A quarterback controversy is brewing in New York
After Mike White took the world by storm with his 405-yard starting debut against the Bengals, the hope was that he would provide the New York Jets with some clarity regarding their quarterback future when he took the field against the Colts on the following Thursday night.
If White thrived once again, he could keep the job for the foreseeable future with no debate, even once Zach Wilson returned from his PCL injury. If White proved he could not sustain his breakout success, the job could go straight back to Wilson once he is healthy.
Instead, all the Jets got was more uncertainty.
White left the game with a wrist injury in the first quarter after a so-so start (he led a touchdown drive but also threw an easy interception that was dropped) and did not return. Josh Johnson took his place and was similarly productive for the next three quarters, throwing for 317 yards and three touchdowns.
Johnson’s success certainly takes a little bit away from White’s magic. If another backup quarterback could come in and put up the same numbers, how much of what is going on is the quarterback play, and how much of it is the scheme and supporting cast?
It appears that White will be healthy enough to practice ahead of the Jets’ Week 10 clash with the Bills at MetLife Stadium. The same seems to be true for Wilson.
Who should start against the Bills – White or Wilson?
The case for Mike White
The Jets’ offense is firing on all cylinders right now. Starting White allows the Jets to keep that momentum going and hold Wilson back until he is 100% healthy (not nearly 100%) or until White’s momentum halts.
Plus, who knows? What if by some miracle of the football gods, White is the Jets’ franchise quarterback, and he goes ahead and makes a strong case for that by shredding the elite Bills’ defense to continue his hot streak?
Putting Wilson back into the mix will most likely halt the offense’s momentum. Yes, Wilson has had a chance to sit back and spend a couple of weeks watching with his own eyes what this offense looks like in its peak form. It is clear as day to him what he needs to do once he returns – take the easy stuff underneath, and take it quick.
However, it’s easier said than done for Wilson to just come right back in and do that. He watched tape every week this season and could clearly see he was not taking enough short throws. Mike LaFleur and the other coaches surely pointed it out to him and tried to drill that mentality into his head. But he couldn’t do it. Perhaps Wilson needs another year to fully master this aspect of the game.
If the Jets want to maintain their offensive momentum in hopes of keeping the team competitive in the present and fostering development at the non-quarterback offensive positions, White is the way to go.
There is a lot of long-term risk with choosing White – as we will detail in the pro-Wilson section – but by going with White, the Jets are much more likely to win football games in the present, and that does have a positive long-term effect. It builds confidence within the locker room that the team has the right leadership. It helps players develop by putting them into competitive, well-functioning situations.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone like Elijah Moore. The rookie wideout has been running great routes all season, but Wilson never rewarded him with good throws to turn those strong routes into tangible production. Now, White is delivering Moore the ball and giving him chances to see that the way he is playing can lead to positively impactful plays.
From Moore’s perspective, he should be able to feel good about his individual development thanks to his strong route-running even if the ball does not come his way. He has to control what he can control. His tape is good regardless of if he is putting up stats.
That is a difficult thing to do, though. After many games of running great routes without catching the ball, Moore could become frustrated and start changing the way he runs routes even though he shouldn’t be, or he could lose confidence entirely. How is he supposed to know with complete assurance that he is doing the right thing if he is not making a real impact to help the team win?
Young players need to be involved in success to get a feel for what it takes to contribute to winning. Guys like Moore weren’t getting that with Wilson, even if he and others were doing their own job fairly well. Being a part of losing and a lack of success for too long can lead to bad habits and a loss of confidence.
With White under center, Moore and other young players are contributing to winning and building good habits. Moore and others are gaining that much-needed positive mental assurance of “Okay, I’m doing good. I can play in this league and we can make this thing work.” Success is no longer just a hypothetical based on blind optimism. Young players – and even vets – are learning that they can do special things together.
And, most of all, sitting Wilson keeps hope alive that Mike White just may be the gift from above that the Jets have been waiting for. Based on how sharp White looks from a mental perspective, there has to be at least a tiny chance that he could be the guy.
As for Wilson, there is also this point to be made: sure, benching him for White could hurt him mentally, but if Wilson really is the Jets’ franchise quarterback, shouldn’t he be able to fight through that and rise to the top eventually? He will get his shot to win the job back at some point. If he has the fortitude that is required to be a big-game winner in the NFL, an understandable benching in favor the hotter hand should be something he can withstand.
Sitting Wilson for a few more games could serve as that rookie-year watch-and-learn time that many first-year quarterbacks get, even if it comes in the unconventional situation of sitting out later in the season after already starting.
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The case for Zach Wilson
Wilson entered the season as Jets’ unquestioned starting quarterback and never relinquished that title. He only left the lineup due to injury – not because he was outplayed.
His backup did a good job, but now that the Jets lost to the Colts, it’s not as if there is any team-wide momentum at risk of being lost by inserting Wilson back into the mix. Things would be different if the Jets defeated Indianapolis and were carrying a win streak, which would place massive pressure on Wilson, but that is not the case.
At the 2021 NFL draft, Robert Saleh famously told Zach Wilson that “this organization is going to lift you, not the other way around.” Benching a perfectly healthy Wilson for White would be a clear signal to Wilson that the team lacks faith in him, shattering the young quarterback’s confidence.
Wasn’t the 2021 season supposed to be all about supporting Wilson and doing everything possible to make sure he gets the comforting support that Sam Darnold never got? Taking his job because his backup had one good game seems to accomplish the opposite regarding the 22-year-old’s psyche.
Sure, Wilson could theoretically get the job back later in the season once White has his first bad game, or he could come back to camp and compete with White next year.
But once again, I think back to the mental aspect of this. People talk all the time about the “scars” that Sam Darnold developed with the Jets because of the mistakes the team made while developing him early in his career. If the Jets play musical chairs with Wilson in regards to his status with the team, it is going to crush his mental state. That is not a good way to start a quarterback’s career.
Wilson deserves confidence from the team. The Jets do not want a situation like the one their divisional rivals, the Miami Dolphins, are dealing with, in which young quarterback Tua Tagovaiola has seen his team publicly profess its lack of confidence in him by pursuing Deshaun Watson.
Playing Wilson will likely hurt the team in the present day, but it is a necessary evil to get the team where it wants to go.
Mike White – a 2018 fifth-round pick who put up consistently bad numbers throughout extended preseason action with the Cowboys and Jets – is extremely unlikely to be the Jets’ franchise quarterback just because he had one good start.
If White is the Jets’ franchise quarterback, he will rise to the top in due time. White is a restricted free agent. The Jets can bring him back next year and give him a chance to win the job from Wilson fair and square.
There is not much risk by sitting White for Wilson, but there is plenty of risk by doing the opposite.
The current situation with Wilson and the Jets is eerily similar to what the Bills faced with Josh Allen and Matt Barkley in 2018.
Buffalo started 2-7 in Allen’s rookie year. Allen started five games (Weeks 2-6) before missing four games with an elbow injury.
Those Bills were even more embarrassingly terrible than this Jets team, boasting a minus-16.1 point differential through nine games (the Jets are currently at minus-13.3). Allen was horrendous to begin his career, boasting a 61.8 passer rating throughout his first six appearances while throwing only two touchdown passes. Wilson has a very similar rating of 63.5 through his first six appearances.
In came Matt Barkley for his first start of the season in Week 10. Barkley shredded the Jets with 232 yards and two touchdowns on only 25 passes, earning a 117.4 passer rating as he led the Bills to a 41-10 blowout win that gave them a spark going into the bye week.
Allen was set to return following the bye week, but pundits called for the Bills to stick with Barkley. “Bills must start Matt Barkley vs. Jaguars, even if Josh Allen is healthy,” read one headline at a Buffalo-based publication.
Buffalo decided to go with Allen, refraining from overreacting to one good start by a backup.
And the Bills were rewarded. Allen led Buffalo to a 3-3 finish and played much-improved football to close the season. After averaging 177.4 total yards (pass + rush) over his first five starts, Allen averaged 286.3 over his final six.
Both Allen and the Bills closed the year having made noticeable progress after a horrendous start. They built upon their momentum in 2019 with a 10-6 season and wild card berth.
Wilson has a good chance to forge the improved finish that Allen did. He had two weeks to sit back, watch two elder passers operate the offense to perfection, and learn that he needs to take the underneath throws to succeed. The offense has built momentum that Wilson can step into.
Additionally, Wilson has an improved support system around him. His personal quarterback coach, John Beck, is on the sidelines. So is Joe Flacco. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has moved up to the booth and is seeing the field much better.
Wilson showed in the preseason that he is fully capable of operating LaFleur’s offense methodically and efficiently in the same fashion that White and Johnson are doing right now. With some time off, an improved support system, and an offense around him that has momentum, Wilson has a great opportunity to shake off his early-season jitters and get back to doing the great things that he has already proven he can do.
As for the idea of holding Wilson back from the vaunted Bills’ defense, that is a loser’s mentality that NFL organizations do not operate with. Why hold Wilson back from getting valuable reps against a division rival he must learn to beat if he is going to lead the Jets to divisional success in the future?
There is no guarantee that saving Wilson for the Dolphins in Week 11 will allow him to get off to a better start upon returning. This is the NFL. Every team is dangerous. Ask the Titans and Bengals.
Heck, Wilson looked awful against the abysmal Falcons defense in Week 5. If you’re afraid of Wilson getting booed by the MetLife faithful for struggling against the elite Bills, imagine what the boos would sound like if he struggles against the atrocious Dolphins.
From an injury standpoint, Miami is actually more threatening to Wilson’s health than Buffalo. The Bills are 16th in quarterback hits per game. The Dolphins are second.
Once again, I cannot help but look back at Josh Allen and those 2018 Bills. Allen made his return against a Jaguars team that had a vaunted defense (Jacksonville finished the year ranked 4th in scoring defense).
Buffalo could have easily leaned on the red-hot and more-experienced Barkley to protect Allen from the dangerous Jaguars. But they didn’t. They showed Allen they believed in him and gave him a chance to turn things around.
What if the Bills decided to go with Barkley and give Allen a chance to “sit and learn” over the final six games? Without a vote of confidence from his team and an improved finish to build personal confidence going into his second year, would Allen have ever developed into the quarterback he is today?
Cool Your Jets breaks it all down
This is a heated debate among Jets fans. A poll I posted on Twitter is nearly 50-50 as of this writing.
If both are 100% who is your guy for Buffalo?
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) November 7, 2021
Ben Blessington and I are here to break everything down on the Cool Your Jets podcast.