Perhaps the decision was rigged by the New York Jets. Perhaps it was just a remarkable coincidence of quarterback Mike White’s timing and rib health. Or maybe Zach Wilson responded appropriately to his first NFL bench press and had some of the best lifts of his life over the past two weeks.
The reasons don’t really matter. Because Friday’s Jets decision – to put Wilson back on the starting lineup – was burned into that situation when he went to the bench. Head coach Robert Saleh has repeatedly telegraphed the move because he knows what everyone else within the organization knows: There’s a key decision to be made at quarterback offseason. And the only way to do it with confidence is if Wilson gets another chance on the other side.
This might not be the most popular move, but it’s the right one. Because as much as it looks like nothing has changed in the matrix around Wilson, that’s not entirely true. This is the first time he has been benched in the NFL. What he does with another opportunity will say a lot about his future viability.
No one should scoff at the fact that Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions is a real thing. An important part of Wilson’s future now hangs in the balance. Yes, he was No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft, but that line of credit is running out fast. The team around him is improving fast and should be ready to make a big step forward this off-season. The Jets need to know if Wilson can be there or if it’s time to come up with contingency plans.
These designs will have everything to do with how Wilson finishes the season. And yes, it’s fair to assume he’ll likely start after the Detroit game unless his return to the field is so monumentally bad that it risks a mutiny in the locker room. But what if he’s mediocre? He’ll likely start again purely out of a need to rack up as much data as possible in the off-season.
That might not be the best decision for a playoff race, but there is an overarching issue that has far greater implications than the end of 2022. The Jets’ talent and cohesiveness is growing and changing in ways that are about to happen , either relegating Wilson to a much smaller part of the future, or possibly writing him out of it entirely. The upcoming offseason will have a lot to do with that.
But first, General Manager Joe Douglas and the coaching staff need to know how Wilson is reacting to the past few weeks. Not just the bench press, but knowing that the locker room immediately rallied around White. If Wilson didn’t realize before the bench press that his career with the Jets was in jeopardy, he certainly needs to understand it now. Anything about how the offense looked and how his fellow attackers reacted should tell him everything he needed to know.
And let’s face it, if Wilson doesn’t get at least some traction against a Lions defense that’s opportunistic at best and often just plain bad, he’s in for serious trouble. This is why it’s so easy to believe conspiracy theories that the Jets may have refused to clear white for this game because it represents the last best chance Wilson has to get a foothold. When Wilson was benched and you look at the schedule, the most sensible place to put him as a starter was this week when Detroit goes to MetLife Stadium
For the rest of the way, there simply won’t be an easier defense in a friendlier environment. And in some ways, it could help solidify the mindset of the Jets’ front office, which no doubt knows that a critical failure by Wilson against the Lions is the first step in paving the quarterbacks’ off-season pursuit.
In a way, this is all shaping up to a scenario that we only saw a few years ago with the Tennessee Titans. This franchise began a protracted turnaround after drafting Marcus Mariota #2 overall in 2015, but continued to be frustrated that Mariota couldn’t take another step in its development. He was always hurt or inconsistent or reverting to bad habits. Finally, after a 2018 that showed them everything they needed to know, the Titans headed into the offseason in a bid to bring in a player capable of taking the starting job from Mariota and keeping it. They eventually traded for Ryan Tannehill, and just a few games into the 2019 season, the veteran did just that. He’s been Tennessee’s starter ever since.
The Jets are faced with this decision. As much as they value Mike White’s work, the team needs to bring in someone who has demonstrated the ability to sustain an entry-level job. Jimmy Garoppolo will be the sensible link given his familiarity with the Jets coaching staff. But whether it’s Garoppolo or not, the Jets won’t resign if Wilson fails with that second chance. They’re going to get another quarterback and give themselves someone capable of getting into a very good young core in 2023.
That’s hanging in the balance right now. That means Sunday’s game against the Lions for the organization. This is either Wilson’s second beginning or the first step towards his end in New York.