FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Zach Wilson stood on a blue field in Idaho, wearing a “CHAMPIONS” hat, smiling, laughing. Adoring BYU fans cheered behind him. In a postgame interview, Wilson cracked a joke about thanking a teammate for making a remarkable catch by taking him out for some “hash browns, or something crazy.”
It’s been nearly a month since Wilson was benched by the Jets, less than two years into a once-promising career. After a couple of brutal performances against the Patriots, the Jets opted for a factory reset. When a computer freezes, you restart it, and hope it will be functional again when it turns back on. Now a couple of fractured ribs forced Wilson back into the lineup for Mike White, sooner than planned. Wilson is set to start again Sunday against the Lions, just a few weeks after the Jets felt like they needed to completely recalibrate Wilson’s footwork and fundamentals.
Jets to start QB Zach Wilson vs. Lions
Was three weeks enough time? Jets coach Robert Saleh called that a “good question.”
“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Saleh said. “He’s done a really nice job. I thought he’s had two of his best throwing days in practice (this week). Practice at the end of the day doesn’t matter, we’ve got to do it on Sunday … for him, it’s really just making the easy, easy with regards to getting your feet in the direction they need to go, get your body set, and deliver the football the way he knows how.
“He’s the same quarterback that once went 18-for-18 in a bowl game, so he’s very capable.”
That’s true: Four years ago for BYU, Wilson completed all 18 of his pass attempts in a 49-18 win in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Western Michigan. It wasn’t exactly the ’85 Bears defense — only one player from that WMU defense (Bears defensive back A.J. Thomas) is even on an active NFL roster.
It’s hard to blame Saleh for referencing a Wilson game from so long ago — the Jets quarterback hasn’t had a performance quite like that in the NFL. By most metrics, Wilson is off to one of the worst-ever starts to a career for a quarterback drafted in the first round. When he was benched, Pro Football Focus had him graded as the worst quarterback when pressured. In two crucial losses to the Patriots, his performance — 46 percent completions, two touchdowns, three interceptions — was especially costly for a 7-6 Jets team fighting to make the playoffs.
Saleh has said the plan was always to get Wilson back on the field, even as White played well over the last three games. The believability of that statement faded as the weeks passed. But White’s body failed him this week, despite his best efforts to play through the pain. So now the Jets are turning back to Wilson — and the possibilities of what this could mean for the future are fascinating.
“This is just a great opportunity for (Wilson) to get back on track and do what we know he’s capable of,” Saleh said.
To play more like he did in the Potato Bowl, and not like a potato.
Here’s everything to think about — and everything to know — about the Jets’ ever-changing quarterback situation:
Mike White’s injury — and his timetable
White took two significant shots to the ribs against the Bills last week, the second one — by linebacker Matt Milano — sending him to the locker room for X-rays. Those tests didn’t indicate any fractures, so White was cleared to return and nearly rallied the Jets to a come-from-behind win — earning the respect of his teammates in the process, playing through pain.
He was playing through much more than his teammates even realized. After the game, White was taken to the hospital, where a CT scan revealed a fracture. He was still cleared for practice — and participated in team drills Wednesday and Thursday — but was not cleared for contact. He still wasn’t at the end of the week, so White (and his agent) consulted with non-Jets doctors for a second opinion, hoping to find the answer he was looking for.
“I think I tried talking to 10 doctors trying to find someone to clear me,” White said.
They all said no.
It got to a point where White asked if he even needed the team’s permission to play.
“I asked several times: Do I need your permission to play or can I just play?” White said. “It is the right decision and they all explained the situation to me and I agree — it’s just frustrating.”
prayers up for Mike White’s ribcage, or whatever remains of it pic.twitter.com/TgWYAwkKeB
— Christian D’Andrea (@TrainIsland) December 11, 2022
Saleh called White the “ultimate warrior” for how hard he was working to get cleared for Sunday. The Jets coach said the team could’ve taken it up until game time Sunday but instead opted to name Wilson the starter Friday to protect White “from himself.” The Jets have a quick turnaround to their next game on Dec. 22 against the Jaguars (a Thursday night game) so it will be difficult to get White cleared in time for that game, too.
White is scheduled for scans on Monday.
“It’s the bone so there’s only so much we can do,” White said.
He called the injury a fracture. He’s not feeling anything but “general soreness,” but doctors felt there was too big of a risk to expose his ribs to contact.
“There are a couple in a row (fractured) that makes that area a little vulnerable,” said White, who then explained that this rib injury is different than ones other quarterbacks have played through (like Justin Herbert earlier this season) because White’s injury involves the bone, whereas those QBs typically were dealing with bruised cartilage around the ribs.
For that injury, it’s “just general pain management,” White said. “This is different because it’s bone, so you can’t do much about that …
“It’s just going to depend on how my bones heal,” he added. “So I’m going to get a scan (on Monday), hopefully they’re good enough to go and if it was just about pain management, I’m going to play. Unfortunately, it’s not. Physically, I feel like I can play. Internally, my bones say otherwise.”
Rib injuries, depending on severity, can often take anywhere from 2-4 weeks to heal, though Saleh said “it wasn’t a clear-cut decision of no” for this week, which means it’s not entirely unlikely White returns before the end of the season.
But will the starting QB job still be waiting for him?
The Zach Wilson reset
For three weeks, Wilson practiced with the scout team. After practice, he’d participate in “Flight School” with other Jets practice squad players and developing backups. Nobody on the Jets coaching staff has been willing to admit exactly what Wilson was working on, though the emphasis was on his footwork, which had failed him this season and made easy throws look hard.
This week, Wilson got most of the first-team reps with White limited, especially Friday, and was spotted after practice Thursday and Friday throwing with practice squad wide receiver Diontae Spencer.
Saleh said Wednesday that the Jets staff was “working relentlessly” to get Wilson “back to standing in the pocket, delivering a football, getting our feet underneath us in the direction we want to throw, and getting our eyes to the target,” he said. “He’s been good.”
At that point, it was believed Wilson would be the No. 2 quarterback just this week — he was third string and inactive for the last three games — but now he’ll have to prove the problems that plagued him all season won’t be an issue anymore.
“I’ve just focused on enjoying football again, going back to the basics and the fundamentals of being an efficient quarterback, and having those scout team reps were beneficial for me,” Wilson said Friday. “Just being able to decisively get the ball out of my hands and be accurate and get the ball to the playmakers.”
That last part is key: It’s no secret that Jets players were frustrated with Wilson’s performance leading up to his benching, none more vocal than wide receivers Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore. Over the last three weeks without Wilson, Garrett Wilson was targeted 30 times, Moore 18 times. In three games before that with Wilson, Garrett Wilson was targeted 19 times, Moore only five.
And there’s also the matter of Wilson’s comments after the 10-3 loss to the Patriots on Nov. 20, when the Jets offense gained only 2 yards of total offense in the second half. He defiantly said “no, no” when asked if he let the defense down. That didn’t sit well with some of Wilson’s teammates, and he apologized a few days later — but the damage had already been done. Since then, teammates have publicly expressed their love for White in a way they never did for Wilson, especially Garrett Wilson, who said White has “something special about him” after his first start.
“I think our guys trust Wilson,” Saleh said. “He’s had a really good week of practice, I feel like he’s been really good over the last three weeks in terms of being deliberate and attacking the moments that we’ve asked him to attack and all the things with regards to footwork and fundamentals. But I don’t know if there’s a trust issue; he’s gotta go out there and do the best he can. As a coaching staff we trust him, and the team trusts him.”
White does too, actually.
“I think from when he started this whole process to now you can see he’s not only gotten better but he’s had more fun, he’s started to clear his mind more and be him and let it rip and play loose,” White said. “I think it’ll correlate on Sunday and I think it’ll be fun to watch.”
What this means for this season — and beyond
Now begs the question of how Saleh will approach the quarterback position in the weeks to come, assuming White is cleared to return at some point in the near future. There are a few different ways this can go:
1. Wilson plays well enough to put the Jets in position to win against the Lions and/or Jaguars.
2. Wilson plays poorly and the Jets win anyway.
3. Wilson plays poorly and the Jets lose.
Because he was a No. 2 overall pick, the organization would be happiest if Wilson lived up to his potential and showed enough to go into next season with him as the quarterback. But all the evidence from this season is that Wilson is not ready to be a franchise quarterback.
So Saleh will be presented with a conundrum if the first scenario plays out. White has looked like the better quarterback — and leader — but the organization is more invested in Wilson. White will be a free agent this offseason.
Would Saleh go back to White if Wilson plays well?
“Fair question, but it is a hypothetical,” Saleh said. “This is just a great opportunity for (Wilson) to get back on track and do what we know he’s capable of.”
If Wilson plays poorly, that would make the decision much easier — though if the Jets lose to the Lions and/or Jaguars, they likely wouldn’t be making the playoffs anyway, which adds another layer.
The Jets are 7-6, on the outside looking in for a playoff spot, but still right in the thick of the race. They might need to win at least three of their final four games to get there — and a game, at home, against the NFL’s third-worst pass defense should be one of those wins.
Wilson said he’s not focused on the “gravity” of this game, and what it means for their playoff hopes. Just “what can I do on this play to put our team in the best position possible” to win.
Still, a White-sized shadow will be cast over every moment Wilson spends as the starter. If he struggles, fans (and some teammates) will wonder when White will replace him. If Wilson struggles, it’s not hard to imagine the Jets pulling the plug again when White is ready to return.
Wilson said he won’t be playing with the fear of getting yanked, that he’s “going to go out there and just have fun, whatever happens, happens. I’m going to go out there, lay it out there and do whatever is best for this team and that’s not my control if they want to make that change down the road or whatever. I’m going to play the best that I can and put this team in position that I feel is best for the team.”
He also said: “The worst has already happened, right?”
This is the Jets.
Assume worse is always just around the corner.
(Top photo of Zach Wilson (2) and Mike White (5): Fred Kfoury III / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)