It was interesting to watch the Jets offense evolve with Mike White under center in place of Zach Wilson on Sunday.
For starters, it certainly seemed like the starting quarterback’s absence led Mike LaFleur to get more creative to try and manufacture positive plays.
Whenever you can generate a positive play through design, it is a good thing. It means one less time your players are required to execute at a high level.
There was also a notable difference in LaFleur’s playcalling. I took a look at his first down calls through the first six games and compared them to Sunday. Then I eliminated snaps where one team led 14 points or the game was in the fourth quarter. Those are situations that change playcalls. The trailing team needs to score a lot quickly. The leading team wants to run out the clock. I wanted a sense of how LaFleur operated in neutral situations.
Through the first six games, the Jets ran the ball 54.3% of the time in those situations. Against Cincinnati they threw 68.9% of the time.
There is a tendency among play callers to try and run the ball on early downs to take pressure off the quarterback. That can be a viable approach for teams adept at running the football. For a team like the Jets, however, that ranks 30th with a 3.6 yard average per carry, it puts the quarterback into a bad position.
Indeed, the offense was more productive on these first downs with a pass heavy approach. In the first six games, the Jets were averaging only 4.7 yards per play on these first downs. That number jumped to 6.3 yards per play against the Bengals.
The goal of these early runs was ultimately to keep the quarterback from facing difficult third downs. However, the average third down on these series in the run heavy first six games required 6.6 yards to covert. Against the Bengals the Jets’ average third down distance on these series was over a full yard less at 5.4 yards.
More than that, the best third down offense for a young quarterback is to never put him into third down. On those first down snaps against Cincinnati, the Jets immediately moved the chains by converting another first down 24.1% of the time. That is almost double the rate of the first six games at 12.1%.
Another adjustment LaFleur made was the way he utilized personnel groupings. For weeks Jets fans had been begging him to lean into the team’s wide receiver depth by utilizing more receiver heavy formations. Sharp Football Stats keeps track of personnel groupings. Against the Bengals the Jets had 12 plays with a running back and 4 wide receivers. The team had 3 such plays in the first six games combined.
To some extent I believe this is a reflection of the stylistic differences between White and Wilson. Much has been made of how quick and how short White’s passes are. NextGen Stats had White’s average target 4.1 yards down the field and 2.49 seconds from snap to pass. Wilson on the season has an average target depth of 8.8 yards and 3.1 seconds from snap to pass. Over the course of the full season, White’s performance against Cincinnati would be the second quickest to throw and the shortest average depth. Wilson would be tied for longest to throw and in the top ten for longest average depth.
This matters because it is easier to load the field with receivers and spread the defense out when you are making quick, short passes.
When an offense spreads the field, it lacks blockers to pick up blitzes. These blitzes force the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly. Passes down the field take longer to develop. Thus putting a bunch of receivers out there is tough to do when your quarterback wants to consistently throw deep.
With a quarterback like White who makes it a point to get rid of the ball quickly, it becomes a more viable option.
Indeed, spreading the field can make his job easier. It makes it much more difficult for the defense to hide its intentions.
Here White has a linebacker across from Jamison Crowder.
This is a presnap indicator of zone coverage. A defense probably wouldn’t put a linebacker on Crowder. A linebacker would, however, be lined up there in zone. This is more than an indicator, though. With the defense stretched out so far, nobody else is near Crowder. He essentially has a one on one against a linebacker as though it is man coverage.
Here the Bengals are showing blitz. Jamison Crowder is uncovered. The only two viable options to cover him here are the linebacker at the edge dropping into zone coverage or the deep safety taking him man to man.
Neither of them is going to have any chance to get there if Crowder runs a short route to the open spot on the field.
White is able to hit Crowder easily.
White’s propensity for quick hitting passes also makes the run game easier in a surprising way. It makes run-pass options more viable.
In college offensive linemen are allowed to block up to three yards past the line of scrimmage before they are penalized as ineligible men down the field. In the NFL they only get one yard. Most RPOs at least have some component of run blocking, meaning you are trying to drive your man forward. This makes it difficult build in long developing downfield passing concepts to these plays. An offensive line that does its job will almost certainly end up too far down the field.
For this reason NFL RPOs tend to come with short passing concepts. A quarterback who likes to throw short will mesh better with these calls.
What does this have to do with the Jets? For the entire season many of us have been complaining about the team’s heavy tight end usage. If you don’t have tight ends who can block, why not spread the field. Take a defender away from the box.
With White in the game, the Jets can use tight ends and still draw defenders away. Instead of blocking, they can go out on routes on RPOs.
Instead of blocking here, Tyler Kroft goes into the flat and draws a linebacker with him. Michael Carter takes a handoff into the light box and runs for five yards.
Again here you have Kroft drawing a linebacker away as Carter runs for six.
Now I’m not going to act like the RPO game was some sort of singular force that got the Jets’ run game going, but it doesn’t hurt. Handoffs on RPOs tend to only happen in favorable situations for the runner.
Getting past schematic adjustments, White’s game provides a contrast to Zach Wilson’s. The rookie quarterback frequently looks to hit the big play. There is something, however, to be said for understanding the value of a profit.
This play is a fake run trying to get the defense flowing to the offense’s left.
The passing aspect will have White move to his right after the fake with a deep route and two routes across the field at different depths.
White finds Denzel Mims on the shallow crosser and just flips it out to him. Mims then does the hard work turning it up the field for a 30 yard gain (although part of it was called back on a downfield holding penalty).
You might remember Zach Wilson’s four interception game against New England. The second of those picks came on the exact same concept.
A fake run to the left.
A vertical route and two crossing routes at different depths.
Again a player open short for free yardage.
However, Zach doesn’t take it. He tries to force the ball down the field into traffic, and it gets intercepted.
It’s also easier to spread the field when the quarterback understands his outlet when he is under pressure. You don’t have to worry as much about the blitz getting home because the quarterback knows what to do. Take White on this play.
The Jets block this completely wrong, and somebody gets to White. It’s no worry, though. White knows where to go. By the way, this was a third and long that the Jets converted.
Let’s compare this with a play from Zach in London against Atlanta.
This isn’t a blitz, but he is under pressure. He has an outlet open with the nearest defender backing away.
Instead he backpedals looking for the big play.
He does end up evading the pressure, however, no easy throw is available down the field, and his attempt ultimately falls incomplete.
Now mind you I’m not necessarily saying Mike White’s approach is better, and Zach Wilson’s is worse in theory. They are just different players with different toolkits, and it likely impacts the way the Jets offense runs.
Just as taking the easy play has its benefits, sometimes going for the homerun does too.
Take this play where Zach breaks the pocket, Keelan Cole breaks his route, and the Jets break the Tennessee defense.
For the sake of comparison, here’s a play where White breaks the pocket.
He similarly has Cole breaking his route and turning up the field. Additionally he has Denzel Mims cutting across the field. However, he’s not even looking down the field. All of his attention is on Jamison Crowder short.
He flips it off to Crowder for a 3 yard gain.
Now there’s nothing wrong with this play. A 3 yard gain when you’re looking to evade pressure is a positive. It’s more Zach Wilson adds that something extra. On a play like this, your upside is much higher with a quarterback like Zach, even if your downside is also higher.
This does speak to White’s limitations, however. I don’t think anybody could argue he has a top notch arm.
Matters of “arm strength” and “arm talent” are frequently discussed, and I would argue frequently misunderstood. People talk about how far a quarterback can physically throw it. They talk about how high the velocity is when a quarterback throws his hardest. They talk about whether a quarterback has ever completed a deep ball.
Back when Ryan Fitzpatrick was on the Jets at least once a week, he would throw an errant pass with a lot of velocity. An announcer would say something like, “Fitzpatrick threw that hard.” Then somebody in the comments section here would say, “You don’t hear that often,” about the weak armed Fitzpatrick even though we heard it practically every week.
A lack of arm talent can manifest itself in different ways. In many cases with Fitzpatrick it wasn't a lack of ability to throw the ball hard. It was his lack of arm talent requiring him to sacrifice accuracy to increase velocity. Sometimes a quarterback overthrows a pass due to a lack of arm talent. A pass might need to be thrown with a certain trajectory, high enough to get over defenders but on enough of a line drive to hit the receiver with maybe a yard of separation. Deep passes sometimes are impacted by arm talent, but they aren’t the only ones. Sometimes a pass just needs to be zipped into a location.
This is where I believe we will discover how much staying power White will have.
Take this interception White threw against New England.
White is essentially throwing this ball from the far hash to the sideline 22 yards down the field. Elijah Moore is at the 44 yard line as the ball is coming out.
Moore doesn’t break until the 47 or 48 yard line.
This ball was thrown with a lot of anticipation, and it still didn’t get close to making it there on time. Now you could argue this wasn’t a great decision given the general lack of separation, but I think it is an example of the type of play that raises some questions.
Here’s another throw from Sunday’s game. I don’t know why he’s falling back as he makes this pass, but it makes it an all arm throw, and it doesn’t even get close to where it needs to be.
Michael Carter is wide open if the throw is far enough out there.
This leads me into how the issue might impact White’s decision making.
On this play White’s first read is a slant with a corner bailing with outside leverage. This is going to be open all day.
He sees it. His receiver is open.
He just doesn’t fire it. Instead he moves to his next option.
Mind you, the throw White passes up isn’t that much deeper down the field. However, the distance of the pass is longer since the receiver is outside. The upside of the play is also greater because he could hit his man in stride and get a nice run after the catch. It seems like he was hesitant to push it down the field.
Now let’s move on to this third down play.
White is under no pressure, but he is very quick to check down to Braxton Berrios well short of the sticks.
In this situation, the Jets will need to punt if they don’t pick up the first down. Again, it’s third down. Under no pressure, he can wait in the pocket to see whether somebody breaks open past the sticks. If he had just waited a bit longer, Denzel Mims would have been open for a chain moving reception.
It’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world to know your limitations and play within yourself, but this might speak to something broader. I mentioned White’s average target only being a little over 4 yards down the field. That is an incredibly low figure. For context, the quarterback with the closest average target after White is Jared Goff at 6.3, over two yards deeper than White on Sunday.
It is not clear that something like this is sustainable, and it does seem to be a big part of White’s game.
Against New England, which had a big lead for most of the time he was in the game and was playing soft, White averaged only 6.3 yards per attempt.
We don’t have many other data points, but there is one that jumps out to me.
White has 166 career preseason passing attempts. He only has a 5.3 yard average per attempt. Playing well against backups in preseason doesn’t tell us much, but an inability to execute against second teamers and vanilla defenses can be a sign for alarm. Is something that couldn’t work against them really a formula that can last for a long time, or did White catch lightning in a bottle against Cincinnati?
It is difficult to fathom a quarterback throwing for over 400 yards without even needing to throw a single pass more than 20 yards down the field.
That’s one thing I can’t see as sustainable. If White is going to continue playing well, he’s eventually going to have to hit some passes down the field. Defenses will eventually clog the passing lanes, get aggressive with receivers, and force him to throw over the top.
White’s game will probably never be the deep pass. And he doesn't necessarily need to be one of the top deep ball artists in the NFL. I think he will just need to hit enough to keep the defense honest and force them to respect it. This in turn will open up underneath passing lanes. (Conversely, Zach Wilson will need to master some of the things we discussed from White at the line of scrimmage and in the short game, even if big plays are his specialty. Zach will need to do these things so defenses won’t be able to sit back and take away the big play all game.)
How many deep passes is the optimal amount for White? I would say it is the fewest that forces the defense to respect the option. Beyond that, he will need to hit them with some degree of consistency. There is probably some threshold that will make him a viable starter. There is another that will make him a backup. If he fails to hit either, he will go down as a footnote in NFL history.
I’m not here to tell you which of these categories Mike White will ultimately fall into. It is a pointless venture. We will find out soon enough. My only goal is to tell you what he needs to do and the things that will make or break him.
If you are looking for a more optimistic argument that his current style of play could be sustainable, there is a rather notable long-term trend in the league.
A few years back Chase Stuart of Football Perspective noted there has been a consistent trend in the NFL over the last five decades of completion percentages going up for quarterbacks and percentage of passes going for first downs decreasing. We obviously didn’t have the player tracking data necessary to determine the average depth of target through league history. However, these two stats tell an obvious story. If completion percentage is going up and passes resulting in a first down are going down, teams must be continuously option for more shorter, higher percentage passes. Perhaps White is an extreme outlier. Perhaps he is also ahead of his time and ahead of the trend.
I’ll admit part of the reason I’m not giving a final judgment here is that I’m unsure I can be objective. Over the last few days I’ve become a big Mike White fan. That game Sunday was the most fun I’ve had watching the Jets in years. How can you not love this story? This kid nobody was expected to do anything throws for 405 yards and leads the Jets to victory. You’ve got to love it.
So let me end on a positive, the game-winning touchdown pass Mike threw in the fourth quarter.
White progresses from this first read...
,,,to his second read.
Now let me give some credit to Denzel Mims here. He isn’t a featured player on this play. He might not even be in the progression. He knows he probably isn’t getting the ball. But he runs his route hard. You don’t always get that from a wide receiver on plays they know they aren’t getting it.
Why does this matter? He draws the attention of a zone defender who drives on him and releases Tyler Kroft up the field with no help over the top.
White finds Kroft for a touchdown to win the game.
We all hope to see more, but even if White falls back to Earth we will always have this memory.