After three seasons, 23 wins and one playoff appearance (37-16 loss to Patriots in 2006 Wild Card), the Eric Mangini era officially ended for the Jets Monday.  Just five weeks ago the Jets had become serious Super Bowl contenders with an 8-3 record and Jets hierarchy discussed a possible contract extension for Mangini. But a 34-17 loss to the Broncos on Nov. 30 began the Jets’ stunning tailspin, which included losses in four of their final five games. Following the Jets season-ending loss to the Dolphins, an infuriated owner Woody Johnson said he would not make a decision on Mangini’s future in the “heat of the moment,” but he ultimately decided to make the coaching change later that night.

Now as the Jets suffer through their third playoff-less season in the last four years, the search for Mangini’s replacement has begun. Signs have pointed to former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, former Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer and current Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as the team’s leading interests in their search.

The coaching search is not unfamiliar to the Jets, who have had three different head coaches this decade. Al Groh was hired before the 2000 season and led the Jets to a 9-7 record before resigning at the end of the season to take the head coaching position at the University of Virginia. Herman Edwards succeeded Groh and won 39 games in five seasons. Edwards was fired after a 4-12 season in 2005 and Johnson plucked Mangini from the Patriots’ coaching staff.

Even though Mangini led the Jets to two winning seasons in his three years, the Jets’ late-season collapse ultimately sealed his fate. The team’s expectations were raised after they traded for Favre back in August and spent nearly $140 million in free agent acquisitions and watching the Miami Dolphins celebrate an improbable division title at the Meadowlands last week surely did not sit well with Johnson.

Mangini was hailed as “Mangenius” during his rookie season as he led the Jets to a surprising 10-6 record, but as the Jets started to fade this season, he began to face criticism for his calm sideline demeanor and his poor ability to make in-game adjustments. Johnson was asked during Monday’s press conference about Mangini’s negatives, but he strangely only focused on the positives.

“I like to concentrate on the positives because of what he brought to the building, his work ethic. He wanted to learn his craft. He wanted to be a good football coach.  There was no mistake about that. There is nothing more in terms of energy that he could have put into it,” Johnson said.

General manager Mike Tannenbaum explained that Mangini did a “great job for us for three years and he helped lay a great foundation.” But he followed that by saying that the Jets “felt in our judgement we want to build on that and go in a different direction.”

The continual appraisal sounded strange considering Mangini had just been handed his pink slip. Nevertheless, the search was underway.

The Jets hired Mangini as a young assistant who was ready to tackle his first head-coaching opportunity, but the team’s win-now approach may decide the qualifications his replacement. Rather than key in on another young assistant such as Spagnuolo, it would make sense for the team to bring in someone with a proven track record. The Jets took a chance in hiring Mangini, but now there are no more chances to be taken. The franchise has already reached four decades since its last NFL title and the team has already failed with a future Hall of Fame quarterback and an offseason spending spree. Thus, the most logical choice would be Cowher, who led the Steelers to 149 wins in 15 seasons and the Super Bowl XL title. Cowher’s coaching resume is the deepest of any available successor on the open market and he possesses the fiery nature that Mangini was criticized for not displaying. Regardless of sport, ownerships often deviate from a calm demeanor to a more-animated tone and vice versa when coaching changes are made. While Cowher stands as the most logical candidate to lead the Jets, his possible desire for control over player personnel decisions could serve as a potential roadblock. Yesterday Johnson suggested that such a situation would not be handed to any candidate.

“From a business standpoint and from a football standpoint. It’s too much. There’s no way that you can do it, in my opinion, and really do it, because you’re always relying on somebody else. You may think you have the power, but you can’t make those discerning decisions, there’s just too much work to do and be a coach,” Johnson said.

The Jets’ owner also explained that he was “very comfortable” working with Tannenbaum, who has served as the team’s general manager since Feb. 2006.

With Mike Shanahan now unemployed after spending the last 14 seasons as the Broncos’ head coach, Denver could be an intriguing candidate for Cowher. If owner Pat Bowlen is willing to hand total control over personnel decisions to Cowher, it would be interesting to gauge Cowher’s interest.

If the Jets are unable to reel in Cowher, the next top candidate would seem to be Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer has faced criticism for his inability to win in the playoffs (5-13 career record) but 200 wins in 18 years as head coach of the Browns, Chiefs, Redskins and Chargers is hard to ignore. Schottenheimer would give the Jets a proven candidate  and a solid in-game decision maker. Schottenheimer’s son, Brian, is likely to be retained as the Jets’ offensive coordinator.

The next logical candidates would likely be Spagnuolo or Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who both have orchestrated two of the league’s stout defensive attacks. Spagnuolo turned down the Redskins’ opening last offseason after leading the Giants on a surprising Super Bowl title run and was rewarded with a three-year, six-million dollar extension. If Johnson decides to open his checkbook and hand the reins to Spagnuolo, it would be difficult for him to turn it down.

However, with both Spagnuolo, Schwartz or any other possible first-time candidate, the Jets will not be filling their need for a proven head coach. The Jets are a win-now team and a successful commodity such as Cowher or Schottenheimer would likely allow them to do just that.

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