FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The head coach of an NFL team told reporters on Wednesday that for two straight weeks, with a playoff berth still within grasp, the quarterback he has “always believed” gave the team the best chance to win was relegated to third-string emergency status.
Read that sentence again. What are we even doing here?
Just when you think the spiral of absurdity can’t swirl any deeper for the Jets — between the public bickering over leaking stories as a way to obfuscate the lack of outright denials of them, the odd outing of a relationship between that head coach and a famous fan who happens to regularly appear on the biggest sports radio station in the country and a possible miscommunication between them that became very public, and the abrupt release of the quarterback who was chosen to start those very meaningful games — comes this matter-of-fact admission of malpractice from Robert Saleh that swings the strange goings on from comic to tragic.
"We always believed he was the best quarterback in terms of giving us the best chance to win,” Saleh said in re-re-re-renaming Zach Wilson the starter after the two-week demotion to the back of the depth chart line.
If that’s true, it means Saleh has completely abdicated his job to fan whims or dart-throwing guesses.
If that’s true, he should not be head coach of the Jets for much longer.
And that isn’t even touching on the actual football, the five straight losses that have come from equally unimaginable and preposterous on-field circumstances, the ones that have sunk this season from championship caliber to conflagration. The defeats have transformed the Jets from a team that beat the Eagles, who still have the best record in the league, to one now contending for the worst record in the conference.
Saleh’s job is not only to lead the team but to be the public face and voice of it. That used to be one of his strengths as he thundered away on any number of issues with a bravado that was nearly unmatched. This past week, though, he has come off as someone who has lost control of narrative, whose fire extinguisher is empty. He knows the questions, but he doesn’t have the answers.
Even Wilson himself, who has a history of clumsy quotes to match his collection of bad passes, did a better job on Wednesday than Saleh did explaining the many big-picture issues that face him and this team.
“When you are not scoring and not moving the ball it makes you question everything,” Wilson said of Saleh’s motive in benching him two weeks ago. “I understand the situation. As a coach you are just trying to help us win, too. We all have the intentions of helping this team move the ball and score points.”
Saleh said he was looking for a “spark” when he turned to Tim Boyle and, in the second half of the most recent game, Trevor Siemian. It was little surprise they turned out to be wet matches, soggier even than Wilson has proven to be for most of his three years with the Jets.
So now he has committed to Wilson for what seems to be the rest of the season, sticking with the quarterback he says he always believed in despite abandoning at such a critical juncture.
Saleh probably didn’t have a right move available to him when mulling sticking with or benching Wilson two weeks ago. But could have spun the moves he made in any number of ways. He could have said Wilson’s play deserved benching, which it did. He could have said his gut told him a change would work, even though it didn’t. He could have simply said he made the best decision for the team then and he is making the best decision for the team now. It would have been bland coach-speak but at least he wouldn’t have contorted to essentially stab himself in the back.
He could have even invoked his Miranda Rights, though he’s probably far too accommodating — and too nice of a guy — to keep his lips together.
He didn’t do any of those things.
Instead he delivered the kind of meandering, self-incriminating, contrary-to-logic words that Joe Judge famously gave to eulogize his tenure with the Giants two years ago. The kind that makes employers cringe. Saleh’s entire news conference on Wednesday didn’t last as long as the 11-minute rant Judge embarked on, but it didn’t have to in order to be as devastating.
The integrity of all sport relies on their participants always attempting to win. No one is naïve enough to believe that there aren’t teams that tank or sometimes hold back, particularly late in NFL seasons, but even that can be justified by the idea of improving in the future via better draft status or avoiding injury for playoff runs. What these Jets have done, assuming we take Saleh at his word in his assessment of Wilson, is a mortal sin against the spirit of competition and worse yet the fabric that holds teams together.
How can he possibly stand in front of this team now and ask them to give their best efforts when he has admitted to not doing the same when their season hung in the balance? How can he have a serious conversation with the team’s owner — which he said he does daily — after confessing to such a lapse in decision-making?
How can he face Aaron Rodgers, who has spent countless hours and resources in an effort to return from a torn Achilles this season and asked only that the Jets somehow remain alive in the playoff hunt to make such efforts worth the risk they undoubtedly bore, when they both now know those hopes were sabotaged from the top?
Rodgers’ return next year and his relationship with the coaching staff was believed to be one main reason why Saleh would be back in 2024. If that goes asunder, Saleh’s future is in much more serious jeopardy than any win-loss record might peril it.
Everyone knows Saleh has been dealt a terrible hand this season. Rodgers was supposed to be his quarterback, with Wilson safely out of sight and out of mind, but that lasted all of four snaps. The front office refused to address the obvious vacuum at the most important position on the team leaving him with the Three Amigos of quarterbacking. For a while he even seemed to be pulling it off.
Then Wilson found his natural level of non-production and people began clamoring for change and Saleh felt he had to do something to improve the situation. He wound up making the biggest mistake any coach can make. He listened to the media and the fans (the ones in and out of the building, on and off the radio) instead of trusting his own assessment of the admittedly flimsy depth chart he was given.
Ever since Week 2, Wilson has been the healthy quarterback who gives the Jets the best chance to win, slim as that chance is, sad as that sounds. That’s just the bleak reality of this team this year. Would Wilson have made much of a difference in the last two games which the Jets lost by scores of 34-13 to the Dolphins and 13-8 to the Falcons? Probably not. But maybe he is a better tackler than Boyle who was spun around on the 99-yard pick-six by Miami. Maybe he finds Garrett Wilson on just one of the fruitless open routes he ran against Atlanta. And then maybe the Jets are in a very different spot.
There is a chance Saleh was just saying that “best chance” line to help Wilson’s confidence, to show the fragile third-year player he never had a doubter in his head coach. But it’s now forever on the record. On his record.
If Saleh truly thought Wilson might have helped, knowing all that was at stake when he named Boyle the starter of a 4-6 team that still had an open lane to the postseason, yet refused to play him in an effort to placate anything other than the best interests of the organization, it should rightly go down as one of the most egregious coaching decisions in Jets history.
And potentially one of Saleh’s last.