On 12 January 2000, exactly 31 years after the New York Jets won their first Super Bowl, the front page of the New York Times carried the news that the team had been bought for $635m by Robert Wood Johnson IV, whose great-grandfather had founded Johnson & Johnson.
Woody Johnson was not well known then, and in a release provided by the team, he issued the kind of bland statement you’d expect from a first-time sports-team owner: “We want to emphasize that we are totally dedicated to bringing a winning and a championship team to this area.”
Well, that was 22 years ago, and the Jets have yet to play in a second Super Bowl – let alone win one. In fact, they have not made the playoffs in 11 years, the longest current drought in the NFL.
So Chelsea fans should be wary after ESPN, citing “sources close to the situation”, reported on Monday that Johnson is readying a bid to buy the club from Roman Abramovich. Under Johnson, the Jets have set the standard for mediocrity, or even worse.
Johnson’s boldest statement as an owner came in January 2009, when he hired the bombastic Rex Ryan to be his coach. That April, the Jets traded up in the draft to select the Southern California quarterback Mark Sanchez. It was a glorious time for the Jets, who played in back-to-back AFC championship games. They lost both, but the madcap Ryan, the unspectacular but efficient Sanchez and a rambunctious defense formed a nucleus that looked as if it would last a while.
That second AFC title game, a 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in July 2011, is the Jets’ last playoff appearance, though. Ryan bombed out and was fired in 2014. Sanchez’s career tumbled after his infamous “butt-fumble” in 2012, when he collided with the rump of a Jets lineman and lost the ball, which New England returned for a touchdown.
The Jets have had only one winning season since. Although Johnson does not coach, draft and trade players, he appoints the people who do – and their recent track record has been poor. They have selected, and dumped, another first-round quarterback from USC, Sam Darnold, drafting another quarterback in the first round, Zach Wilson, who struggled mightily in his rookie season, albeit with a poor supporting cast. Some of the Jets’ coaching hires have been questionable too. In 2019 they replaced Todd Bowles with Adam Gase, who was coming off two losing seasons in charge of the Miami Dolphins. The move was so odd that even Gase looked confused at his unveiling. He was fired after the Jets lost 23 of their next 32 games and has not worked in the NFL since. Bowles, meanwhile, masterminded the Tampa Bay defense that helped Tom Brady win the Super Bowl last year.
And then there’s Johnson’s reputation off the field. He is known to be genteel and polite and rarely says anything carrying depth and import. But he has close links to a dubious global leader. Donald Trump appointed him as ambassador to the United Kingdom in 2017. Johnson soon denied he had suggested the US could buy Britain’s much loved NHS.
During his time in London Johnson is said to have developed, or deepened, his love for the other kind of football, and Chelsea in particular. Fandom is great, but Johnson’s passion sounds shallow, particularly when his interest in American football sounds like a passing fancy. In the well-received 2018 book Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, the journalist Mark Leibovich famously described Johnson as looking “slightly daydreamy and disoriented … like an overgrown third-grader who collects toy trains and rotten quarterbacks”.
The Jets’ beleaguered fans said on Twitter on Monday that they would be happy to hand Johnson to Chelsea if it meant he got rid of the Jets. That does not appear to be part of the plan, however. Chelsea would be another toy train for his man cave.
The past two Super Bowls have been won by teams owned by people who also own Premier League clubs: the Glazer family (Tampa Bay and Manchester United) and Stan Kroenke (Los Angeles Rams and Arsenal) – and neither of those parties is popular with fans of those soccer teams, particularly the widely reviled Glazers.
Abramovich never attracted that kind of ire from Chelsea fans because he helped make the team a perennial power, with 21 trophies in his nearly 19 years as owner, including five Premier League titles and two in the Champions League. Johnson’s NFL team have won nothing in that time. And, while Johnson is a very rich man (Bloomberg estimates his net worth at around $5.67bn) he has nowhere near the resources of Abramovich, who bought much of Chelsea success with his own money.
“There is a story going around that Jets owner Woody Johnson has an interest in buying the Chelsea football club Over There,” tweeted Mike Lupica, the longtime New York sports columnist on Monday. “And if you’re a Chelsea fan – what’s the good news?”
That is not to say Chelsea can’t, or won’t, stay at the top during a Woody Johnson regime: the Jets are not a complete dumpster fire. Their new head coach, Robert Saleh, is promising, Wilson certainly has talent and the team have the No 4 overall pick and three other selections in the first two rounds in the draft next month.
A Super Bowl is still a long way off, though. Johnson is not the only person chasing Chelsea, either. But Johnson usually gets what he wants. To get the Jets, he outbid Charles Dolan, who controls the New York Rangers and Knicks and founded Cablevision and HBO. It is noteworthy that Johnson has sent up a trial balloon to gauge interest in him owning Chelsea.
Still, swapping Abramovich for Johnson would appear to be swapping a Russian oligarch for an American oligarch to control one of the best and most valuable football clubs in the world – moreover, an English club that has been around for 117 years.
And Johnson’s team have won only 27 of 97 games in the past six years. Jets fans have waited 53 years for a Super Bowl win; Chelsea fans may have to get used to holding their breath if Johnson takes over at Chelsea too.