I’m sure some people will be tempted to dismiss the Jets’ victory today. The Dolphins had a number of key injuries, especially at the quarterback position.
In truth, it is difficult to think of a more disastrous start to the game than Miami had today. Life is tough when you have to play your backup quarterback. The situation turns catastrophic when he gets knocked out on the first play of the game. It isn’t just that you have to turn to a third string quarterback. It’s that the third string quarterback has to play the full game without having prepared in practice to execute the gameplan.
These factors certainly helped the Jets today. I would argue they are part of the reason this win was so important.
It is not easy to navigate the NFL schedule. When met with an opportunity, you need to take advantage.
Over the last few years the Jets haven’t just failed to take advantage when opportunity presented itself. When the Jets were on another team’s schedule, that was the opportunity for the opponent.
In this game the Jets took advantage of Miami’s misfortune to register a division win. The Jets are 3-2. This is the first time they have been over .500 this deep into the season since 2017. That was a year where the Jets were very short on talent, and their hot start felt like a mirage. This start feels like a sign of genuine improvement.
A big part of this has been the play of the rookie class. Sauce Gardner had another strong day against an admittedly depleted passing attack. Still, his blitz off the corner on the first play of the game resulted in a safety and knocked Teddy Bridgewater out of the game. He later registered a momentum-swinging interception.
The biggest rookie star of the day, however, was Breece Hall who fell just three rushing yards short of going over the century mark as both a runner and a receiver. He played a key role on four touchdown drives.
Expectations were high when the Jets traded up in the second round to snag Hall in the spring. Prior to today, he has been steadily improving each week but hadn’t turned heads. That changed. Hall flashed the potential that made many of us believe he could be the focal point of the offense.
Finding that focal point is critical because of the player under center, Zach Wilson. Wilson’s day was up and down. He hit some important passes. There were also some off target throws and missed reads at critical junctures.
The Jets’ failures to develop young quarterbacks have lasted for more than a decade. These experiences have led me to rethink the reason young quarterbacks grow or fail to do so.
I think it is easy to underestimate the role a quarterback’s surroundings have in the early days of his career. It’s easy to understand the tangible impact of having a quality offensive line or top notch skill players.
When quarterbacks enter the NFL, they are digesting ridiculously complex playbooks. They face exotic defensive looks they have never seen before, and their opponents are bigger, stronger, and faster than anything they have ever faced. It’s important to have supporting talent lifting you up. You don’t really know what you are doing in the early stage of your career. Life is easier if you have solid blocking giving you extra time, a receiver who makes things easy by creating big separation, or a running back who can help move the ball and only needs you to hand it off to him.
Beyond that, I think it’s easy to forget some of the day to day challenges. It can’t be easy being a young quarterback on a team without talent. You’re still figuring out the pro game, and you don’t have the pieces to support you through your struggles. The team loses every week. Frustration builds. Bad habits become embedded. Confidence falls apart. It’s easy to say a quarterback needs to be able to shake off failure to make it in the NFL. This is true. However, it’s one thing to get over a bad interception or a failure in one game. When the team is losing game after game, and things feel hopeless for multiple years it can become an untenable situation.
During the early part of the 2022 season, former Jets quarterback Geno Smith has been making headlines for quality play in Seattle. Geno famously struggled for the Jets early in his career in a virtually impossible situation.
Will Geno continue to play at a high level? I’m honestly not sure, but thinking this through, his path kind of makes sense. Unlike Sam Darnold and Mark Sanchez, Geno wasn’t immediately thrust into the lineup for another team. He had seven years outside the spotlight where he could rebuild his game from square one, growing at his pace. Maybe that’s what it takes after your team fails you at the start of your career.
Unlike quarterbacks of the past, the Jets are making a reasonable effort to provide Zach Wilson with the support he needs to get it right the first time.
The impact of the supporting cast might be a bit difficult to see, but it is there. During this game, Zach hit some important passes at key junctures on plays that swung momentum. He also had some misfires and bad reads at other important junctures.
A less talented team could easily have lost this game, as the Jets did to a third string quarterback two years ago against the Denver Broncos. It would have led to an ugly week around the Jets. There would be talk about a third string quarterback outplaying the second overall pick. There would be focus on the throws he did miss. Enough of this negative energy could eventually snowball and have longer ranging consequences.
Instead because of the efforts of players like Hall and Gardner, the Jets won. We can instead focus on the good Zach brought to the table.
Plenty of franchises take the viewpoint that getting a quarterback will fix all of their problems. There is a point where that could be true if the quarterback develops properly. It probably begins in year seven or year eight, though. To get to that point, it’s the job of the franchise to lift the quarterback up, accentuate his positives and obscure his shortcomings.
After spending the first four weeks frequently trailing, the Jets finally were able to get the mix they want on offense. They had 33 rushing attempts vs. 21 passes. Of course there will be weeks where the Jets will need Zach to elevate his game, like the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh. There’s a balance in these things. The first couple of years, the balance should skew heavily to the team doing most of the lifting.
That is what happened in this game. It wasn’t just Hall’s work on offense. After up and down stretches to this game, the defense pitched a shutout in a dominant fourth quarter. It aided a 21 point explosion by the offense by providing the unit with two short fields that led to touchdowns.
There isn’t much down the Jets have been the most impressive fourth quarter team in the league on the stat sheet. A great deal of this is just from game situations. This was the first time all year the Jets were not trailing by multiple scores in the final period. In those situations opponents tend to trade yards and points for time on defense and focus more on running the clock than scoring on offense.
Still, the defense has come up with timely stops in the victories. Head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich have taken plenty of criticism for their heavy use of rotations on the defensive line during early stages of games. Is it possible, though, that they are keeping their best players fresh for the most important snaps? It is too early to make definitive judgments, but it feels worth watching after the last couple of weeks.
At 3-2 the Jets now find themselves in position to be part of the AFC Playoff race for the first time in seven years. If they can keep this formula of getting strong running from Hall, timely defense, and enough good from Zach Wilson, the fruits of a long rebuild might finally be harvested soon.