The New York Jets’ offensive coordinator must decide how much he trusts his quarterback to develop
Mike LaFleur has a difficult job on his hands.
The New York Jets’ offensive coordinator is trying to build an offense that emphasizes the strengths of his quarterback, Zach Wilson. However, the young Wilson is struggling at all of the things that are supposed to make him special, leaving LaFleur devoid of easy solutions.
Take a look at Wilson’s numbers in the following areas, per NFL Next Gen Stats:
Ranks among 35 qualified quarterbacks
- Passes thrown on the run (QB is moving at 8+ MPH): 7/25 for 143 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT. 34th in QB rating (34.3) and 23rd in Expected Points Added per play (-0.42)
- Passes thrown while outside of the tackle box: 6/31 for 140 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT. 34th in QB rating (19.0) and 31st in EPA/play (-0.85)
- Passes thrown on designed rollouts: 4/11 for 70 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT. 35th in QB rating (21.0) and 34th in EPA/play (-0.85)
- Passes thrown while scrambling: 3/24 for 85 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT. 33rd in QB rating (7.1) and 28th in EPA/play (-0.87)
- Passes thrown more than 2.5 seconds post-snap: 38/90 for 683 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT. 34th in QB rating (54.3) and 31st in EPA/play (-0.34)
He’s not succeeding outside of the pocket. He’s not succeeding on designed rollouts. In fact, he’s not succeeding on any type of play where he is on the move. And he’s not succeeding on long-developing plays. These are some of the primary areas that made him an appealing prospect coming out of BYU.
So what is LaFleur supposed to do? The Jets drafted Wilson to be successful at these things. Instead, he is brutal at them.
Well, there appears to be a solution, although it does not come without consequences: Putting shackles on Wilson and turning him into a quick-throwing game manager who is only asked to make the simplest of reads.
Wilson has actually been quite solid in that role throughout the first five games of his second season. When working within the structure of the offense and getting the football out quickly, he is a good quarterback.
Here are Wilson’s 2022 numbers on plays where he stayed in the tackle box and got rid of the football in under 2.5 seconds:
- 40/52 for 365 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
- 6th in yards per attempt (7.0)
- 8th in completion percentage (76.9)
- 10th in EPA per play (0.20)
- 13th in success rate (51.9%)*- a successful play is considered any play that yields a positive EPA; i.e. a play that keeps the offense “on-schedule”
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Those numbers present LaFleur with a solution that could work for the short-term. If LaFleur tosses all of the flashy stuff out the window – fewer rollouts, fewer long-developing dropbacks, and strongly discouraging Wilson to extend plays outside of the pocket – the Jets should be able to get good production out of Wilson by asking him to do little more than stay in the pocket and execute quick, simple reads.
At this moment in time, based on what we have seen from Wilson in his career so far, that is the best way for the Jets to cook up a productive passing attack that can help them win in 2022: taking the game out of Wilson’s hands and putting more onus on LaFleur and the skill-position weapons.
But that decision comes at a cost.
Wilson was not drafted second overall to be Jimmy Garoppolo. He was drafted second overall because of his Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen-esque traits: the escapability, the mobility, the arm strength, and the overall knack for making something out of nothing.
If the Jets restrict Wilson to a game manager role, it would help him and the team in the short-term, but in the long-term, it could prevent Wilson from becoming the best version of himself. Wilson needs to make mistakes and work through them if he is going to eventually fulfill his potential and become the dynamic playmaker he was drafted to be.
But from LaFleur’s perspective, it has to be difficult to just sit back and watch him endure growing pains when the Jets have a team that seems ready to make a run right now.
The fact of the matter is this: Wilson is crushing the Jets’ chances of winning games with his woeful production on outside-the-pocket throws, long-developing throws, and the like. This makes it tempting for LaFleur to restructure the offense in a way that eliminates these things from Wilson’s game. It was different in 2021 – the Jets could live with the mistakes because he was a rookie and they were not competing for anything – but this is a playoff-ready team that is being held back by Wilson.
The problem is, while these facets of the game are currently weaknesses for Wilson, they could potentially become enormous strengths in the future; and LaFleur built this offense believing they would be strengths. If Wilson can get to the point where those things become strengths, both he and the offense would reach incredible heights – much higher than their maximum potential if they resorted to a game-managing passing attack.
There is no doubt that the ceilings of Wilson and the Jets offense are much higher when Wilson gets to play his way rather than being a game manager. Just look at LaFleur’s former team, the 49ers. San Francisco won plenty of games and made multiple deep playoff runs with Jimmy Garoppolo, but ultimately, Garoppolo’s absolute best was not enough to get them over the top. The Niners were toppled by more explosive quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford.
So, instead of settling for Garoppolo, they gambled by drafting a higher-ceiling quarterback in Trey Lance. (An injury to Lance muddied the plan, but nonetheless, their intentions were clear.)
This is why LaFleur’s job is so tough right now. He has to decide between doing what is best to win games based on what Wilson has shown so far, and doing what is best to win games if Wilson becomes what the Jets hope he can be.
LaFleur surely has immense faith in Wilson. If he didn’t, Wilson would not be a Jet. The Jets had multiple choices at the quarterback position at No. 2 overall in the 2021 draft, and LaFleur was their newly-added offensive coordinator at the time. He undoubtedly had one of the most prominent voices in making that decision, if not the most prominent.
Because of his belief in Wilson, I am sure it would be hard for LaFleur to wave the white flag on the offense he envisioned for the projected fully-formed version of Wilson. At the same time, it also must be hard to continue watching Wilson drag the team down.
How long does LaFleur maintain faith in Wilson’s ability to develop his high-upside traits before deciding to cut off the flashy parts of Wilson’s game and restrict him to a game manager role? Will that point even arrive? Or is LaFleur willing to live and die with the growing pains that come with Wilson’s preferred style of play?
This is the main storyline regarding LaFleur that I will be keeping an eye on as the season progresses.