INDIANAPOLIS — Make no mistake: The future belongs to Zach Wilson, and everything that happens as far as long-term planning goes will be devoted to the Jets’ No. 2 overall pick.
The present? Well, let’s just say that Mike White made that an open question with Sunday’s 405-yard, three-touchdown performance in a stunning 34-31 upset of the Bengals. It was an extraordinary performance; his 37 completions were the most by a quarterback in his first start, and his jersey and a game ball have been placed on display this week at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But let’s not mistake White for a latter-day Tom Brady just yet, shall we? It’s one start.
Still, in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, White is now all the rage.
Until he’s not.
Robert Saleh has artfully tap-danced his way around questions of a quarterback controversy, but White does present the first-year coach with a best-case scenario in terms of his options moving forward:
If White continues to play well – starting with Thursday night’s prime time game against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium – then it’s a no-brainer. You stick with the hot hand for now, and you let Wilson recover that much more thoroughly from the PCL injury he suffered against the Patriots in a humiliating 54-13 loss in Week 7. And if White stumbles beneath the weight of increased expectations after a dazzling debut as a starter, then you go back to Wilson sooner rather than later, as long as he is physically ready to go.
Saleh won’t entirely give away his thinking on the matter, and he was coy in the moments after Sunday’s tour de force, when White was positively brilliant in pulling off an upset against one of the league’s top defenses.
"We’ll go day-to-day, but anything is possible, right?" he said when asked about whether White might remain as the starter indefinitely. "Anything is possible. It goes back to the theory of, the difference between Player A and Player Z is an opportunity and reps. That’s what this league is. That’s professional sports. They come out of nowhere when someone gets an opportunity. What Mike does with his opportunity … he has the world in front of him. He has to take advantage."
It is a bit of a tricky situation for a coach who is clearly smitten with Wilson’s talent – remember, the Jets made the definitive decision that Wilson had a much higher ceiling than Sam Darnold, who was traded to Carolina. But Saleh is also in the business of winning football games, and he can’t look his other players in the eye if he puts Wilson back into the lineup when White is clearly the better short-term option.
Time is therefore on Saleh’s side as he navigates what we’ll call a mini-quarterback controversy. It’s not a full-blown debate, simply because it’s too early in the process and because Wilson is clearly the preferred quarterback moving forward. At least in terms of the investment the team has made.
The feeling here is that the decision will become self-evident once Wilson is ready to play again. White can hardly be expected to dominate defenses the way he did against the Bengals, and he simply doesn’t have the arm talent that Wilson possesses. But what he does have at the moment is better critical thinking than Wilson, which is what gives him an advantage in the near term.
Saleh practically begged Wilson a few weeks ago to be what he called a more "boring" quarterback, to take the checkdowns when the big-play pass opportunities were limited. Wilson is wired to make every play count, and not to live to see another down, even if he means giving up the chance to make a more daring throw. You could tell White was willing to get rid of the ball even in his first few series against the Patriots after coming on in relief of an injured Wilson.
He continued that in a big way against the Bengals, making it obvious that there’s nothing wrong with first-year offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s play-calling, which had come into question as Wilson continued to struggle. White is simply executing the offense better, and the Jets hope that Wilson will see as much from a distance as he recovers from his injury.
Sometimes that’s what it takes for a younger quarterback – to realize he needs to dial things back and realize he’s not in a league where Boise State is on the schedule. The Jets can only hope Wilson comes back from his injury with the realization that he needs to be more like White, especially when it comes to taking the underneath stuff when the longer passes simply aren’t there.
"Zach getting healthy is always at the forefront of our mind, but at the same time, and again it’s a hypothetical, just take the days as they come," Saleh said. "If everything goes according to plan and Zach comes back and he’s healthy, we’ll address it when we cross that bridge."
And when they do cross that bridge, they'll cross it with Wilson.