Early August, the day when New York Jets attacking tackle lost in the first round Mekhi Becton due to injury for another season, head coach Robert Saleh began to struggle with the impact this could have on Zach Wilson. General manager Joe Douglas had retired to his office and lined up potential free agent options to mend the offensive line, while Saleh leaned against a practice wall and pondered what it meant for his quarterback- alleged franchise back.
I asked him if that would change his calculation for Wilson. After all, losing an anchor tackle was no small feat.
Saleh brushed off the suggestion.
“It’s frustrating, but let’s call it what it is – nobody cares,” he said. “If you’re going to preach to guys that it’s a ‘next man’ mentality, you have to be prepared to live up to that. You have to perform. End of story. It’s the same expectations for everyone “It’s the same expectation for Zach. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, so we better not feel sorry for ourselves.”
He paused for a tick, then pointed to a bottom line that would come to define the season ahead.
“We have to find a way to make it work,” Saleh said.
At the time, it didn’t really feel like a reveal moment. Coaches are notorious for talking in these kinds of cliches – next one, do the job, no one feels sorry for us, etc. Especially in training camp, when talk is cheap and the losses haven’t piled up yet. But there was a very believable non-BS tone in the way Saleh relayed the message that day. The Jets were coming off a deeply disappointing 4-13 season in which Wilson’s development and the toothless defense — which was supposed to be Saleh’s wheelhouse — were going to be seismic problems in 2022.
Thinking back to Saleh’s “unapologetic” reaction to the loss of Becton, something else about that day also stands out: Asked to put a coaching microscope on Wilson and come up with his strongest point of emphasis. importantly, Saleh responded in a nanosecond.
“For me, it’s the intangibles,” he said. “How is he behaving? How does he lead? He has all the physical tools. We know that. But it’s the intangibles that really set players apart at quarterback.
Again with those training camp snaps – yet Saleh isn’t wrong. A repetitive tenet about quarterbacks can be ground to dust in the NFL every year and still be true. And in this case with the Jets, it turned out to be true. It’s nearly four months later and Zach Wilson’s intangibles remain a question for the organization. And go away last week’s remarkably tone-deaf response if he felt like he let the defense down (“No,” Wilson said without hesitation.), it’s probably fair to wonder if his leadership also has some distance to go.
It’s fair to assume that it is so Wilson was benched by the Jets Wednesday. By blowing through a red light question and destroying in the middle of the intersection where the leadership and “no excuses” avenues meet. And to make matters worse, doing it in a season where it other Last year’s problem, Saleh’s defense, only caught green lights.
Thinking back to Saleh in August and then comparing it to Wilson’s recent performance and demeanor, it’s no wonder he sits down. It may not be permanent, as Saleh suggested on Wednesday. But it’s certainly necessary when so many other parts of the roster and coaching staff have gotten over a significant bump.
In a way, you could say what’s going on right now is good for the Jets. Because it’s suggestive that the franchise becomes more a product of in-season culture building than off-season harsh talk. The team is 6-4, piling on young building blocks and making progress worth fighting for. Especially after six straight years of averaging less than five wins per season and feeling hopeless almost everywhere you look on the depth chart.
Having standards is a good thing. Living up to them is a great thing. Especially when it applies to a franchise quarterback who was selected No. 2 overall and had plenty of opportunities to show some kind of growth. Wilson has had a few moments, but not enough to warrant belief that he is on the right track. Right now it is not. It means something had to change. That means the Jets needed to show everyone and themselves that there was a willingness to make a tough choice – even if some might not agree with that.
That doesn’t mean Wilson is made in New York. It simply means that the program has changed and is notified. As Saleh said of Becton’s injury in August, it can be frustrating – but nobody cares. Find a way to make it work. Understand expectations and act accordingly.
That mentality is precisely what’s shaping the Jets right now. And Wednesday is proof that it now applies to everyone in the organization.