Robert Saleh has tethered himself to Zach Wilson, a sinking quarterback who could wind up pulling both of them under before this season is over.
Yes, we’ve already reached the point in the Jets’ season where there may be more confidence in a 40-year-old coming back at full strength from a torn Achilles next year than there is in the head coach returning.
Saleh’s decision — first announced in the postgame fog of Sunday’s 15-10 loss to the Patriots and reaffirmed Monday afternoon after scrutinizing the game — to stick with an unpopular and unproductive player, one he already has benched twice in their two-plus years together but refuses to at this point, is about to become a referendum on his tenure with this team.
Anybody in the organization who came away from this weekend declaring Wilson as the “unquestioned” quarterback for this team deserves to have their own role questioned.
It’s not as if Saleh has a lot of collateral to begin with, having won 12 of his first 37 games in charge and none in five tries against hated New England. That’s why he was so gung-ho to bring Aaron Rodgers aboard, why he was so willing to cede a certain amount of control over the locker room and the team to a player, because he knew it would help the Jets win and help keep him around.
Now? With Rodgers not able to play? Certainly Saleh cannot survive a repeat of last year.
Yet that is the direction in which he has the team headed.
They were a winning roster with a gaping hole at quarterback in 2022. So far in 2023, they are the exact same thing.
The biggest difference is that this time they know what it feels like to be confident and assured and realistically dream about being a championship contender. Rodgers gave that to them for the five glorious months and handful of plays when he was their healthy leader.
The injury to Rodgers took some of that moxie away. Most of it, though, has been eroded by Wilson’s play as his replacement over the course of three games.
They are sticking with a quarterback who isn’t just bad, he’s almost impossible to root for.
There are plenty of teams around the league that get subpar production and infuriating performances from that most important position in the sport, but at least they can be scrappy and interesting. They look as if they are giving it their all. Very few of those quarterbacks have exhausted the patience of their fan bases the way Wilson has.
His reason for optimism that he and the Jets will be able to turn things around before this season becomes a complete failure?
“The NFL is crazy,” Wilson said on Sunday. “I think it starts there.”
Basically he is counting on the fickle bounces of the oblong leather spheroid to save him and the team.
It’s true that at this point, Saleh doesn’t really have anywhere else to turn. Asked Monday about adding another quarterback to the roster this week, he called it “a Joe question,” directing it at general manager Joe Douglas. That might be his passive-aggressive way of sharing some of the blame for what just about everyone in the league can see is about to go down with this team if it continues to have Wilson as its quarterback. Couple that with his remark on Sunday that Wilson “gives us the best chance to win,” and it can be interpreted as a fairly strong rebuke of the front office for not having a solid backup plan.
They always had a “Rodgers or Bust” mentality in the offseason. It worked and they got Rodgers. In the regular season, it has not, and they’re getting the bust.
Saleh and Wilson have been closely linked since they came to the Jets, one as the head coach and the other as the second overall draft pick who irrationally was rushed into a starting job. Both have taken plenty of licks since then. It’s formed a bond between them. It’s one of the reasons the Jets so desperately wanted Wilson to stick around and learn from Rodgers for a year . . . or more.
Saleh wants to be right about him as a player and as a person.
“You just don’t throw people away,” he said.
That’s a noble, empathetic, heartwarming thought. It’s also inherently wrong for the business he has chosen. That’s exactly what the NFL does to players who can’t cut it and, by the way, some who can. There is a waiver wire every day for those who have been given up on and tossed out the door.
On the Monday after the regular season, there is one for coaches, too.
Results matter. Winning matters. Saleh knows this.
“Everyone has to be held accountable,” he said.
To keep his job, Saleh must either turn Wilson into a competent quarterback (good luck with that happening on short notice) or fight for the rest of the team to not fracture in the face of Wilson’s overwhelming shortcomings.
He probably has a better chance coaching the 52 others than the one to that bar of success.
But lashing himself to Wilson as emphatically as he has this week creates an unavoidably shared fate between them and only increases the chance that neither will be here long enough to actually see and enjoy Rodgers playing more than four snaps upon his expected return in 2024.