As snapshots of a season go, it was the perfection illustration of relentless imperfection.
Midway through the third quarter on Sunday, New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson was careening out of bounds on his own sideline. The Jets trailed the Buffalo Bills 22-6, the offense was once again plummeting down a mineshaft, and now Wilson was on a collision course with his head coach, Robert Saleh. By the time both recognized the inevitable, it was too late. Saleh held his arms out to brace for an unavoidable crash, leaving both tumbling and then sprawling onto the turf.
CBS cameras caught the moment and replayed it from different angles, offering up a chance for everyone to see that sometimes, games can paint moments that perfectly symbolize a football team and a season. And this one was a Rembrandt — with the lone imperfection being that Jets general manager Joe Douglas and the team’s playoff hopes were not each flat on their backs next to Saleh and Wilson. But in this case, the literal representation wasn’t required. By now, most anyone following the Jets knows that nearly everything has been flattened this season when it has intersected with Wilson. Whether it be a playoff shot, offensive productivity, and a roster built to win right now (even with a crumbling offensive line).
Each was placed into Wilson's hands. All were ultimately fumbled away. To the point that even Saleh, who has been taking Wilson-related body shots for weeks, benched Wilson in the third quarter of Sunday's 32-6 loss and appeared closer than ever to declaring "no más" when it comes to moving forward with him as the team's starter.
“We’re going to watch the tape and we’ll make a decision tomorrow,” Saleh told reporters Sunday night.
That was a noted change in tone for Saleh, who for weeks has refused to consider a quarterback change — all while simultaneously pointing to the rest of the roster as part of the problem. It was reasoning that he again leaned on Sunday, which at least keeps the door ajar on Wilson getting another shot either next weekend or further down the line.
“It was 29-6 [when Wilson was benched for Tim Boyle], and like I said, like I told Zach on the sideline, it’s not just him.” Saleh said. “It’s easy to point the finger at the quarterback, but it’s pretty easy to see you’ve got missed protections, you’ve got dropped balls, you’ve got missed routes. Obviously he’s got to get better. There’s things he could have done a lot better, but it’s everyone right now. … I don’t think anyone did anything today. Players, coaches, schemes, it was obviously not good enough. None of it was good.”
Whether you agree with Saleh’s premise or not, there’s little doubt it was better protection for Wilson than the quarterback got from his offensive line. But what Saleh knows and isn’t saying — and what Douglas knew when he traded for Aaron Rodgers — is that a winning quarterback has to be able to overcome imperfection at least some of the time. Wilson has rarely done that in his three years as a starter. This despite the roster around him getting considerably better in that time.
What’s happening in New York is a twice-baked mistake. And those are the kind that kill organizations, jobs, winning seasons, Super Bowl windows and finally, ownership faith. The only difference for the Jets is that Douglas recognized the mistake and tried to remedy it, but in the process, he didn’t fully account for how dangerous Wilson’s inability to overcome mistakes could ultimately be. Nor did he think the absolute worst-case scenario could come to fruition. Then Rodgers went down on the first drive of the season, and it did.
You can’t blame Douglas and Saleh for bad luck. The Jets never had a chance to showcase what they could be with Rodgers at the helm, and most franchises (if not all), would have kept their former No. 2 overall draft pick at the backup spot and hoped that his career could be refurbished over time. But the flip side of that plan is a significant measure of risk. And the Jets have been dealing with the ramifications of that downside all season long.
What makes this situation frustrating is that the Jets knew what Wilson was after watching him for two years as a starter. It stands to reason that if Rodgers were lost at any point — and certainly that had to at least be entertained as a scenario given his age — there should have been a question asked in connection with it. And that question is this: If Rodgers is lost for extended time, why is there confidence that Wilson’s performance will be any different than it was in his first two seasons?
There’s a backdrop of knowledge for that question. When the Wilson plan went wrong for the Jets, the internal assessment of the failure after the 2022 season landed on one central point of regret: If the franchise could do it all over again, Wilson would have redshirted his rookie season. When the powerbrokers inside the organization looked back on what went wrong, it was the assumption that Wilson was ready to commandeer the team as a rookie, even when the surrounding depth chart had lingering issues.
He wasn't ready. What they didn't expect was the consequences of that reality. Not only wasn't he ready in 2021, it would linger into a disastrous 2022 and get worse to the point of a near mutiny in the locker room. The response to that was to admit the mistake and make a move for Rodgers. But that move ended up carrying the fatal flaw that we are seeing now.
After depending on Wilson to be something that he wasn’t for the first two years of his career, the Jets rolled the dice a second time, leaving him in place as a backup. And the results are suggesting a fundamental truth. Not only did Wilson need a redshirt year in 2021, he needed another one in 2023 to begin reconstructing him from the ground up. It’s a stark and expensive reality, but the Jets would have been in much better shape if they had started the season with another dependable backup for Rodgers. And with that decision, Wilson should have been put at the third spot on the depth chart with the expressed goal of allowing him to learn from Rodgers without exposing the team to the risk that Wilson wouldn’t be ready when called upon.
Of course, most NFL architects would tell you that such a scenario is absurd. You can’t take a quarterback with Wilson’s salary and slide him all the way down to the third spot on the depth chart so that he can take a sabbatical from pressure. Either he’s capable of being a backup who can help rather than hurt, or he’s no longer an asset to the roster. The San Francisco 49ers came to that conclusion when they dropped Trey Lance to the No. 3 spot on their depth chart and then subsequently traded him to the Dallas Cowboys. It was a hard mistake to admit, but it also put the front office and coaching staff into the position of staring at their backup spot and thinking the player there, Sam Darnold, can at least give them a fighting chance to survive in case of an injury.
They could have gone with Lance as backup and made their own twice-baked mistake. But they knew that the risk he represented as a backup was too great, and declined. Everyone in that organization has moved on and is sleeping just fine.
The Jets went the other way. And they’re reaping what they sowed. The only questions now are how much longer they’re willing to stand in the path of this relentless imperfection at quarterback, and whether it’s already too late for everyone to get up from the collision.