Mike White’s first career start couldn’t have gone much better.
The quarterback set off a frenzy of excitement when he threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 7 win over the Super Bowl-bound Bengals last season. It was one of the great debuts in NFL history, blasting him from anonymous backup to folk hero.
The Jets lost the next two games, though. White passed for 95 yards in one of them and threw four interceptions in the other. By that time, Zach Wilson was healthy enough to return to the field, and White’s brief stint in the saddle was over.
In short, he hasn’t done much since that first impression to even come close to topping it in terms of impact or influence.
Fortunately for White, he shouldn’t have to now, either.
He’s back as the starter for the Jets, this time ascending to the job not because of an injury but because of a series of disappointing performances by Wilson, both on and off the field, that have necessitated his taking a timeout.
But the most important thing for White to acknowledge during this tumultuous time for the franchise is that this isn’t last year’s team. It’s not a club still developing its players and trying to forge an identity. The Jets no longer are struggling to figure out their best and most efficient plans for success. They have those elements now.
The Jets are not a team that needs White to go out and win games for them.
All they need is for him to avoid getting in their way.
That’s something Wilson couldn’t quite grasp. Whether it was ego or immaturity, who knows? But the kid just didn’t seem comfortable being the autopilot, taking himself out of the equation for the betterment of the team.
The times he did manage to accomplish it, he spoke out about the frustrations that came from such a secondary role in the process, apparently unaware of just how important a task it is for the quarterback of these Jets to go unnoticed.
They have a defense capable of carrying them not just to the playoffs but deep into them. They have impressive offensive players who can block, run, catch when needed. They have attitude and they have confidence.
And now they have White, a professional quarterback who can embrace the task. A player who knows he doesn’t have to be Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen — and probably couldn’t if he tried to be — but needs only to be himself.
If he can do that, the rest should fall into place.
“You’re not trying to be the best in the world,” Robert Saleh said this past week, contradicting the idea that White is in line to be some sort of savior for the season. “He doesn’t need to be anybody but Mike White . . . If you know what your fastball is and you know what your changeups are, just let it rip. We all have faith in Mike White, and we have faith in his mental makeup and the way he prepares, and we all believe that his best is good enough.”
There have been plenty of quarterbacks who started their season as a backup and went on to win a Super Bowl as a starter: Nick Foles, Tom Brady and Kurt Warner have all done it this century. It’s been 35 years since a team benched a healthy-enough-to-play starting quarterback and won a Super Bowl, though.
In 1987, Joe Gibbs had seen enough from Jay Schroeder and replaced him with Doug Williams for two starts in the regular season and three historic ones in the playoffs.
The only other team to make a change at the most important position on the field based on a coaching decision and win it all was the 1971 Cowboys. They began their campaign as Craig Morton’s team until Tom Landry deemed them Roger Staubach’s.
Those were gutsy calls by gutsy coaches whose teams already were winning but whose instincts told them a switch could make them even better.
This is a far different era from those two times, one much more offensively focused and quarterback-centric, but Saleh felt that same twitch inside his coaching bones that Landry and Gibbs must have sensed.
Had he kept Wilson in the lineup, the Jets probably would have found a way to win enough games to make this a pretty good season and possibly even make the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
At the start of the year, that seemed like a fine goal, one that would be welcomed warmly by the entire organization.
Since then, though, the Jets have exceeded those early expectations in virtually all areas but one. So that’s where Saleh is making the change.
The irony is that White isn’t a more talented quarterback than Wilson. If he was, he would have been starting all along. He would have been starting well before that Week 7 debut last season — if not for the Jets, then for some other team.
An abundance of talent isn’t necessarily what this team needs from the position right now, though. It’s the other stuff that goes along with the job: grit, poise, leadership.
If White can show he has those attributes, who knows how far he can take this team?
Actually, strike that.
The correct question is: Who knows how far this team can take him?