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The Morning After: Zach Wilson is killing the Jets
Which means the New York Jets should consider a change soon. They'll have no choice. When it comes to playing quarterback in the NFL, this is as gruesome as it gets. Robert Saleh owes it to his team.
The most painful part of all is that the New York Jets have a damn good football team.
GM Joe Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh transformed the NFL’s worst defense — a historically bad unit — into one of the best. Last season was the first time since 1975 that the Jets’ D managed to finish dead-last in both points and yards allowed. This season, it’s one of the best. Saleh is one of the sport’s true defensive maestros.
Quinnen Williams is a star. Sauce Gardner may be the best rookie in the NFL, regardless of position. D.J. Reed, counted out his entire life, is one of the game’s best pound-for-pound defensive backs. He’s approaching 1,000 straight coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown. The nasty linebacker in the middle of it all, C.J. Mosley, is the rare brew of violence and speed and size and smarts every defense craves. That’s why Bill Belichick called him “as good as anybody we play against as a player” into Sunday’s showdown between the Jets and New England Patriots.
Over the offseason, cornerback Michael Carter II told us the Jets wanted to “flip” the AFC East. Like you, part of me wondered if this was little more than a psychedelic summer daydream. Now? It’s clear he was right to be so confident. This is a playoff-caliber defense capable of harassing any quarterback.
Too bad this team is led itself by the worst starting quarterback in the league.
Zach Wilson, in his 20th career NFL start, authored a magnum opus of disaster in Sunday’s 10-3 loss to the New England Patriots. The game ended on an 84-yard punt return but quite obviously never should have gotten to this point. Even for a carcass of an organization that has attracted horrid quarterback play on the side of the football highway for decades, this was an all-time stinker. Consider the age we live in. The league caters to the quarterback at every opportunity — 300-yard passing games and 70-percent completion percentages are the norm. Still, Wilson completed all of nine of 22 passes for 77 yards. Thirty-four of those yards came on an underthrown prayer of a back-shoulder fade to Denzel Mims.
Two incompletions were dropped by Patriot DBs.
Wilson was objectively horrible.
The Jets gained two yards of offense in the second half. Two! A total, as noted, that rounds out to 2.77 inches per play. It’s as if we all walked into George Costanza’s bedroom fresh off his dip in the pool. The Jets’ shrinking offense was an utter disgrace and yet another slap in the face to a defense playing so well. Wilson’s been subpar at best and a factory of gaffes at worst all season. The Jets have gone 6-4 in spite of its young quarterback, doing their best to hide Wilson weekly. Yet, somehow, the most disturbing development on Sunday didn’t transpire on the field. At his postgame presser, Wilson was asked if he felt like the offense let the defense down.
This is hardly a gotcha question. It’s open-ended and fair and gives the leader of a team a golden opportunity to own that stench. Two weeks earlier, following a loss to these same Jets, Josh Allen flatly admitted that “it’s tough to win when your quarterback plays like shit.”
Wilson? He stared at the questioner and answered, “No. No” with undeserved conviction:
The Jets gained six first downs, only the sixth time in team history they managed six or less. Passes from the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft both sailed high and dirted short. There was zero rhythm, flow, success. Wilson currently ranks 31st in passing yards (1,279), 32nd in passer rating (72.6), 34th in completion percentage (55.6) and 34th in passing touchdowns (four) amongst qualifyng quarterbacks. And yet Wilson — just one week prior — claimed “no one outside this building knows what they’re talking about.” Two statements that sandwiched all sorts of deflection after New England’s win. He blamed the offense’s inability to run the ball and Belichick’s gameplan with very minimal self-reflection.
The last thing Saleh wants to do is bench his starting quarterback and risk irreparable damage to the mentality of the team’s chosen savior. One more performance remotely close to this, however, and he’ll have no choice. He’ll need to install backup Mike White.
Because, frankly, the rest of the locker room should matter. Every other player on the team sees exactly what you saw: a terrible performance followed by zero accountability.
Saleh and his coaching staff are entering dangerous territory.
Those starters dominating on defense deserve better. The QB should be held to the same standard as everyone else. Otherwise, how could anyone take anything Saleh says seriously? His credibility will evaporate. Not to mention, the Jets are in the thick of a playoff run. If any player’s ego is damaged in the process of the pursuit of a championship, tough. Because this is not the same situation as Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. This isn’t a quarterback coping with major hip surgery, a militaristic head coach and a sieve of an offensive line his first two seasons. Saleh, by all accounts, treats other human beings much better than Brian Flores. And while Douglas wasn’t able to reel in Tyreek Hill last offsesson, this supporting cast on offense is talented.
Rookie Garrett Wilson has flashed star potential in spite of his quarterback and this Wilson — unlike that Wilson — gets it. This Wilson, a rookie out of Ohio State, sounded like the real leader on the team. He completely owned the offense’s disgraceful performance:
“This shit is not OK,” Garrett Wilson said to reporters in the locker room. “Straight up, it is not OK. How many total yards did we have? That shit is not going to fly. We got the dudes. It’s time. It’s time to be consistent. It’s time to win the games we should win. It’s time to do all that.”
He offered solutions. He said it starts in practice week.
“It’s got to be better,” he continued. “Things we see and don’t call out, shit’s gotta start getting called out. This is unacceptable. No one wants to feel like this but that’s not enough. You’ve got to do something about it. Hopefully this is a wake-up for some of the people in the facility. For us in the facility to get on our details.”
Asked who, he added: “All of us.” Garrett Wilson doesn’t want players “passively” passing through the facility. He said guys have to be focused.
He brought up the passing game himself. Why hide from it?
“I’m gonna call it like it is. We gotta get better in the passing game if we wanna be at where we wanna be at. And we know we can be there. So, that's the most frustrating part. We ain’t gotta be in the games like this. They didn’t even score on offense and we lost the game. Me, personally, I feel like we have to take this for what it is. We got our ass beat on offense. The results show.”
Finally, Garrett Wilson offered another solution. He wants the Jets to show more trust in the receivers, too, a reference to the team’s ultra-vanilla, week-to-week gameplan. Opening up the playbook may be a disastrous decision given the quarterback’s unpredictable backyard style but the Jets have no choice. Proceeding with this level of caution in late November is ridiculous, like setting the cruise control to 40 MPH on an interstate. No longer can they baby their quarterback schematically to this extreme. Call more daring pass plays next and if Zach Wilson fails miserably? Hand him a clipboard. The ice should be razor thin.
Ironically enough, the Jets host the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
They’ll get a firsthand look at the quarterback they should’ve drafted.
To come clean, I’m surprised Zach Wilson has been this overwhelmed as a pro. BYU is BYU. But his raw game was so rooted in spontaneity that I could buy the Jets’ logic. With Patrick Mahomes serving as the new gold standard, the No. 1 trait every team should crave out of its quarterback appeared to be hellraising, pulsating, must-see improvision. That’s where the NFL was headed. Quarterbacks who morph the 53 1/3-yard wide, 100-yard long gridiron into a maze of their own creation. Wilson was fun as hell in college. His highlights, hypnotizing. As it turns out, however, there is only one Patrick Mahomes. He proved that yet again last night against the Los Angeles Chargers with another thrilling comeback.
As the ‘21 draft closed in, there were grumblings from scouts that Wilson wasn’t a natural leader. A general feeling that teammates did not feel a gravitational pull toward this QB day-in and day-out. One even noticed this at his pro day. He certainly didn’t have an inkling of the aura Justin Fields possessed at Ohio State, a proven winner from a proven powerhouse. Fields fell to the Bears at 11th overall and took his own share of lumps. The GM and head coach who chose him were fired and the new regime didn’t even do him any favors from a personnel standpoint — the roster was mostly gutted.
Yet, here he is. Trending upward. The best quarterback of the entire group.
Wilson’s Jets career, meanwhile, is careening extremely close to the cliff.
This next game could be all the proof Saleh needs.
He obviously wants this to work. He goes out of his way to say nice things about Wilson to boost his confidence. Even in declaring the Jets’ second-half performance as “dogshit,” he defended Wilson and said the idea of replacing Wilson with White is the “furthest” thing from his mind. For all the infinite number of hours head coaches spend staring at a screen, seeing if a defensive tackle can plug an A gap, more should probably work in some nighttime psychology classes. How you bring along a young quarterback is of vital importance — more on that coming soon at Go Long (re: Tua) — but how you handle the psyche of an entire group of men is also critical.
Garrett Wilson’s comments were revealing. Lord knows what those players on defense are thinking privately.
We may look back at the Jets’ handling of Zach Wilson from Day 1 as everything you don’t do.
In Year 1, he was handed the starting job immediately. No competition was brought in to compete with the BYU quarterback. In Year 2, he was named one of the team’s three captains. He’s been constantly given titles he didn’t go out and earn — a double-standard peers can smell from an mile away.
Now, this is a franchise in an identity crisis. The Jets need to chose one of two directions if Wilson’s struggles linger on. Either they choose to ride out the storm because they truly believe there’s magic in that darting, dancing No. 2. He’s a star. He’s worth the short-term headache even if “short term” is two full seasons in this case.
Or, the Jets do the right thing and try to win as many games as possible with White or even Joe Flacco.
Benching Wilson doesn’t mean you’re giving up on him entirely. Quarterbacks past have been benched and recovered just fine.
If the Jets are interested in winning games this season, it’s frankly the only choice.
Saleh owes the other 52 players that much.
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Here are the Detroit Lions we love
It’s a Turkey Day miracle. Relevant Thanksgiving football has arrived for the Detroit Lions.
Usually, we all gather around with our loved ones to see yet another Lions team guided out to pasture to be put down for the season.
This year’s team has a lot on the line. An upset win on Thanksgiving Day over the Buffalo Bills (7-3) would inject this entire organization with hope for the present and the future. Right now, this is a 4-6 Lions team fresh off its best win to date under head coach Dan Campbell: a 31-18 beatdown of the New York Giants. A defense that was getting embarrassed earlier this season shut down Saquon Barkley. The Giants’ MVP candidate managed all of 22 yards on 15 carries. Rookies Aidan Hutchinson (No. 2 overall) and Kerby Joseph (No. 97 overall) each picked off Daniel Jones. And the team’s rushing attack — behind that violent offensive line — plowed ahead for 160 yards on 37 attempts.
Jamaal Williams has an NFL-high 12 rushing touchdowns, the same Williams who did not hold back in our chat last summer. Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day game is the only time the Lions play in front of a national audience.
“Look at our season,” Williams said back then. “We have no primetime games. All them motherf-----s are in the f-----g morning. That shit pisses me off, too. I’m like, ‘Damn, you motherf-----s really think we’re an in-the-morning team.’ That shit pisses me off so bad that we should whip everybody’s ass in the morning. When they think… ‘Uh, the Lions. It’s going to be an easy-ass game.’ Yawning and shit in the morning and not taking it serious because we’re the Lions. I’ve done it before! Trust me. Being with the Packers, I’ve done it. I’ve thought the Lions were nothing. I’ve done it before. But now that I’m here, it’s ‘F--k it. They think we can’t do shit? We’re going to beat their ass.’ That’s my mindset. That’s the mindset you have to have. I feel like that’s what I need for this year to keep going.”
Finally, the Lions brought rhetoric like this to life against a quality opponent and there’s a lot to get excited about in Detroit.
The calculated gamble made by Campbell and GM Brad Holmes was that all of its youth would turn a corner at some point during the season. It took longer than they would’ve preferred, but the second youngest roster in the NFL is finally delivering. They’ll likely welcome back first-round pick, wideout Jameson Williams, after Thanksgiving as well.
“These guys are playing their asses off,” Campbell said, “and they’re starting to figure out a way to win.”
Stopping Barkley was the No. 1 key and a run defense previously embarrassed by the Eagles (216 yards), Seahawks (235 yards) and Patriots (176 yards) showed some resistance.
“We could not let him get going. We did that,” Campbell said. “That was huge, because everything did run through him. That was the main focus for our defense this week. They performed it perfectly, and then the takeaways was something else we preached. Coming out of halftime, we talked about: ‘We need takeaways.’ We continued to get ‘em. There’s no secret. You eliminate the mistakes and reduce your own mentals and you get takeaways on the other side and good things usually can happen for you.”
There’s no magic formula for creating turnovers but Campbell and the coaches do create takeaway drills and preach about it nonstop. All the coach knows is that it becomes “contagious” and “second nature.” He loves Williams’ heart, too. If anyone’s the living embodiment of Campbell’s epic locker-room speeches, it’s the former Packer running back.
“He’s all heart. He’s emotion. He’s heart. And he’s just a steady, productive, hard-running, hard-working, smart football player. If you just listed your most consistent players — your most dependable, consistent players — he would definitely be at the top of that list.”
Campbell insisted that this is the same Lions team its always been. His challenge through a 1-6 start was the same challenge he faced through a 3-13-1 debut season: Getting everyone to buy in as the losses mount. Close losses that could crush a team’s spirit.
“They put in the same amount of work,” Campbell said. “When you bank the reps and you continue to talk about these things and you clean up a few things — and you know you’re only one play away, literally — you can’t look at anything outside of that. For all the errors or things we made a mistake on, the opponent did, too. But we made the error that was the one that killed us. Now, we’re making the plays that are helping us win these. Nothing has really changed as to what we are or what we do. We’re figuring things out.”
“The team that we’ve developed and the guys that we’ve kept, it was all for a reason. You know you’re going to hit hard times. We’ve learned from them. We haven’t let them bury us. We’ve learned every week and the guys continue to put in the work. They want to learn. They want to go.”
Next up, a Bills team that got back on track in their own building.
If the Lions, 9-point underdogs, pull this upset? Then, it’s really time to start talking about them. America will be watching.
Every team is bound to have one complete no-show. The Minnesota Vikings got their absolute dud out of the way at home against Dallas. At 8-2, they’ll be OK.
Yeah, he beat the Indianapolis Jeffsaturdays but loved Nick Sirianni’s passion. You could tell how much it meant to win this one for his mentor, Frank Reich.
No Ja’Marr Chase, no Joe Mixon, no problem. Joe Burrow (24 of 39 for 355 yards and four touchdowns) carved Pittsburgh’s defense up and down the field. He’s heating up in a repeat of last season.
Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey got back on track in a 31-23 win over Cleveland by finally leaning into the run game. Until Allen’s himself again, that’s the smart play. Devin Singletary and James Cook combined for 172 yards on 29 carries. They’ll need Allen to be himself against the other heavy-hitting offenses in the AFC but, after Orchard Park was blasted by 77 inches of snow, they’ll take this.
Washington has won five of six and Taylor Heinicke was named the permanent starter by head coach Ron Rivera. This is a team that clearly fights for its quarterback. Easy call.
Oh well. Another fourth-quarter comeback from Patrick Mahomes. He took over at the KC 25 with 1:46 to go and two timeouts. And with two receivers out due to injury, he still completed 3 of 4 passes for 48 yards and scrambled twice for 22 on the GW drive. Every time Mahomes scoots downfield for back-breaking runs late in games, I can’t help but think of our 3-year-old snaring the remote and running around the basement. He’s no 4.3 speed demon but nobody can catch him. He’s the MVP right now.
A wild stat from ESPN’s Adam Schefter: Mahomes is 14-0 in road games against AFC West opponents. That’s the second-longest win streak by a starter in road division games since the 1970 merger. Only Joe Montanta’s run of 20 from 1984 to 1993 is better.
Remember! Each Sunday, you can hang out with your fellow Go Long subscribers right inside the Substack app. We had a grand ‘ol time yesterday:
“Blood and Guts” hangouts
I’ll be at Fattey Beer Company in Orchard Park, NY this coming Sunday, Nov. 27, from noon to 3’ish to sell and sign copies of “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football.” Hope to see you there! Let’s watch football, talk tight ends and share a pint. The following Sunday, Dec. 4, I’ll be at Mister’s Bar & Lanes in East Aurora from 3-6 p.m. to do the same. Details.