By Monday, 63 days had passed since the New York Jets lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers to an Achilles tear four plays into his season.
Sixty-three days had elapsed for the Jets to tailor their offense around a quarterback other than Rodgers.
And still, Jets head coach Robert Saleh was explaining his team’s offensive ineptitude as a result of losing Rodgers.
“It’s not as simple as right there, that guy right there is screwing up everything,” Saleh said of Jets quarterback Zach Wilson. “I said it on Friday: Everyone’s got their hand in the cookie jar. We’re all taking turns, and now, empathetically, I know there’s been a lot of change.
“You build a system for one person, you’re trying to make changes, and players are in and out of the lineup because of injury. It’s hard. So empathetically, I understand what’s happening.”
Saleh qualified many of his statements Monday with assertions that regardless of what is halting the Jets or who is injured, his team needs to score more efficiently and productively. But the head coach also expressed a level of confidence in Wilson that has become increasingly difficult to justify.
The Jets’ defense ranks sixth in yards allowed (307.9), seventh in points allowed (19.1) and sixth in defensive DVOA.
Their offensive counterpart, meanwhile, has posted the league’s fourth-worst offense (283.1 yards per game), third-worst scoring offense (16 points per game) and third-worst offensive DVOA.
No team has converted third downs less frequently than the Jets’ 25% success rate. None has struggled as much in goal-to-go scenarios, the Jets finding the end zone in just 44.44% of such opportunities.
The Jets have not scored a touchdown on any of their last 36 possessions.
Still, head coach Robert Saleh insists that Wilson is the best quarterback for the job and that Rodgers’ beloved Nathaniel Hackett is the best offensive coordinator and play-caller.
Is Saleh right?
Saleh: Jets players around Zach Wilson need to be better
Saleh’s latest defense of Wilson began – or really, months later, continued – Sunday night after the Jets’ 16-12 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. Wilson had just thrown what amounted to a game-sealing interception with 1:22 to play.
“To throw an interception to lose the game sucks; I hate that,” Wilson said. “I’ve got to be better for the guys, the team, everybody battling. I’ve got to be better there.”
But Saleh said he believed Wilson “did a decent job” overall. He thought Wilson moved the ball well with his 23-of-39 (58.9%) day for 263 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. Wilson had rushed four times for 54 yards as well. And yet … the Jets didn’t find the end zone. They punted five times and got within field goal range four more.
Saleh blamed penalties, after the Jets’ fifth straight game drawing at least eight. The offense incurred seven of Sunday’s eight penalties for 83 yards, with the quarterback, receiver, tight end and offensive linemen all sharing the laundry.
“To give a full assessment of Zach, I think it’d be fair to ask for everyone around him to play a little better, especially with the penalties,” Saleh said from Las Vegas. “A lot of them are self-inflicted wounds. If we can get those out of our game, we’ll be all right. But right now, obviously, it’s not good enough.”
On Monday in New Jersey, Saleh was no closer to condemning his quarterback nor validating concern that the disparity between his team’s offensive and defensive ability could fracture a locker room.
If anything, Saleh’s explanations bordered on excuses.
The offense Wilson has struggled to command? Saleh said “empathetically” he’s aware the system the Jets are running was built for Rodgers and not Wilson so “it’s hard to adjust.” The comment sounded more appropriate for a September media call than a November one, when Wilson’s body of work now suggests he may need more than just a system tweak.
Wilson’s production? The 2021 second overall pick has completed 59.8% of passes for 1,863 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions in nine games. He’s rushed another 29 times for 184 yards, also fumbling nine times.
Saleh reiterated that the problems plaguing his offense aren’t quarterback-specific. And because of that, he believes they’re also not going to disappear on account of a quarterback change.
“When speaking about Zach, I get it: There’s a yearning for more, or whatever it is,” Saleh said. “But it is hard to make changes just to make changes. Just to pacify something. Especially when someone’s not deserving. If he was deserving of it, I gotcha, let’s change something.
“(But) to say that one person is the reason for everyone failing, I don’t think that’s fair.”
Saleh’s comment made it difficult not to wonder: Is it any more fair to absolve one person from all blame? And on what metric is or isn’t Wilson deserving?
‘You just got to tell the truth’
When Rodgers’ injury first stunned the Jets, searching for answers was not only fair but also expected. What better option did the Jets have in mid-September than rolling with a quarterback whom they believed had become more confident and more game-ready during his summer tutelage under Rodgers?
Now, more than halfway through the season, the Jets are 4-5 with a playoff-caliber defense. They trail the Miami Dolphins, leading the AFC East, by two games. The Buffalo Bills hold just a one-game edge for second place at 5-4. The Jets travel to the Bills this week and host the Dolphins right after. Saleh needs to ask himself: With division hopes acutely in balance over the next couple weeks (and Rodgers improbably claiming he’ll return before long), is Wilson legitimately his best option right now? Tim Boyle, who played under Hackett in Green Bay, has spent the season on the roster. Trevor Siemian has been in the building absorbing the playbook and game plans since Sept. 26.
Wilson’s 74.6 passer rating ranks 30th among eligible quarterbacks, his 59.8% completion rate and 1.6% touchdown rate 31st. How much worse can the Jets’ quarterback play get?
Saleh did say Monday that he and his staff are “looking at some different personnel changes” but declined to elaborate beyond confirming that change would not be at quarterback.
“The sense of urgency is always at a premium, but you just got to tell the truth and you don’t want to be too drastic and just make changes to make changes,” Saleh said. “Because sometimes guys just need a little bit of time and continuity to give themselves a chance to get their ball rolling, because it’s not as easy as ‘OK, let’s just plug this guy in and here we go, we’re fixed.’ Or ‘that guy right there, let’s plug him in.’
“I’ve never felt like making one guy the fall guy is gonna make everyone around him better. Now if there was something that was gonna make things better, yeah, you always look at that. But Zach is actually playing pretty good. He’s much better than he was a year ago.
“It’s not all perfect. There have been some peaks and valleys. … (But) I think he’s doing a good job.”