I’m writing this article following the New York Jets’ loss to the New England Patriots, but it feels like an article I could’ve written at any point in the last two years. Simply put, the Jets treatment of their offense makes absolutely no sense within the context of what head coach Robert Saleh claims to believe about how offenses score points.
To start, the Jets defense runs a zone heavy scheme in the 2010-ish Seattle Seahawks mold. The entire premise of this defense is built on a “bend, don’t break mentality” that allows teams to take short yardage at the tradeoff of minimizing chunk plays. Generally speaking, the idea is that it’s really difficult to churn out multiple first downs on one drive, so minimizing chunk plays forces teams to be near perfect for a few minutes to score 7 points on a given drive. Don’t believe me? Let’s just ask Robert Saleh, who said as much in an interview in 2021 with quotes reported by Dennis Waszak Jr of the Associated Press.
“When offenses can generate an explosive play in a drive, their percentages of scoring are astronomical,” Saleh said. “It’s almost guaranteed that they’re going to get three points. Two explosives in a drive, you might as well just put seven on the board and kick the ball off.
“So, the objective is to make them go earn it.”
In terms of “earn it,” this usually means having to settle for short plays over and over again. This is another bonus of the system as it tests the patience of the other team. Then, when the other coach and/or players eventually lose their patience and try to force a chunk play, the defense is supposed to be ready to capitalize on it and create a turnover. At a conceptual level, it’s a simple but elegant system and I don’t necessarily disagree with its usage.
Where I tend to get confused is why Saleh thinks this importance of chunk plays in order to score points doesn’t apply to his offense. Just today, Saleh gave yet another clue of what he values on offense: conservative play that limits turnovers (and, in turn, helps his defense).
"One thing I'm gonna give Zach Wilson credit for is that he had a turnover free game yesterday. He had no turnovers from my recollection, & because of that we were in position & had the ball at midfield with 1:40 to go & 2 timeouts to go win the game, because we played a clean…— Harrison Glaser (@NYJetsTFMedia) September 25, 2023
I also want to take this time to reiterate the Jets offense was abysmal against the New England Patriots. The Jets had one touchdown drive. They averaged 2.8 yards per play. They completed 50% of their passes. That is by any measure a bad offensive day and I don’t care how many turnovers weren’t committed. Further, this isn’t a one off instance: through three weeks of play, the Jets rank 31st in yards per game.
Beyond that, it doesn’t really seem like the Jets are trying for chunk plays. In fact, the Jets averaged an absurdly low 3.7 air yards per attempt in the first three quarters against New England ... which is not what you typically expect to see from a team looking for a chunk play.
Zach Wilson in the first three quarters on Sunday averaged 3.7 air yards per attempt.— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) September 25, 2023
The ball, on average, was not even traveling FOUR yards in the air per Wilson pass. https://t.co/jtT8d9gTW7
For reference, new Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo is a known check down artist... and he averaged 6.9 air yards per attempt in 2021... which was 30th in the league. Putting that together, the Jets average air yards per attempt in the first three quarters yesterday was almost HALF of what the QB with the THIRTIETH highest air yards per attempt had a year ago. That is conservative by any definition of the word... and it isn’t the first time the Jets have opted for a safe, turnover minimizing approach since they did something quite similar just two weeks ago against the Buffalo Bills.
The #Jets offense has scored 16 and 10 points in their first two games — all but four plays run by Zach Wilson. That needs to change.— Connor Hughes (@Connor_J_Hughes) September 18, 2023
Attacking down the field should be a point of emphasis. Per NextGen, the #NYJ did not throw a pass beyond 19 yards against the #Bills. Wilson… pic.twitter.com/q0qJGXuQnn
Let’s get to the obvious part. Zach Wilson hasn’t been playing good football. However, if they don’t think Zach is playing good football and that churning out long drives is really hard... then why are they doing all that they can to ensure that the Jets have the lowest chance of a chunk play possible? Especially when going deep for a chunk play was exactly the skillset that drew them to Zach.
Most air yards in 2020— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 5, 2020
Dillon Gabriel, UCF - 1,491
Zach Wilson, BYU - 1,231
Mac Jones, Alabama - 1,136
Phil Jurkovec, BC - 1,149
Spencer Rattler, OU - 1,073 pic.twitter.com/yzOMcghZFI
And it wasn’t like he was just heaving them up there willy nilly either. He was REALLY good at it at BYU.
Zach Wilson on throws that traveled 30+ air yards in 2020: 20-of-27, a 74.1% completion percentage.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 4, 2021
That’s the best by any FCS QB since 2012. He can grip it and rip it downfield. pic.twitter.com/0Wniy8Xjbh
And that play style? It sure seems like that focus on air yards was what Zach was defaulting to early in his career, so you know he’s fine with it... it also begs the question of why Wilson would change from his default aggressive style of play if his coaches were encouraging that behavior.
Highest percentage of passing yards gained through the air— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) October 24, 2021
T1. Josh Allen (65.2%)
T1. Zach Wilson (65.2%)
So, at this point, what we know is the following:
- Robert Saleh thinks offenses are best suited to try to score with chunk plays
- In turn, Saleh has built his defense to stop chunk plays at the expense of allowing longer drives
- The Jets offense has been absolute trash under this conservative as can be offensive scheme
- Basically every moment in which Zach Wilson has ever looked like someone with NFL potential, he’s been slinging the ball deep
Putting that together, can anyone tell me why the Jets are running the offense that they are? Because I’m at a loss. My guess is that (for some inexplicable reason) Robert Saleh just doesn’t think what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.