In most quarterback controversies, there is always an economy of language that develops inside teams. Players get more concise about what they prefer in a particular quarterback’s skills. Coaches tend to speak more bluntly about what’s going right or wrong at the position. Eventually, a chosen leader emerges from the locker room chorus.
Rarely does this crescendo occur after one successful game. In the case of the New York Jets, it sure sounds like it did. So much so that in one commanding 31-10 Jets win over a beaten up Chicago Bears team, new starting quarterback Mike White may very well have won his entire locker room.
In turn, Zach Wilson may have lost it — although there’s an argument to be made that Wilson has been steadily losing parts of it for weeks. Perhaps the majority of that attrition happened last week, when Wilson responded with a stern “no” when asked if he felt like he let the defense down in the wake of a 10-3 loss to the New England Patriots. As Wilson eventually found out when he was benched by head coach Robert Saleh, it’s one thing for an offense to struggle to keep up with a playoff-ready defense, it’s quite another to lack the self-awareness to understand when you’re actively hurting that same unit.
When a quarterback showcases that kind of ignorance, it puts the throne of leadership up for grabs. After Sunday, White took a seat in that throne and the rest of the roster sounded ready to hoist him on their shoulders for the rest of the season.
Consider that one week ago, wide receiver Garrett Wilson was saying of the Jets' offense: “This s*** is sorry. We’re out here looking sorry and we know that we’re not sorry. That’s why it really hurts. We know we’re better than that.”
One week later, Wilson was gushing about the offense finally clicking and complimenting the preparation and execution of White. Wideout Elijah Moore, whose chemistry with Zach Wilson sounded broken, left the field telling SNY TV cameras “That’s real New York Jets football,” then joked in the locker room about rediscovering his relationship with the football as players around him serenaded him for being “free” again.
And the defense? Linebacker C.J. Mosely talked about the game being fun, while cornerback Sauce Gardner told reporters about the positive vibe in the franchise over the course of the week.
That vibe seemed to be everywhere by Sunday night, in videos and interviews and spilling onto players’ social media accounts. It was a far cry from one week ago when players were explaining away how they’d “liked” tweets that appeared to be critical of Wilson’s demeanor after the Patriots loss.
All of this might have been attributed as nothing more than players expressing joy over a dominant win and a quarterback who helped to balance out complementary football — except for one phrase from Saleh that stood out. While it might not have been a direct shot at Wilson, Saleh seemed to echo some past problems when talking about how White was executing the offense with ease. The same offense that basically had to be refined last offseason to keep the cannon-armed Wilson from getting too overloaded with details.
“He didn’t need to be anybody but Mike White,” Saleh said. “We didn’t need to turn into the Greatest Show on Turf. We just wanted him to play within himself and play efficient. I thought he did that. … He made the easy look easy.”
All of the positivity and applause for White is remarkable considering the Jets know his big day came against a Bears secondary that was obliterated by injuries. Granted, White’s numbers were obese when compared to Wilson’s past few games: 22-of-28 passing for 315 yards, three touchdowns and a ridiculous 149.3 passer rating. Most notable about those three passing touchdowns? Wilson has four total this season. In seven starts.
Also notable is how White did it. There was nothing wildly complicated about it. He efficiently pulled off a swath of short, easy passes, fit a few intermediate balls in tough spots and let the wideouts do the dirty work on some-medium level passes that turned into big plays. He spread the ball around to 10 different players and breathed life into some receivers who had basically been on the scrap heap for months.
When you listened to White, it certainly didn’t sound like that happened by accident. If anything, it sounded like the kind of leadership the franchise has been thirsting for.
“Personally the way I approach the quarterback position is being a calming presence in the huddle, especially when things aren’t going well,” White told reporters. “Because that’s when things can start to spiral and snowball. It’s just distributing the ball and letting them be who they are. They’re all in that locker room for a reason. This is the NFL. Everybody that wears pads on Sundays are very good. You just gotta get them the ball and get their confidence going.”
There’s little doubt that confidence was flowing Sunday. And there’s even less doubt that White appears to be the only one who can now cost himself the starting job. Wilson isn’t going to be forced back into the lineup after seeing the team’s reaction to White. Not to mention the reality that he made players around him better rather than worse.
Wilson couldn’t say that very often this season. Maybe never. That’s why this locker room is clearly following someone else to Minnesota next week. And maybe beyond.