Robert Saleh, Sauce Gardner, NY Jets
Robert Saleh, Sauce Gardner, New York Jets, Getty Images

The end of the Lions game was a symptom of a greater problem

Robert Saleh has been alternatively lampooned and lambasted in the media for his time management at the end of the Jets’ 20-17 loss to the Lions.

Specifically, Garrett Wilson caught a 10-yard pass on 2nd-and-10 to give the Jets a first down with 49 seconds remaining. Rather than call the first of his three timeouts, Saleh had the Jets hurry up to the line. As a result, the next play was run with 31 seconds left. The Jets finished the game with a missed 58-yard field goal and a timeout still in hand.

All the criticisms are fully warranted, but they tend to focus on the decision rather than the reason behind it. However, when you look at the explanation that Saleh provided for the mistake he made, there is a hidden issue here that is actually far from new this season.

“This is the one where I definitely overthought this situation,” Saleh said. “That’s the one where I definitely overthought it. Call a timeout, there’s 49 seconds left. I felt like we got the better end of a spot and I was trying to beat New York on the challenge. That’s the one I overthought. It didn’t matter. We’re not playing for downs at this situation. We’re playing for time. When you look at it all, I definitely probably cost us one more snap.”

Saleh was referring to the fact that Wilson appeared to get a favorable spot from the refs, resulting in the first down rather than a third-and-one. He was afraid that a booth review would be called to re-spot the ball.

However, that’s precisely the point: the reasoning was inherently flawed because third-and-one with 49 seconds and two timeouts left is far preferable to first-and-10 with 31 seconds and three timeouts remaining.

We’ve seen this issue come up way too often for an NFL head coach. Obviously, there are always priorities to be balanced in a game. That’s what every fourth-down decision comes down to, as well as game-planning and personnel usage. There have been significant flaws in Saleh’s in-game decision-making, even if not specifically on the call of whether to go, kick, or punt on fourth down.

Furthermore, it’s taken a while for Saleh to adjust personnel-wise. Even though he deserves praise for being more adaptable than last season, he can also be criticized for some remaining stubbornness.

What is more important? That’s the question Saleh seems to have answered incorrectly fairly often this season.

In-game issues

Besides the timeout against the Lions, we’ve seen Saleh hurry to the line to beat a review before. The actual move is not uncommon in the NFL; if the referees make a questionable call that benefits your team, you’re going to rush to get off the next snap to prevent a challenge or review triggered from New York.

In the Lions game, the issue was that time was running down. In the Jets’ Week 9 tilt with the Bills, trailing 14-10 early in the second half, Saleh also got a favorable call on a throw over the middle that went off C.J. Uzomah‘s hands and appeared to be picked off. When the dust settled, the officials ruled that the Jets had come down with the ball. That set up a 3rd-and-2. The Jets hurried to the line and handed the ball off to Michael Carter, who was stopped short of the first down.

In that case, once more, the decision to hurry to the line was understandable. The conflicting priority here was actually getting the first down. The Jets were at their own 40 and needed to keep the drive alive. To come to the line and run right up the gut just to prevent a challenge, when getting stuffed means that the drive stalls anyway, is mismanagement.

Sure, the Jets ended up converting the fourth down on a fake punt, but you never want to rely on that. In fact, if Carter had been stopped for no gain or a loss of yardage, it’s more likely than not that Saleh would have punted.

We saw a very similar situation in the Jets’ second loss to the Patriots. With 5:15 remaining in the game and the score tied at 3, the Jets faced a 3rd-and-3 from their own 27. Zach Wilson made a low-and-outside throw to Garrett Wilson, who was ruled to have caught the ball on a dive. The replay, however, showed that the ball likely hit the ground.

The Jets hurried to the line to prevent a challenge, as you’d expect them to do. The play called, though? A run straight up the gut with Ty Johnson when the Jets had not been able to run the ball all day. Sure enough, Johnson was stuffed for a loss of three yards, leaving the Jets in a second-and-long bind.

You cannot rush to the line just to prevent a challenge in these situations. There must be an actual play in place. The Jets should have plays scripted for this kind of scenario, plays that are superior to a “give up to prevent the challenge” call.

On the flip side, Saleh challenged a first-down spot against the Vikings, which was puzzling in a different way. With 4:08 remaining in the second quarter and the Jets trailing 10-3, Kirk Cousins threw a third-down pass to T.J. Hockenson that was ruled to have gained the first down at the Jets’ 14. On the broadcast, it did appear to be a generous spot. However, the likelihood was strong that Minnesota would go for it on fourth-and-inches even if the call was overturned. Given the Jets’ defensive unevenness in short-yardage situations, there was a fair chance the challenge wouldn’t matter anyway.

Jet X’s Robby Sabo pointed out at the time that the challenge gave the Jets’ defense a chance to rest. If that was actually Saleh’s intent, then perhaps it can be excused. However, if he threw the flag because he genuinely believed it was a bad spot that would be overturned, he should have weighed the cost-benefit analysis. There was a good chance the Jets would get the ball back before the half looking for a chance to score at least a field goal. Losing that timeout could have been important at that point.

I can’t criticize Saleh too heavily for that particular decision because of the possibility that it was simply an enhanced timeout, but if it was a challenge he legitimately thought he could win, the mistake would fit with the pattern we’ve seen from him throughout the season.

Personnel juggling

We talked ad nauseam about the Jets’ defensive line rotation earlier in the season, so I won’t go through that one too much here (although there’s still some blame to be placed on Saleh, in my opinion). However, there have been other puzzling or delayed decisions that I believe warrant some criticism.

Quarterback

There are many different opinions about how the Jets should have handled the quarterback position this season. For every analyst who says that Zach Wilson is a bust and the Jets should roll with Mike White, you have another who claims that the Jets ruined Wilson by pulling the rug out from under him.

I do think that there are a few hard-to-deny points in this matter, regardless of which side of the aisle you fall on.

In the Jets’ first game against the Patriots, many were calling for Wilson to be pulled after his second and/or third picks of the game. Both were absolutely boneheaded decisions that a quarterback should never make in his entire career. It is difficult to deny that the Jets would have won the game with even below-average QB play rather than a horrific performance.

The Jets had elevated Mike White to the QB2 position just that week. At the time, many were unsure why they did it since White did not look like an NFL quarterback in the preseason this year. However, seeing how White performed in the three games he started this season, it is easy to extrapolate that he had shown significant improvement in practice. Therefore, Robert Saleh should have had enough confidence to remove Wilson and put White into the Patriots game, rather as Miami did with Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick not long ago.

If the Jets had won that game, their playoff chances would be significantly higher. Right now, they pretty much need to run the table and have the Patriots lose one game to secure a postseason spot. If they hadn’t lost to the Patriots, they would be 8-6 and currently in the playoff picture via the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami.

Even if you want to argue that Saleh didn’t want to ruin Wilson’s confidence in the first Patriots game, the second game was a whole different level. Against an excellent Patriots defense, the Jets nevertheless had several big-play opportunities on busted coverages or strong play design. Wilson could not execute any of them save for a toss-up to Denzel Mims. He threw several interception-worthy balls that were simply dropped by Patriots defenders.

As usual, after Wilson overshot Tyler Conklin on a ball that went right through Devin McCourty’s hands, the switch flipped off. Wilson could not complete a pass after that point.

In the third quarter, Saleh should have pulled Wilson for White. This was a critical game coming off the bye, not only to prove that they could beat the Patriots but to keep pace in the division and wild card hunts and prevent the Patriots from winning the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Jets needed to treat it as such and pull the plug on Wilson.

Yes, Saleh did so the next week, but he lost a second game in order to do it. Both Patriots games were eminently winnable, particularly with the defense having allowed a combined 16 points in those two games (not including the punt return TD or drives that the Patriots started in field goal range).

When Saleh made the switch, though, it was puzzling that he decided to demote Wilson to QB3 and bench him. Joe Flacco had been demoted to QB3 behind White, which means that the Jets considered Flacco their third-best quarterback—presumably, the quarterback with the worst chance to lead the Jets to victory. In the midst of a playoff race, does it make any sense to suddenly remove your second-best chance of winning in favor of your third?

If the mentality was to give Wilson some time to adjust without threatening White’s position, there are several flaws in that rationale. First, above all else, these last few games have been about winning. This was (and is) not a 4-9 team looking to evaluate its QBs for next year. Sure, that has become a part of what the Jets are doing with White, but it is secondary to victories. If Wilson gives the Jets a better chance to win than Flacco (which should have been clear based on how Flacco played earlier in the season), Wilson should have been the backup quarterback.

Additionally, the worst thing that could have happened was that White played poorly and Wilson came back in. That would just mean that the Jets might as well have muddled along with Wilson because they did not have a competent QB on their roster. White is not the guy who needed to be protected from someone looking over his shoulder.

Most importantly, very little can be done for a quarterback’s fundamentals in-season, particularly in the home stretch. There was no reason to think that Wilson’s mechanics would get any better because he sat. What was the good of hanging him out to dry (pun intended) for the cameras with a hoodie and a stone face on?

This is not to say that the Jets would have beaten Buffalo if Wilson had been the backup instead of Flacco. There’s just as much of a chance that Wilson would’ve thrown a pick as there was that Flacco would be strip-sacked. However, at least Wilson had some upside, and bringing him in still would have given the Jets a chance. With Flacco, it was nada.

Once again, a priorities question. Once again, some questionable decision-making.

Pass-catchers

This may be more on Mike LaFleur than Saleh, but there are still some problems with the way the Jets run their progressions on plays in terms of utilizing their best players. Considering that it hasn’t changed much this season, I believe that some of the blame can go on the head coach for not directing LaFleur to change.

Garrett Wilson should be getting 10+ targets per game. Wilson is 11th in the NFL in receiving yards this season despite having played with Flacco and Zach Wilson as his QBs for the majority of the season. This guy is a star. Give him more one-on-one shots.

If a defense is keying on Wilson, as the Vikings and Lions did, the Jets’ next-best target remains Elijah Moore. Yes, he has flaws. Yes, his trade request still stings. But we saw a glimpse of the Elijah Moore from last season against Buffalo. Even against Detroit, Moore had 4 catches for 51 yards and could’ve had more with competent QB play.

Has Moore made mistakes? Sure. He did not do anything to try to break up Zach Wilson’s pick to Jerry Jacobs. That pick is entirely on Wilson, but Moore could have broken up the play instead of simply running past. Still, stacking Garrett Wilson and Moore to put a defense in high-low conflict is a potentially lethal combination, and we haven’t seen the Jets take advantage of it.

Furthermore, in the red zone, it still appears that the tight ends are not even on the team’s radar. The Jets have had just five red zone targets to tight ends this entire season. Five! That’s an incredible number for a team that shelled out $44 million in contracts to their top two tight ends this season and spent a third-round pick on another. Yes, C.J. Uzomah scored a one-yard TD against the Lions, but that reception serves only to highlight the lack of virtually any others.

In this case, the priority seems to be going to a specific spot rather than focusing on the team’s best chances for production.

Utilizing a player’s strengths

In this section, my main concern is regarding a comment Saleh made about Zach Wilson. Jets fans have been asking all season why the Jets don’t roll Wilson out more. Earlier in the season, the standard response was that he was not performing well on the run. However, Wilson’s best plays against the Lions came on rollouts, and Saleh admitted that his family noticed.

I would accept this premise if the focus of the game was solely to develop Zach Wilson. However, as emphasized earlier, the most important thing in this game was to win the game. In the first half against Detroit, Wilson went 8-for-14 for 185 yards and a TD. In the third quarter, Mike LaFleur seemed to completely abandon that strategy. How does that make any sense?

Second, in today’s NFL where highly drafted quarterbacks start from Day 1, virtually every team adapts their offensive strategy to their young QB’s strengths. Many teams incorporate concepts from the QB’s college playbook. Although LaFleur has done that in the past, he seems highly reluctant to allow Wilson to get out of the pocket as designed and make a play.

It appears that while Wilson is struggling off-schedule in the NFL, there is some potential for him to make big plays on designed plays out of the pocket. Why are the Jets so insistent that Wilson must conform rather than conforming to his strengths?

Considering Saleh’s comments, I believe he deserves a chunk of the blame here. This is, once again, a matter of balancing priorities. Is the priority winning now, or is it trying to develop a young QB by forcing him into a situation in which he’s clearly not capable of producing?

Building toward the future within the scheme

This is furthering the personnel usage question, but it’s specifically about the future of the team rather than just decisions for this season.

Quarterback

There seem to be questions about Zach Wilson’s fit in Mike LaFleur’s scheme, as discussed above. It’s odd that this is coming up when Wilson was referred to as a “perfect fit” for the scheme prior to the 2021 draft. If Saleh is so intent on sticking to a scheme, he must do a better job of selecting and grooming players within the scheme.

So far, Wilson is not succeeding, and the coaching staff shoulders at least some of the blame. Wilson’s strength was never known to be quick, accurate passing. In fact, his scouting report from college did say that he tends to airmail throws at times (which should have been recognized as a footwork issue). Although his accuracy was far better in college, as we’ve discussed on this site, that was more of general accuracy rather than precision. His pinpoint accuracy wasn’t great even then. LaFleur and Saleh should have recognized that from Day 1 and either passed on Wilson or adjusted their expectations.

This is not to say that the coaching staff is entirely to blame for Wilson’s regression as an NFL quarterback. Perhaps Joe Douglas and his scouts deserve criticism for failing to recognize that Wilson’s traits might not translate well to the pros. However, there does seem to be a coaching element here.

The Jets must ask themselves if they’re willing to adapt to Wilson or if they’re married to their scheme. If it’s the latter, Wilson should be traded for whatever scraps he can return, and the Jets should move on to a guy who can do well in a rhythm passing game (such as Mike White or Jimmy Garoppolo).

Tight end

Jeremy Ruckert has been inactive most of the season. Rarely do you see a third-round pick sit for this long. The pick raised eyebrows after the Jets signed Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah to starter-level contracts in the offseason, but it was seen as a move to groom toward the future. The tight end position often requires a learning curve in the NFL, but it’s hard to understand if and how Ruckert is developing as a redshirt rookie. It’s particularly confusing when the Jets left the cupboard so bare at linebacker and safety in favor of a developmental TE.

Middle linebacker

The Jets do have a developmental linebacker on their active roster in Jamien Sherwood. When I saw that the Jets selected Ruckert, I thought it indicated that Sherwood might see some more time at the MIKE linebacker this season. After all, as much as the Jets love C.J. Mosley, his physical skills are not the same as they used to be, and his contract makes it difficult to imagine that he’ll be on the roster next year ($21.5 million cap hit).

Shouldn’t the Jets be taking a look at Sherwood? He played basically one drive against the Bills in the Week 9 matchup, and he honestly looked similar to Mosley (hard-hitting and aggressive but struggling in coverage and getting beaten by a running QB).

Maybe the reports during training camp that the Jets view Sherwood as the possible heir apparent to Mosley were misguided. Maybe Sherwood just hasn’t shown much in practice. But the Jets have many roster needs heading into next season, and it would make things a lot easier if they had an answer at middle linebacker.

Many have speculated that Saleh simply doesn’t care about the linebackers in his scheme. It’s hard to say that after seeing what he did with Fred Warner in San Francisco.

Safety

The Jets can hardly get worse production at safety than they already have. Will Parks is a natural strong safety, but he stepped in for Lamarcus Joyner at free safety against the Lions. There aren’t too many other options on the roster, but why not give Tony Adams more playing time? He may not be great, but again, it’s hard to get any worse than Joyner. At least Adams is a superior athlete.

While you don’t want to be “giving players a look” during a playoff race, when you have a player who is this significant a liability, you might as well see what you have.

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Rivka Boord has followed the Jets since the age of five. She is known locally for her in-depth knowledge of football. She hopes to empower young women to follow their dreams and join the sports conversation. Boord's background in analytics infuses her articles with unique insights into the state of the Jets' franchise and the NFL as a whole.
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mlesko73
mlesko73
1 month ago

Amen

Peter Buell
Peter Buell
1 month ago

Saleh is more.of a fan than a coach. No discipline

Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
1 month ago

Great article. I can’t take issue with any of it.

Bird9
Bird9
1 month ago

Great article.