For the second week in a row, Robert Saleh’s long-term quarterback plans for the season have gone kerflooey.
At least this time it’s more enjoyable for just about everyone.
Last week, the Jets’ coach had to backtrack on his staunch vouching for Zach Wilson, the quarterback he and general manager Joe Douglas had selected with the second overall pick just a year and a half earlier. A month ago, Saleh had insisted that Wilson would be the starter for the rest of the season, and just 48 hours before reaching the latest decision, Saleh had described the idea of benching him as the “furthest thing” from his mind.
Then Mike White started in Wilson’s place on Sunday and helped lead the Jets to a 31-10 victory over the Bears.
But in the process of announcing that switch, Saleh said Wilson would play again this season. He implied that once the 23-year-old worked through whatever technical or mental impediments were getting in the way of his progress by running scout teams and handling other third-string quarterback duties, Wilson would be back in the good graces of the coaching staff and, it seemed, would return to his starting job.
“The intent, the full intent, is to make sure Zach gets back on the football field at some point this year,” Saleh said last Wednesday. “I’m going to go day-to-day on this one.”
That just can’t happen. Not in a meaningful game. Not after what Saleh and the 78,000 chanting fans and anyone who has glimpsed even a few downs of this team’s season saw on Sunday.
It wasn’t just the 315 passing yards or the three touchdown passes or the 149.3 passer rating that should have convinced Saleh to stick with White for the rest of this season. It was the joy that swelled up from the team by playing with White. For the first time since rookie running back Breece Hall’s season-ending knee injury, there was an elan to the offense. A spirit. A palpable personality.
It was clear the guys were giddy over being on the field with their new quarterback. If Saleh were to hand the team back to Wilson now, or at any point this season, he might face a mutiny.
The idea that when receivers were open they got the football, and when they weren’t the running backs did on check-downs, had become so foreign to this team that it was overwhelmingly refreshing to see the simple concepts in action.
Tight end Tyler Conklin said it was “huge” that White made things “easier” on the receivers and “understood” what their jobs entailed, particularly on a rainy day at MetLife Stadium, when catching a leather orb can be a difficult task.
“He’s a baller,” Conklin said. “I really appreciate how he works. He’s even-keeled. He never gets too high, he never gets too low. I think that’s huge for a quarterback.”
Rookie receiver Garrett Wilson, who caught two of the touchdown passes, spoke about White’s “preparation.”
“When you do things like that consistently, you’re going to get it back on the back end,” Wilson said. “I think we saw that [Sunday]. That’s a really good talent, a really good mindset, and when you have things like that, that’s what comes out.”
None of this is to say White has to play at the level he reached on Sunday to keep his new title. Asking him to do so would be ridiculous. There are going to be dips and challenges and much better opponents than the 3-9 Bears. White, though, should be the guy to work through them. He’s earned that.
Saleh, if he pleases, can continue to dangle the verbal lure of a return to the field for Zach Wilson, as he did on Monday.
At some point he may even elevate him from his current status as gameday afterthought to the backup role and demote Joe Flacco to third string. That would put Wilson one injury away from action, one mop-up opportunity in a lopsided fourth quarter away from Saleh being able to keep his word about his intent to get Wilson back on the field.
But White won more than a game on Sunday. He won the hearts and minds of the team. Once that happens, it’s out of the hands of the coach to do anything to change it.
No matter how he rationalized it in regard to Wilson, Saleh made the right call to go with White. But White is no longer a temp holding down Wilson’s job until the kid gets himself straightened out. That’s last week’s thinking.
As Saleh is learning, plans change. Sometimes for the better.