Mike Whtie and Josh Johnson laid out a clear recipe for Zach Wilson
Wilson sputtered through his first five NFL starts before exiting early with a PCL injury in his sixth. Here are Wilson’s numbers in his five fully-played starts:
- 223.4 yards per game
- 6.5 yards per attempt
- 62.9 passer rating
- 9.4 first downs per game
- 4 touchdowns (0.8 per game)
- 9 interceptions (1.8 per game)
- 19 sacks (3.8 per game)
- Led Jets to 13.4 points per game
First-time starter Mike White and 35-year-old journeyman Josh Johnson have stepped into Wilson’s shoes and looked like megastars. Here are the combined numbers of White and Johnson across two games against the Bengals and Colts:
- 417.0 yards per game
- 8.3 yards per attempt
- 105.8 passer rating
- 24.0 first downs per game
- 7 touchdowns (3.5 per game)
- 3 interceptions (1.5 per game)
- 4 sacks (2.0 per game)
- Led Jets to 32.0 points per game
It’s night and day.
How were White and Johnson able to step into the same offense and obliterate Wilson’s production?
The answer is simple, and it reveals the primary lesson that Wilson needs to take away from watching his elder peers: they took the easy stuff.
White and Johnson racked up an enormous chunk of production on quick, short throws. Conversely, Wilson has not gotten much of anything out of the quick-passing game.
Take a look at this comparison of Wilson’s per-game production on throws that traveled under 10 yards downfield (in his 5 full starts) versus White and Johnson’s production on those throws (from Weeks 8-9):
- Wilson: 19.6 attempts for 89.2 yards and 3.6 first downs
- White/Johnson: 33.0 attempts for 261.0 yards and 14.0 first downs
The duo of White and Johnson is attempting 13.4 more short passes per game while generating 171.8 more yards and 10.4 first downs on those throws.
Not only do White and Johnson throw significantly more short passes, but they get a lot more out of their short passes, too.
Wilson is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt on his sub-10-yard passes while White and Johnson are averaging 7.9 yards per attempt on throws in the same range.
The primary reason for that discrepancy is the quickness with which White and Johnson get the ball out.
White and Johnson rapidly identify open receivers underneath and feed them the ball in a hurry, giving their teammates the maximum amount of time and space to make plays after the catch.
On the other hand, Wilson has not been hitting his check-down options until late in the rep. He tends to stick to his deepest read as long as possible in hopes that it will break open, not getting to his underneath option until the last moment.
Because of this, Wilson has not been giving his receivers chances to make plays with the ball. He often does not dump the ball off until his target is already squeezed against the sideline or blanketed by a defender.
The numbers showcase the importance of release time in producing yardage after the catch. Here is a look at each quarterback’s average time from snap-to-release on throws that traveled under 10 yards downfield:
- White: 2.26 seconds
- Johnson: 2.31 seconds
- Wilson: 2.49 seconds
Unsurprisingly, those numbers directly correlate with each quarterback’s ability to produce yardage after the catch:
- White: 6.6 yards after catch per completion
- Johnson: 5.5
- Wilson: 4.0
- 2021 NFL average: 5.3
If we take out screens and other throws behind the line of scrimmage, Wilson is averaging 2.73 seconds from snap-to-throw on passes that traveled from 0-to-9 yards downfield, which is the highest mark in the league among qualified quarterbacks. With that in mind, it is no coincidence that he also ranks last in yards per attempt on throws in that range (5.2).
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What White and Johnson showed us is that the key to unlocking Mike LaFleur‘s offense is allowing the skill position players to make plays. They ask their teammates to carry the load rather than trying to bear it themselves.
Of White and Johnson’s 834 passing yards against Cincinnati and Indianapolis, 431 of them (51.7%) came after the catch.
Wilson is doing the opposite – he is trying to do too much of the work with his arm.
Of Wilson’s 1,168 passing yards, only 414 of them (35.4%) came after the catch. No qualified quarterback in the NFL has gained a smaller portion of his passing yardage through after-the-catch yards.
A measly 91 of White and Johnson’s 834 yards (10.9%) came through passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. Contrarily, Wilson has relied heavily on the deep ball, gaining 404 of his 1,168 yards (34.6%) on passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield.
The plan for Wilson upon returning is simple: don’t try to do it all yourself.
Get the ball out fast, let your playmakers do the work, and take over with improvisational throws and deep throws when the situation calls for it. Rely on the rhythm and structure of the offense to keep the ball moving and let the flashy stuff come naturally.
Now, let’s make one thing clear: Wilson is far more talented than White and Johnson and should not try to completely mimic their styles of play. The goal should not be to turn a talented second-overall pick into a clone of two backups.
Rather, the goal is for Wilson to find a healthy middle ground between the traits that made his replacements successful and the brand of hero ball that makes him unique.
The BYU product must learn to primarily focus on taking the highly productive short throws that LaFleur’s scheme makes readily available. His special abilities – off-platform throws, on-the-run throws, deep bombs – need to become secondary weapons that are pulled out in the right situations. Those things cannot be his bread-and-butter.
Wilson’s journey will be all about mastering a feel for when to work within the offense and when to be a gunslinger. But for now, White and Johnson are laying out a simple blueprint: don’t worry about the crazy stuff, just take the easy throws underneath, and this offense will chug right along with no problem.
As time goes on and Wilson becomes comfortable with running the simple aspects of this scheme, then he can begin to unleash the sexier aspects of his game at a greater capacity. The first step is proving he can execute the routine things as effectively as White and Johnson are.
This short absence for Wilson could prove to be a blessing in disguise. He got to sit back and watch firsthand exactly what he needs to do for his team’s offense to be executed to perfection.
If Wilson can pick up the positive tendencies of White and Johnson while maintaining the unique skills that make him special, his potential in this offense will be limitless.