Why Jets were right to trade for Joe Flacco, and how it can help Zach Wilson

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Joe Flacco warms up Jets Rams cropped 12/20/2021
Joe Flacco warms up Jets Rams cropped 12/20/2021

The Jets know the best thing for their long-term interests is to have quarterback Zach Wilson on the field. The more he plays, the more he learns, and the better -- they hope -- he gets.

But there is a "silver lining" to the knee injury that will knock their star rookie out of action for the next two-to-four weeks, as Jets head coach Robert Saleh said Monday afternoon. A struggling young quarterback can benefit from just sitting and watching somebody else run the offense he's been trying so hard to learn.

As long as the person he's watching isn’t learning, too.

That's why the Jets made the right move Monday evening, trading a conditional sixth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for veteran quarterback Joe Flacco. Before that deal, the Jets were prepared to go with Mike White, whose first NFL appearance came Sunday afternoon after Wilson limped off the field in New England. As much as the Jets professed their faith in White, the truth is that during the next few weeks he would've been undergoing on-the-job training, getting his first real taste of playing quarterback in the NFL.

Watching that wasn't going to be much of a help to Wilson. But now -- or at least presumably very soon -- he'll get to watch a 14-year veteran, a former Super Bowl champion, and someone who has played a similar system to the current Jets offense before (in Denver in 2019).

That's something that could actually help.

"When you can watch the same offense that you are running for the first six weeks, run through the lens of another quarterback and just to see how he operates within the same system, I think there's a lot to be had," Saleh said a few hours before the trade was made.

"You can learn a lot off what other people do. It's different. He can sit and watch Tom Brady all he wants, but he's not in that system, he's not sure what's being told. But to be able to watch another quarterback go through the same system I think can help him generate more of an identity and how he operates within it."

This, of course, is why the Jets should have made a move like this many months ago. Both Saleh and GM Joe Douglas have fielded questions about adding a veteran backup since the day they drafted Wilson. They made it clear then that they wanted Wilson, White, and former third-stringer James Morgan to get as many reps as they could in training camp to help their development. They eventually brought in veteran Josh Johnson, who's now on the practice squad, but even in camp he sometimes didn't get many reps at all.

They did dip their toe into the veteran quarterback end of the free agent pool. They flirted with Brian Hoyer before he signed with the Patriots, even bringing him in for a visit. They had conversations with the representatives for Flacco, too, according to a league source, before he signed with the Eagles. But that was the extent of it. They never even sniffed around former 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens, who played in this exact offense. And they never seemed interested in pulling off the much-rumored trade with Chicago for Douglas favorite, and ex-Eagle, Nick Foles.

And since they're apparently not comfortable playing Johnson, who hasn't thrown a pass in the NFL regular season since way back in 2018, that left them with White, which may have been fine, right up until right now. It's not that he can't play. He actually looked decent during his 42 ½ minutes of action on Sunday, completing 20 of 32 passes for 202 yards with a touchdown (a three-yarder to Corey Davis on his first pass of the game) and two interceptions.

Aug 12, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Joe Flacco warms up before action against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 12, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Joe Flacco warms up before action against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

But the quality of play isn't the important thing. The Jets don't care as much about wins this season as they do about the development of Wilson and their offense. The way they're playing, they're probably not going to beat the Bengals on Sunday at home, no matter who their quarterback is. The same goes for their game in Indianapolis the following Thursday night (Nov. 4), or their game against the Bills 10 days after that (Nov. 14).

But if Flacco, the former Super Bowl MVP, can get in there for a couple of games, there's a real chance Wilson could benefit just by seeing how he does it. He could watch the presumably calm decisions made by a veteran who's not trying to get up to NFL speed, who's not rattled by pressure or coverages that are disguised. He can talk to someone about why he made whatever decisions he makes, how he went through his progressions and why. He won't be learning along with someone. He'll be learning from someone.

And that would be a real silver lining at this early stage of his career.

"There's nothing like playing. That's where you gain the most experience," said Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. "However, from a positive side, to spin it, these next however many weeks he's out, to kind of sit back, go back, regroup, look at the last six games, (figure out) what did you do well, what do you need to continue to progress at …

"Sometimes," he added, "there is something strong in being able to sit back and not having the weight of the world on your shoulders."

And now he can. White will probably still start Sunday against the Bengals, but it's a good bet Flacco will get the call four days later in Indianapolis. Then Wilson will be able to "watch, rehab, catch his breath," as Saleh said, even more so when Flacco takes over. He won't have to take on the role of veteran, trying to help White through the inevitable growing pains of his first NFL starts.

Instead, Wilson can focus on learning how to be a better quarterback from a player who already became one. Flacco has experienced everything from the usual rookie struggles to a championship run.

It can only help Wilson to watch and learn from a quarterback who has been through it all.