A Turning Point
We are fast approaching a turning point with this team. No, I don't mean the point where we turn on this team, though I might be there soon enough depending on the outcome of next week's game against the Texans. I mean that our outlook for what we expect from this team is about to change rather significantly over the final seven games of the season. What exactly does that mean? It means that Zach Wilson's return is going to change a lot.
This week, Joe Flacco started a game for the New York Jets in 2021, a decision that caused much debate among fans. For the record, I supported this decision (but found the process at which the team arrived at this decision awfully infuriating). On the list of players I want to see developed this year, the backup QB is pretty far down, just above Shaq Lawson, Tyler Kroft and the other players who have no chance of coming back next year. I would much rather have had Flacco play than Mike White because Flacco has the better arm of the two, helping him push the ball downfield for guys like Elijah Moore and Corey Davis to go after (for all the good it did that latter, but that's another story). I personally don't know if I even want White on this team next year; it was much easier to dream about him being a long term backup before the Colts game where he got injured on his second drive, and much, much easier to dream about it before his awful performance against the Bills. Now, it does not look quite so certain, but the story of Mike White- while inspiring to some and confusing to all- is ultimately irrelevant to the tenor of the 2021 season for this team.
I will admit that I have at times lost the plot in the wake of Wilson's injury against the Patriots. The Jets immediately had their best win in years behind a revelation performance from Western Kentucky's own QB Mike White, masking a poor defensive performance that should have been more concerning to the unit as a whole. From that game, a lot of the conversation around the defense was in how the secondary looked to have tightened up following its destruction at the hands of Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer. Sure, the linebackers looked exposed, even with CJ Mosley back in the lineup following his absence in New England, but reviews raved about the steady performance of CBs Brandin Echols and Michael Carter II, both of whom made key tackles in the game.
In the three games since, the Jets offense has ranged from being mediocre- like they were today- to being a flop. I want to be fair to the Jets offense in that in those three games they have been forced to use three different quarterbacks due to minor injuries to White, so I'm not going to take much issue with the offense; after all, that isn't the side of the ball that is causing the team the most issues.
However, the general free pass that the offense gets will (almost definitely) end next weekend with the return of Zach Wilson. The offensive line has held up remarkably well with regards to its pass blocking this season, though there have been occasions in which we have seen some coaching-related issues get the better of them, notably when free rushers get to charge at the QB (which caused Flacco to fumble today when he was hit from behind) or when defensive lines pull off stunts to confuse blocking assignments.
Rarely would I argue that a player or team not give their maximum effort on a particular play or a game, but for as good as the OL has been for much of the season, that must continue and even increase where possible with the return of a rookie QB. Though many of us were quick to pile on Greg Van Roten for shifting the blame on some of the sacks Wilson has taken (and rightfully so, as the clear weak link of the offense has no ground to stand on when attacking the effort of another player), he was correct when he said that Wilson was prone to holding onto the ball for too long, trying to do too much.
I hope that the coaches have managed to help Wilson get out of his most detrimental tendencies during his time on the sidelines, but I find it difficult to believe that lifelong habits that have led to great success in the past can be so easily coached out of a player. After all, Wilson's flair for "hero ball" is what led to his highlight reel plays that led to the Jets drafting him over other QBs in the draft who have thus far outperformed him; if anything, he learned that playing like that is what gets you and your team to advance.
And I want Wilson to make the highlight reel throws where possible, but they shouldn't come at the expense of him only wanting to make those throws in the future and struggling to work within the confines of this offense. I was extremely critical of OC Mike LaFleur's play-calling and game plan through the first six weeks of the season, but the four game stretch without Wilson have shown me that he can be at least passable (no pun intended) as a play caller. Now it's time to see if he and assistant coach John Beck can get a young QB to adapt to the offense rather than struggle to escape it.
Yes, the offense has been fine in three of the last four games, but now it is time for Wilson to show that he belongs in this offense, and I can think of no better way for that to start than with a strong showing against the Houston Texans. The defense needs to repair itself quickly to help him out, as a bad defense has been part of the cause of Wilson falling into the "hero ball" tendencies. But he on his own must prove his worth to this team right now.
Many of us were skeptical over the Jets' offseason plans for Wilson, which provided him no true veteran QB to support him as a player and no true QB competition in camp to teach him the results of failing. I wanted Wilson benched in the second half of the first Patriots game after he threw his fourth interception- partially because he's the one that made the tackle on the return and I didn't want him getting back out there right away- so that he could learn that there are consequences for sucking in this league. The Jets disagreed, deciding that- even in a blowout loss that was directly wrought by the QB struggling- it was important that Wilson get more experience playing at an NFL level. To that, I say, fine.
Following his injury and Mike White's breakout game against the Bengals, however, Saleh changed his tune, saying that there might be a path to White continuing to start even when Wilson was healthy. To even entertain the notion of White playing over Wilson on the bench following his recovery was a direct contradiction to all that he had said over the offseason, but we could see Wilson struggle in four of his five complete games as a starting QB, making errors that mostly qualified as "rookie mistakes" but others that qualified as "he's definitely not ready to be playing today."
Now, Wilson has both experience playing at an NFL level and time on the bench learning from three different QBs on the roster in how they played the game. I was a little troubled when Wilson told the media that he wanted to learn to play Mike White; the Jets specifically drafted Wilson because they wanted a caliber of play beyond what White could offer. Still, though, I hope he did learn enough from White about how the offense can look when things are going well like in the Bengals game. I hope he also learned from Josh Johnson about what to do with the ball when playing from behind (since even Wilson's garbage time play in the Falcons and Broncos game left something to be desired) like in the Colts game. And I hope he learned from Joe Flacco about how to handle the heavy pass rushes, the very thing that Saleh cited as his reason for having Flacco play today in the Dolphins game.
He has the experience, and he should now have the critical thinking required to play professional football. Due to this, he needs to play, but it is not a free slate; he needs to play well. It is far too early to suggest long term alternatives to Zach Wilson after only five complete games in his rookie season, but he needs to do his part to uphold our arguments. As I said in my previous post with regards to Douglas and Saleh, Wilson needs to meet expectations down the stretch. It takes time to tell whether or not a QB can be a franchise face, but you can typically tell much faster is a player is not capable of carrying that burden.
What are those expectations? For one thing, the Jets need to beat the Texans next weekend. This is as must-win a game as any 2-8 team has ever had. The Texans and Jets might have identical records, but there is a lot of context that needs to be applied to how both teams got where they are now. The Jets are in the first year of a rebuild, sure, but they had aspirations of being a team that could be competitive at all times thanks to a coach who could fire up his players on the sidelines no matter what situation faced the team. The Texans are in their own rebuild, but they had no designs on competing for anything this season other than the first overall selection in next year's draft.
The Texans purposefully tore down their roster heading into this season, trading or outright cutting veteran players that had value in order to accelerate their rebuild. They even traded a player to the Jets before the regular season began in their teardown. They put together a team with no strengths and plenty of weaknesses on paper in an effort to lose as many games as possible and test whether they had anyone on the roster or sidelines that could prove themselves capable of working in such an environment to prove their viability for the future. The Dolphins did the same thing in 2019, and the fruits of that season (seemed to) prove that they had a head coach who knew what he was doing and a few young players that could be retained for the long haul in Mike Gesicki, Xavien Howard, Patrick Laird and Nik Needham (and Jason Sanders, I guess, though you don't need to tank to see if you have a kicker).
The Jets are in this same process themselves, but they were supposed to be clearly better than the Texans. After all, the Texans had no draft capital this year (and spent their first pick at the top of the third round on a QB despite not firmly committing to him on draft night as a potential franchise face) and no money to spend. There was no allure for the premier free agents to come to Houston, who seemed to have no immediate future and a reserved head coach with no fanfare or standout qualifications for the job.
Contrast that with the Jets, who had a lot of money available to spend, plenty of draft capital, and the promises of an alluring, uprising culture with a head coach who (at least to those of us on the outside) seemed like he would be a positive influence on players. The Jets have had ample opportunity to do whatever they wanted with any player on their roster while the Texans were hamstrung by the contract and legal situations of disgraced star QB Deshaun Watson as a distraction all summer.
The Jets drafted Zach Wilson to be able to perform against bad teams like the Texans, because if not this team, then which team? The Texans entered their game against the Titans with the league's 30th ranking total defense and 29th ranking scoring defense. A lot of that is down to their poor rushing defense with a reasonably good passing defense, but that should allow Wilson to exploit the same weaknesses that White found with the Bengals. He also must determine what to do when facing their pass rush, as Flacco demonstrated.
So, please, give us our hope back. It's all we want from this season, after everything we expected and everything that has happened.
This is, for better or worse, a turning point for this team.