected in his community. In Dearborn, which has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States, stability and proximity are prized. Robert, the son of Lebanese parents, was working less than 30 miles away from home at Comerica.
“We come from a very close-knit community,” said Brian Mosallam, a Dearborn native and close friend of the Salehs who helped Robert get into coaching. “It’s a very insular community where we are always around family. So what Robert did was very different. Our kids don’t go away and live in eight cities in six years.”
Robert missed football. And he might have lived with his emptiness, if not for his father’s experience. Sam still regrets declining an offer to be graduate-assistant coach at Eastern Michigan because, as Robert says, he chose to “chase money.” Robert decided to chase the sport he felt rudderless without.
Anyone who has seen a 49ers game this season has probably seen Saleh’s passion visible on the sidelines. No one will accuse him of being emotionless during a game.
— Nicolina (@lilla_ninni) November 12, 2019
Saleh was working in finance, and, according to the Sports Illustrated profile, simply couldn’t stay away from the game he loved.
“The Super Bowl was just done, and he calls me up in my office. He’s crying profusely, he can’t even speak,” David says. “I’m like, ‘What? What’s going on? What’s happening?’”
[Robert Saleh] says, ‘I can’t stand this s—. I have to be on the football field,’ and I’m like, ‘What? Buddy, you didn’t go to the combine, you didn’t enter any of the drafts.’
He’s still in that crying voice telling me he doesn’t want to play—it hurts, it hurts too much, he’s sick of icing everything. I’m like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’
He says, ‘I’d rather coach.’ ”
Robert Saleh was ready to make a life-altering decision, and one that, financially, at least, was a risky one.
“He could have done very well (financially) and I just thought he was wasting his time, quite frankly,” said Mosallam, 43, a financial adviser who is on Michigan State’s board of trustees. “I just thought it was a crazy decision.”
Robert Saleh knew many thought he was foolish. Before he landed a job as a graduate assistant at Michigan State, he was discouraged from taking the job during his interviews. Mike Vollmer, who played at Fordson and worked in MSU’s football personnel department, was briefed on Saleh by their high school coach.
“He told me, ‘Stergalas told me you’d be overly prepared,’” Saleh said, laughing. “‘You don’t want to do this. You can make so much money in banking.’”
Instead, Saleh made $650 a month during his two seasons in East Lansing and lived with his uncle’s former MSU teammate, John Shinsky, 65, and his wife, Cindy.
Saleh is apparently pretty damned smart.
Despite no formal training, Saleh has a near-expert chess rating, and he also taught himself Vizio, the computer program NFL teams had starting using for their playbooks when he entered the league.
He also seems to have that perfect storm of hard work and efficiency that is found with so many successful coaches:
As a low-level assistant, he stood out because of his ability to produce mountains of work in a relatively short time.
Robert Saleh appears to be a natural as an NFL coach in the 21st century. A man who left a secure career to pursue his heart’s desire, and, after being a part of a number of successful teams (11-5 and 13-3 in 2012 & 13 with Seahawks; currently 11-2 with SF), he appears to be on the cusp of breaking through to the next level.
Robert and the Redskins
Is Robert Saleh a good fit for the Washington Redskins?
He has demonstrated this season that he can create and maintain an elite defense. He would have a lot of raw material to work with in Washington.
His background as a linebackers coach would likely help shore up the weakest unit on the Redskins defense.
And Saleh appears to have the kinds of traits that led another young coordinator, Joe Gibbs, to greatness in DC. Saleh is said to be intelligent and creative, a strong leader and trainer, and a man who is passionate about the sport of football, and who works hard at his job while maintaining a devotion to his family and religious principles.
Saleh appears to be the kind of detail-oriented technician who can mold himself to the talent available. It seems very realistic that the young team that the Redskins are likely to take into the 2020 season could grow together with this new head coach, much in the way the young 49ers team has grown into success in the three years that Saleh has been there with Kyle Shanahan.
It appears that, as a head coach, Robert Saleh would take the team and its fans on a high energy and exciting journey into the future with a creative team led by its defense. It seems like a ride that would be almost guaranteed to be a lot of fun.