FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Eric Mangini had the New York Jets in first place a month ago, a special season shaping up for a franchise sorely in need of one.
Four losses in five games dashed the Jets’ Super Bowl hopes with a thud, and cost the coach his job.
Mangini was fired Monday, a day after New York failed to make the playoffs despite an 8-3 start and having an NFL-high seven Pro Bowl selections.
“I feel that we let him down and we could have done a better job of making plays,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “It’s tough.”
Behind quarterback Brett Favre, the Jets beat New England and Tennessee on the road in consecutive weeks, raising visions among fans of the team’s first Super Bowl trip since 1969. New York controlled its playoff fate while sitting alone atop the AFC East before the late-season free fall.
“I don’t think it was one thing,” owner Woody Johnson said. “We had to go in a different direction. There’s nothing specific. It’s just a call we made. Hopefully, it’s correct.”
The 37-year-old Mangini went 23-26 in his first head coaching job, and had another year remaining on his contract.
“He did a great job for us for three years and he helped lay a great foundation,” general manager Mike Tannenbaum said. “We felt, in our judgment, we want to build on that and go in a different direction.”
Mangini held a team meeting Monday morning to say farewell.
“I appreciate the opportunity that Woody and Mike gave me for the past three years as the head coach of the New York Jets,” Mangini said in a statement. “The organization has terrific people and I wish the Jets nothing but success. The time and effort invested by the coaches and players was tremendous and I value that beyond words.
“We worked hard to achieve two winning seasons out of the past three. I regret that we could not reach our goals for this year. I will always appreciate the passion and support of the fans as our focus was trying to build them a championship-caliber foundation and team.”
While cleaning out their lockers before heading home for the offseason, players said the firing was unexpected.
“I was surprised,” guard Alan Faneca said. “I got the call earlier today and it caught me off-guard.”
Added tight end Chris Baker: “Knowing how tight Eric and Mike are, I didn’t really see it happening.”
Nose tackle Kris Jenkins was particularly bothered by the firing, praising the former coach for bringing him to New York and giving him an opportunity to rejuvenate his career. He also thought Mangini deserved another year with the team.
“I’m going to miss him,” Jenkins said. “He didn’t do what everybody thought he should do. He didn’t go with the flow or just do things to make people happy. He took it upon himself to go against the grain and be a man about his situation.”
The Jets went 1-4 in their final five games, losing to Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Miami and barely beating Buffalo. They didn’t reach the postseason for the second straight year despite a $140 million offseason spending spree and trading for Favre.
Many believed the Jets were built to win now because of all the flashy personnel moves, so a non-playoff season was unacceptable.
“In this league, when you’re the head coach or the quarterback and things don’t go well, you’re going to get a lot of the blame,” safety Kerry Rhodes said.
Now the Jets will turn their attention to finding Mangini’s replacement, with names such as Bill Cowher, Steve Spagnuolo, Marty Schottenheimer and even Bill Parcells — if he leaves the Dolphins — already being mentioned.
“We want to take the foundation that we started here and move forward,” Tannenbaum said. “The search will begin today.”
Whether Favre is still around for the next coach remains to be seen. While Johnson and Tannenbaum said they want him back, the 39-year-old Favre planned to have an MRI exam on his ailing right shoulder Monday. He said after the 24-17 loss to Miami on Sunday that the results would play a major factor in his decision whether to return.
Favre attended the team meeting Monday morning, but wasn’t in the locker room during media availability.
Favre, who led the league with 22 interceptions, had just two touchdown passes and nine picks in the final five games. He replaced Chad Pennington, who was cut when the team acquired Favre, and then led the Dolphins to the AFC East title.
The players said they’d accept Favre back as long as he takes part in the offseason workouts with the rest of the team.
“For him to be able to spend the offseason with a lot of the guys, I think that will help out a lot,” Cotchery said. “You just don’t learn everything about an offense or about a team in a couple of months.”
Before joining the Jets, Mangini served as New England’s defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick for a season after five years as the Patriots’ defensive backs coach. He quickly became regarded as one of the game’s top young coaching minds.
After the Jets traded the rights to coach Herm Edwards to the Kansas City Chiefs for a fourth-round pick in the 2006 draft, they replaced him with Mangini. With a workmanlike and tightlipped approach, Mangini drew instant comparisons to Belichick.
As a rookie coach, Mangini took a team that had been 4-12 the previous year to the playoffs with a 10-6 record in 2006 and earned the nickname “Mangenius” from the local tabloids. The high praise quickly faded after a 4-12 record last year.
The Jets began the offseason by spending $140 million on veterans, notably offensive linemen Faneca and Damien Woody and linebacker Calvin Pace. They also traded for Jenkins, and then sent linebacker Jonathan Vilma to New Orleans because he didn’t fit Mangini’s 3-4 scheme.
Johnson said the final decision was made Sunday night, but the process began several weeks ago. He met with Mangini on Monday morning.
“We thanked him for all the good things he had done for us,” Johnson said. “We thanked him for his dedication and his loyalty. But he understood.”