One of my least favorite aspects of modern NFL analysis is how everybody always needs to draw an immediate conclusion. Take the case of Sam Darnold. Three weeks into the season many proclaimed that he was a legitimate franchise quarterback who had been totally ruined by the Jets. Yes, Darnold had played well, but there were plenty of reasons to wonder whether his success would endure. There was nothing wrong with saying, “You know what? We don’t know yet. There isn’t enough information to say for sure.”
When I discuss the state of the Jets’ quarterback position if I have any bias it should be in favor of getting Zach Wilson back into the lineup as soon as possible. Wilson was the quarterback I wanted to draft if the Jets couldn’t get Trevor Lawrence last spring. I watched Mike White in preseason. I went to a couple of training camp practices. I watched him in relief of Wilson against New England a few weeks ago. These experiences all led me to the same conclusion. I didn’t think he could play. I was very vocal about that in the week leading up to the Cincinnati game. Mike White is making me look ridiculous with the success he is having.
Zach Wilson has a far better Draft pedigree than Mike White. He was the second overall pick. White is on his second team and has spent significant time on practice squads. Wilson has vastly more physical talent than White. If you are asking me today which quarterback is more likely to have a successful NFL career, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you Wilson. The Jets themselves have told you what they think about these two quarterbacks. They have planned the future of their franchise around Wilson. They waived White four times last year. When White first ascended to the starting job, they promptly traded for Joe Flacco, primarily to replace him.
There’s a funny thing about the NFL, though. Sometimes surprises come out of nowhere and upend your plans. Physical talent does matter at quarterback. Some quarterbacks just don’t have enough arm to threaten the entire field. However, arm talent can be overrated. A quarterback can to some extent make up for a lack of it with poise, anticipation, and accuracy. Jeff George and Jay Cutler would be in Canton if a rocket arm meant everything. As much as quarterback is a physical position, it is a thinking position.
A smart team comes up with a plan and doesn’t change course unless it has a very good reason to do so. However, a smart team also adapts as situations present themselves.
The Jets are not at the point where they need to make a franchise-altering decision about their starting quarterback. They don’t need to anoint Mike White the starter for the rest of the season. Giving White another start doesn’t mean they are giving up on Zach Wilson.
I’m not convinced White should get another start beyond the Buffalo game pending the outcome, but I do think he’s earned the right to play quarterback for this team until he plays himself out of the role.
It would be one thing if Zach Wilson was playing well prior to his injury. I think if the Jets coaches and front office were being honest, they’d tell you Zach isn’t as far along in his development as they had hoped entering the season. That isn’t the end of the world. Plenty of successful quarterbacks have gotten off to rocky starts in their rookie season.
It would also be different if Mike White wasn’t playing so well. If he was merely keeping his head above water, I’m not sure he’d have a strong case for staying in the lineup. His current pace has been historic, though. We are talking 500 yards and 4 touchdowns in 5 quarters.
Does this mean White has a future in the NFL? Not necessarily; I can remember Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, and Sam Darnold having big performances that provided false hope. I can also remember Bryce Petty once leading a 14 point comeback and throwing for 257 yards in a win. I remember Kellen Clemens engineering two game winning drives in his first eight starts. I even remember Brooks Bollinger once coming within 3 yards of leading a 15 point comeback against a Chargers team led by Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson.
Whether Mike White has the requisite talent to succeed over the long run is an open debate. It isn’t easy to play well in the NFL. It is even more difficult once teams get film on you and figure out how to attack your weaknesses.
Some quarterbacks who surprise us with a big game struggle to ever recapture the magic like Matt Flynn and Rob Johnson.
Others have decent careers but top out as high end spot starters/backups like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum.
There are always the surprises nobody sees coming. When Washington spent three first round picks to move up for Robert Griffin III in 2012 they thought they were drafting a long-term NFL starter that year. It turns out they were right. It was Kirk Cousins.
Those Chargers I mentioned earlier had given up on Brees in 2004 after his career got off to a rocky start. They drafted Philip Rivers to replace him. On the way to that happening, Brees resurrected his career and led San Diego to a surprising AFC West title. He might have stayed with the Chargers for the rest of his career if he hadn’t suffered a serious injury in the final game before he hit free agency.
Kurt Warner spent his entire career shocking people. His first MVP season he was supposed to back up Trent Green, who the Rams had just brought in to be their quarterback. After Green suffered an injury, Warner led his team to a championship. A few years later he seemed to be on the downside of his career with Arizona. The Cardinals picked USC star Matt Leinart as their quarterback of the future. A funny thing happened on the way to Leinart’s ascent. Warner had a resurgence and led Arizona to within a defensive stop of a Super Bowl win.
I can’t tell you whether White’s career will most resemble Flynn, Keenum, Cousins, or Warner. Reaching the level of quality starter will be a lot to ask. But the NFL has shown us that sometimes special things emerge for the place you least expect to find it.
I think the Jets need to give Mike White an opportunity to continue as the starter for at least one more week. He’s earned the chance to play until he plays himself out of the starting quarterback job.
There are some other external factors that come into play here. I’m not sure Buffalo is an ideal opponent to ease Wilson back into the lineup against. On the other hand, the Bills defense is the type of difficult test that can give us greater insight into how real Mike White’s surge is.
Beyond that there’s always talk about building a culture around the Jets. I’m kind of tired of the talk. The best way to build a winning culture is to win games. It’s also to base playing time on merit. At this point in time Mike White has played better than Zach Wilson. You can use your previous scouting or big investment in one player over the other as a tiebreaker if things are close. I firmly believe handing a player a job only because of where he was drafted is a mistake. If White plays poorly against Buffalo, the matter might become closer. Then the tie can go to Wilson for the following week.
Mind you we are not talking about making any existential decisions about the franchise’s trajectory here. Wilson remains the presumed quarterback of the future for now. One game won’t change that. If one game actually moved the needle that much on his development, things would already be doomed after he sat against Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
Again I’m not calling for the franchise to anoint White as the new quarterback of the future. I am simply saying he should get the opportunity to play until he proves he is not the best option. I expect that to come soon. The Jets might expect it to come soon. Sometimes the NFL has a way of surprising us. You don’t want to miss out on a surprise because you were too focused on your Plan A to notice.