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NY Jets’ biggest offensive change vs. Texans? It wasn’t play calling

Zach Wilson, NY Jets, QB, Film
Zach Wilson, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets’ offensive revival goes deeper than play calling

So that’s what football in the year 2023 is supposed to look like!

At long last, New York Jets fans were treated to some modern NFL football. In a 30-6 win over Houston, Zach Wilson threw for a season-best 301 yards while hurling two touchdowns. For two quarters, at least, Jets fans finally got to feel joy while watching their favorite team try to move the football.

With Wilson slinging the rock all over the field on Sunday, it’s easy to come out with the takeaway that Wilson’s performance was a result of a sudden surge in aggressive play calling. Quotes like “The Jets finally opened it up!” and “Why haven’t they called games like this all year?” are common in the Jets-sphere right now.

However, I believe these takeaways are misguided. I don’t think it was necessarily the play calling itself that changed on Sunday. It’s not as if the Jets never tried to air the ball out before this game – in fact, I think Nathaniel Hackett is too enamored with the classic “Four Verticals” play from Madden.

What changed on Sunday was not the plays that were called. It was the mentality of the people running those plays – specifically, the quarterback. And this change was hinted at before the game even begun.

In the week leading up to the game, Jets head coach Robert Saleh took a far different tone than usual when discussing Zach Wilson. Rather than preaching for Wilson to play “boring” football, as he typically does, Saleh gave off the vibe that New York was preparing to let Wilson go all-out against Houston.

The head coach’s message to Wilson: “Just have faith and just let it rip and have fun playing football.”

Wilson backed up Saleh’s words. He came out on Sunday and played the most confident football of his NFL career, and as a result, he put forth the best performance of his career.

The Jets’ raw play calling – i.e. the actual concepts that were called – was not much different than usual. But with a confident quarterback under center, the results looked much different than usual even if the plays being called were similar.

4 plays that demonstrate Zach Wilson’s revitalized mentality vs. Houston

There are a few plays from Wilson that do an excellent job of showcasing the difference in his mentality. Take this second-and-19 play to Jeremy Ruckert, for example.

First off, the Jets allowing Wilson to throw downfield from an empty formation on second-and-19 is notable. That does not mean the play call was something the Jets have not run before, but what matters is the sheer mentality of deciding to let Wilson have this opportunity instead of calling a screen or running the ball.

Then, Wilson’s individual mentality shines. He patiently stands tall in the pocket, seeking a big play down the field within the structure of the play call. Wilson starts his read on the left side and moves all the way to Ruckert on the right.

There, Wilson has the confidence to pump fake the flat defender to clear the throwing lane. He then zips the ball past the flat defender, yet still puts enough touch on the ball to drop it in front of the deep defender. All the while, he accurately hits Ruckert on the numbers and simultaneously places the ball inside to lead Ruckert down the field for more yardage.

And the Jets convert a second-and-19.

That’s an unfathomable feat in Jets land, and it all happened on this play because of a collective confident mentality that trickled down from the coaching staff to the quarterback. The coaches showed confidence by letting Wilson take the reigns in a tough situation, and Wilson followed it up with a confident rep where he felt comfortable enough to try a pump fake and follow it up with an aggressive tight-window throw.

Further showcasing Wilson’s increased confidence were these two aggressive shots up the seam to Tyler Conklin.

The Jets have called seam routes for their tight ends all season (not often enough, but they have). We just haven’t seen the throws attempted frequently enough. Tim Boyle did try to throw the same pass to Conklin against Atlanta last week, but his attempt was ugly.

Wilson trying not one, but two of those throws to Conklin is a strong sign that his mindset was different on this day. It shows that Wilson had the mentality where, if he saw a one-on-one that he liked, he was going to instinctively rip that ball and give his guy a chance to make a play. In both instances with Conklin, Wilson saw the defender’s back and threw the ball with no hesitation. He placed both passes up high where Conklin could go get it and Conklin delivered.

Finally, I think this play exemplifies the difference in Wilson’s mentality more than any other.

This play came on third-and-12, at the edge of field goal range, and with the score tied in the third quarter. In any other game this season, I don’t think Wilson attempts that throw. The mindset instilled in him over the past two seasons has been to play “boring” – to not make a mistake. Wilson’s brain would have been screaming at him, “Check that ball down! Go up 3-0! You have a great defense!” Throwing this pass is the opposite of that mentality.

And, hey, even though it worked out here, you could still argue this is not a smart play from Wilson. Nick Bawden is wide open in the flat to gain a few yards and make this a more manageable field goal attempt for Greg Zuerlein, potentially giving the Jets the lead in a game where their defense was playing impeccably. Wilson has gotten burned on these cross-body, cross-field throws many times before. It’s a risky throw for many reasons.

Regardless of the iffy decision, the point is that this play clearly emphasizes how Wilson approached this game. For once, he was loose. He was just playing football. Forget the coach’s mantras. Forget how good our defense is. Let’s just play. We’ve heard these cliches thrown around a lot in Wilson’s career, but this was a rare game where he actually lived up to them.

And as reckless or dangerous as that attempt may have been, Wilson put the throw on the money between a crowd of defenders (it’s slightly high but that’s an incredibly difficult throw). Why did he throw it so accurately? It’s because when a quarterback plays confidently, without overthinking things, he plays his best. There is a microscopic margin that separates a “why did he throw that?” pass from a “how did he complete that?” pass – and your confidence level is the variable that determines which side of the coin you land on.

Wilson’s pure arm talent is special. That talent is constricted when there’s a step-by-step process going on in his brain prior to every pass. It causes hesitation and leads to rigidity in mechanics. But against Houston, that process in his brain was non-existent, allowing Wilson to smoothly execute even the most difficult of passes. See it, throw it. Period.

The changes vs. Houston highlight how misguided the Jets’ mentality has been for most of the season

For too long, the Jets have misused the advantages presented by their great defense. Their mentality on offense has been to “not mess up”. Let’s protect the ball, control field position, and hopefully win some 14-10 games.

That is not the way to maximize a great defense. Instead, the Jets should be taking more chances on offense knowing they have a defense that will catch them if they fall. You can afford to roll the dice when you are confident that your defense will bail you out.

This mentality should have become especially appealing once Aaron Rodgers went down.

Perhaps with a healthy Rodgers, the Jets’ conservative mentality on offense would have worked well, because Rodgers has always been a master of balancing ball security and big plays. They could have successfully protected the ball and controlled field position on the strength of Rodgers’ incredible decision-making, but the offense still would have moved the ball and scored touchdowns because of Rodgers’ pure talent and ability to pick shots at the right times (and actually hit them).

Without Rodgers (and coupled with the offensive line injuries that soon followed), the Jets became a talent-deficient offensive team that simply wasn’t going to win games if they tried to be conservative, no matter how good defense was. That has been proven all year.

Wilson just isn’t capable of matching Rodgers’ ability to still make the necessary big plays while operating with an overall safe mentality. When Wilson plays safe, he does it to a fault, totally eliminating the Jets’ chances of moving the ball even if Wilson manages to keep his interception total fairly low. He only has four interceptions all year outside of one quarter in Dallas (although he’s lost 6 fumbles), but where has that gotten the Jets’ offense? Protecting the ball doesn’t matter if you can’t score.

Once Rodgers went out, the Jets should have realized they have nothing to lose by operating with an aggressive mentality. Yeah, sure, maybe Wilson would have thrown some more picks and the Jets would lead the league in turnovers. So what? They’re still fourth-worst in turnovers as it stands, even with a give-up mentality on offense that removes any sort of ceiling beyond one touchdown per game.

Considering the results, the Jets should have realized after a handful of games that their best shot was to take the shackles off Wilson and let him sling the rock, for better or worse. The floor could not go any lower than it already was with their safe mentality, yet the ceiling could go infinitely higher – as we saw against Houston.

And when I say take the shackles off, I mean it from a mental perspective. It doesn’t mean calling the game differently. It means sending the right message in the meeting room. Don’t tell the kid that he needs to go out there and not mess up. Tell him to go out there and play his game. Based on Saleh’s comments to the media this week, it seems like the Jets truly did that for the first time in a very long time (if ever), and it paid dividends.

It’s a shame that it took the Jets this long to realize this. You needed to lose eight games before you had the guts to throw caution to the wind? You do know this brand of football could have worked when you were 4-3, right?

This is an indictment on both sides: Wilson and the coaching staff.

For Wilson, it’s troubling that he doesn’t seem to play his best until expectations are lifted. Whether it’s the fourth quarter in Carolina, the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh, the whole game after trailing 17-0 against Kansas City, or after getting benched and re-inserted against Houston, it feels as if Wilson only shows his No. 2 pick talent when his back is against the wall and he has nothing to lose.

Is Wilson capable of playing this way when the stakes are high and the pressure is on? It’s a legitimate question. Perhaps Wilson simply can’t muster up this sort of mentality until it’s forced on him by the circumstances.

As for the coaching staff, they deserve partial blame for digging Wilson into this mental hole. Again, as we’ve stated throughout this article, it’s not about how the offense is designed, but how he’s coached to play.. The coaching staff has gotten into the kid’s head and it shows on the field.

It’s fair to wonder if the surprisingly rapid ascension of the Jets’ defense ended up hurting Wilson’s development. The Jets had a historically bad defense in 2021. Yet, by mid-season of 2022, it was one of the best defenses in football and the Jets were threatening to win the AFC East.

This caused Saleh and the Jets to put a pause on Wilson’s development and instead ask him to just stay out of the way and let the defense win games. Maybe if the Jets’ defense was not so dominant, the Jets would have given Wilson more freedom early in his career.

Or, going back to our first point, maybe Wilson just isn’t capable of playing confident football until he has nothing to lose. It is totally possible that the whole coaching discussion is meaningless and Zach Wilson just isn’t good.

It’s anybody’s guess as to what got Wilson and the Jets to this point. Regardless, the second half of Sunday’s game provided a fleeting glimpse of what both Wilson and this offense can look like when the mentality is on-point.

Can Wilson maintain that mentality consistently going forward? Can the Jets’ offense maintain it with its current talent level? The answer to both questions is probably no. Most likely, this game will go down as a random outlier rather than a sign of things to come, rendering all of this “mentality” talk moot.

We’ll believe Wilson and this iteration of the Jets’ offense can maintain a competent level of play when they do it for more than two consecutive quarters. Still the mentality change against Houston is a promising sign for the Jets’ long-term hopes because of one reason: How it reflects on Robert Saleh.

Ultimately, all of the Jets’ offensive woes over the past two years fall back on Saleh. He chose the coordinators. He built the staff. He instills the mindset that presides over the entire football team – in all three phases. The constriction within Wilson’s mind traces back to Saleh’s revised vision for the football team since the defense broke out in early 2022.

Again, it should not have taken Saleh and the Jets this long to change things up, but we still have four games to go. If Saleh can close this season with a five-game sample where his team plays with a newfound mentality that is built upon confidence and aggressiveness, it would greatly increase the fanbase’s confidence in his ability to lead a potential championship-caliber football team when Aaron Rodgers returns in 2024.

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6 months ago

It’s not just the coaches that got Wilson into a mental problem, it’s every fan, writer and talking head who were all saying the same thing.

I’ll give you an example, I listened to the pod last night, (I’m a bit behind)…you guys are great but, Ben said the D may not have given up the TD if Zach didn’t fumble. Really? Houston recovered that ball on their own 43, yes that’s excellent field position but the D has to get the ball right back. Zach fumbling had NOTHING to do with the D giving up a TD. Ben made it sound like Zach fumbled on their own 10 making it easy for Houston to score. If we want Zach to play “free” he can’t feel like “oh we put the D in a bad position again” when there is a mistake. That’s what great defense do, they get it right back (in that situation).

It’s a mindset, everything is Zach’s fault. The D played great on Sunday, but they dropped 2, gift wrapped INT’s…TWO, and we hear nothing about it, but if Zach missed 2 wide open receivers we’d hear about how the game was good but “he has to make those throws.”

It wasn’t just the coaches who got in Zach’s head…we need to look in the mirror.