Jets must sort out QB situation if they hope to be playoff team in 2023 and beyond

Zach Wilson and Robert Saleh
Zach Wilson and Robert Saleh / USA TODAY Sports/SNY Treated Image

Expectations change. And, for the Jets, they did. Whether they want to admit that or not.

Most associated with this team, back during the summer, would have signed on for the bottom line of what 2022 has become. The Jets have won seven games and have a chance to win an eighth next week. Their December was littered with meaningful battles. They made their presence felt within the AFC East. Their playoff hopes lived through the new year.

But what was good enough in August isn’t good enough now.

This finish — two wins since Oct. 30 and none in December — is unacceptable.

And the root of this team’s issues — why they limped to the conclusion of yet another year — is the same as its been since Joe Namath hung up his fur coat.

The Jets need a quarterback.

Nothing is going to change until they get a quarterback.

“The quarterback is the head of the snake,” head coach Robert Saleh said on Monday. “It is the most important position in football.”

Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is Public Enemy No. 1 within Jets Nation right now. Blaming the assistants is a tale as old as time. Most are old enough to remember when defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was an incompetent nincompoop way back in … (checks notes) … September of this year before turning New York’s defense into one of the best in the NFL.

No, LaFleur has not been perfect. The Jets don’t own a 2-6 record in November and December if not for contributed failures from all levels of the organization. But while the cries for a change in that role grow louder and louder by the day, Saleh doesn’t appear to be listening.

The truth is that LaFleur could be a reincarnation of Bill Walsh and his system would still be derailed by the issues under center. The Jets quarterback position in 2022 hasn’t just been an anchor preventing the ship from moving forward, but one dragging it to the deepest depths of Davy Jones’ locker.

“Every position is always under evaluation, guys,” Saleh said.

The Jets are doing everything they can to create the public perception that embattled second-year quarterback Zach Wilson can still be the guy. A report surfaced from NFL Network before Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks that the Jets weren’t planning on “shopping” Wilson this offseason. On Monday, Saleh highlighted players across the league like Sam Darnold (Carolina Panthers) and Geno Smith (Seattle Seahawks) who have experienced additional success after leaving New York as reason the Jets shouldn’t have such a quick trigger finger. He also highlighted Giants QB Daniel Jones as a QB who took some time to develop in New York but has now led his team to the playoffs.

The reason the Jets aren’t planning on shopping Wilson is because of the mud it would leave on the face of Joe Douglas and the entire scouting department to deal a player they drafted second overall not two years before for a fifth- or sixth-round pick (at best). And if Saleh actually thinks the Jets are going to wait until Wilson’s fifth year (like Darnold) or ninth year (like Smith) to receive even baseline competent quarterback play, well, it won’t be Saleh on the sideline to reap those rewards.

In two years and 22 starts, Wilson is 8-14 as a starter. He has completed 55.2 percent of his passes and thrown for 4,022 yards with 15 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He has a quarterback rating of 70.9. As a rookie, Wilson graded out 31st of 31 qualifying passers. This year he ranked 33rd of 33 qualifying passers.

Wilson would shatter everything statistics have told the NFL world regarding a quarterback’s potential if he even develops into even an average quarterback. Statistically, he’s much closer to JaMarcus Russell’s (7-15 record, 70.9 passer rating, 16 touchdowns) career trajectory than Smith or Darnold’s.

And no matter what Saleh and Douglas say publicly, you best believe they will not link their job securities to Wilson’s potential development. They know they will not be back in 2024 without a playoff berth, which means they will do everything in their power to reach the postseason next year.

That means getting a quarterback.

And they’re going to get a quarterback.

"We’re going to do our best to figure out exactly what’s best for this organization at this time, for the rest of this week, and again in 2023," Saleh said. "Whatever that decision is, we’ll roll with it."

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh watches from the sideline as the take on the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh watches from the sideline as the take on the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

A splash acquisition can never be ruled out as long as Johnson is this team’s owner. He craves positive attention and a shiny new toy. So you better believe the Jets will be on Line 1 if the Baltimore Ravens or Green Bay Packers even think about entertaining offers for quarterbacks Lamar Jackson or Aaron Rodgers. It doesn’t matter what it costs — Johnson will step in to ensure the Jets do everything in their power to make sure it gets done.

More likely, though, is someone like Derek Carr (Las Vegas Raiders) or Jimmy Garoppolo (San Francisco 49ers). Neither quarterback is a star, but both have proven they can win in the NFL. In Garoppolo’s case, he’s shown he can do it in this exact offense. With Carr, he’s shown he can be successful despite playing for a train wreck organization.

There was a willingness from the organization to entertain the idea of Mike White being the starter in 2023 and beyond, but that ship set sail in Seattle. The Jets do genuinely believe in White. They’ll likely look to retain him this offseason as a backup while Wilson develops as the third-string quarterback. But it’s too much of a risk for this staff and management to rely on a player like White in a clear do-or-die year.

There’s a nice, but not substantial enough sample size of proven play. There are also legitimate durability concerns. The Jets need a sure-fire answer. No more maybes or hopefuls.

"It's not about whether or not you’ve seen enough, it’s about having faith in the person that you evaluated, the person you spoke to, the person that you’ve invested in has the ability to get to where you think he’s capable of getting," Saleh said.

"The easy answer is 'well I’ll just get rid of him, go get somebody new.' The hard part is to stay true to your conviction and continue to develop a young man who you know can be capable of doing anything, but again, that comes with time."

There’s no denying the Jets are substantially better than they’ve been. They won just two games in 2020. They won just four a year ago. They won an eye-rolling seven in 2019, but never more than five the three years prior.

It seems very much like they have the right staff in place. Swings-and-misses in the 2020 and 2021 drafts bruised Douglas’ resume, but his home-run 2022 class re-instilled faith he and his staff are the right men in the front office, too.

The timer is now going off. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but this coming offseason will be Douglas’ fourth year and Saleh’s third. That’s a millennia in NFL years.

No more excuses. There’s a playoff mandate for next year.

And the Jets don’t have a shot of hitting it if they don’t get themselves a quarterback.