Benching Zach Wilson right call for Robert Saleh’s Jets — and could help QB’s long-term development
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh’s announcement Wednesday that quarterback Zach Wilson will be benched for Mike White ahead of a Week 12 matchup with the Chicago Bears was the result of what was surely a difficult decision. But with his team at 6-4 and in playoff contention despite Wilson’s lackluster performance, Saleh couldn’t get this call wrong — and, in my opinion, he did exactly what needed to be done.
It was essential for Saleh to prioritize the needs of the team over the status of one player at this juncture. Though that might seem obvious, you’d be surprised how many coaches don’t seem to understand this.
Yes, Wilson’s demotion — he will be inactive, with veteran Joe Flacco serving as White’s backup — caps a disastrous week on and off the field for the second-year pro. But Saleh surely knew that if he stuck with Wilson at the expense of the best interests of the entire team, the coach would have lost the trust of his players. Saleh’s ultimate decision likely had the opposite effect instead. And it could help protect Wilson’s long-term future in the organization, giving him a chance to reestablish himself rather than continuing to flail under pressure.
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“Zach’s career here is not over. I know that’s going to be the narrative. I know that’s what everyone wants to shout out, and that’s not even close to the case,” Saleh said. “The intent, the full intent, is to make sure Zach gets back on the football field at some point this year.
“So, this is not putting a nail in his coffin. This is not that. It’s not even close to that.”
Wilson’s benching came after a crushing 10-3 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday, when he completed nine of his 22 pass attempts for 77 yards with a 50.8 passer rating. To make matters worse, when Wilson was asked by reporters after that game if he felt like the offense let down the defense, he responded: “No.”
Wilson’s curt takeaway was drastically different from the postgame sentiment shared by rookie receiver Garrett Wilson — and by Saleh himself, for that matter. Asked on Wednesday about the chance that Zach lost the locker room, Saleh acknowledged that “maybe there was a little irritation at the moment” for the QB and his teammates, but the coach said “it had no bearing on this decision.” Still, it’s hard to imagine Wilson’s failure to take public ownership of his poor play wasn’t a factor. Whether Saleh says so or not, there was surely a danger the coach could have lost credibility with his players had he not made the QB switch.
I’ve been a fan of Zach Wilson since his days at BYU, but there’s no disputing the on-field struggles of the player selected second overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. In his seven starts this season, the Jets went 5-2, but that was thanks largely to a stout defense and inspired run game. As for Wilson, he’s completed just 55.6 percent of his passes this season, posting a 4:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 72.6 passer rating. Furthermore, among 34 quarterbacks with at least 300 pass attempts since 2021, Wilson ranks last or second to last in completion percentage (55.6), TD-to-INT ratio (13:16) and passer rating (70.7).
The 23-year-old Wilson has a lot of talent and the potential to become a franchise quarterback. As Saleh said Wednesday, “His decision-making’s been fine. His practice habits have been fine, but there’s some basic, fundamental things that have gotten really out of whack for him, and this is an opportunity to sit back, focus on those things, find a way to reconnect to all the different things we fell in love with during the draft process.”
On tape, Wilson too often shows his apparent immaturity. I’ve seen him at his best in crucial situations, but other times, he’s cavalier with the football and doesn’t seem to realize how important it is to play with care on every down, when field position can be won or lost, not just at the end of a drive when there’s a chance to put points up. That might seem like something every NFL quarterback should know, but learning to put that mindset into action on every snap takes time and experience, as does learning to make the right decision to check the ball down or throw it away to avoid a negative play.
Taking the time to reset paid dividends for guys like Geno Smith and Kurt Warner, as Saleh pointed out, and it should benefit Wilson in all the right ways if he approaches this as an opportunity. Meanwhile, White has his own opportunity to help save the Jets’ season. A 2021 fifth-round pick, the 27-year-old White has gone 1-2 in his three career starts, carrying an average of 238.3 passing yards per game, a 5:8 TD-to-INT ratio and a 75.1 passer rating. His numbers are only ever so slightly better than those of the player drafted 169 spots ahead of him, but a change like this at the game’s most important position might be the spark Saleh’s group needs.
No matter how the Jets’ season plays out, Saleh deserves credit for having the foresight that’s required in a head coach and for pulling the plug before the situation got too dire.
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