“The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry…”
Robert Saleh probably is not in the mood to reflect on the most popular line from Robert Burns’ famous poem “To a Mouse,” but the phrase speaks to the state of the New York Jets following Aaron Rodgers’ season-ending injury.
Until Monday night, it was a season full of promise due to the four-time MVP joining a roster brimming with blue-chip talent on each side of the ball. As a team boasting the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year, and arguably the best defensive personnel in football, the Jets were expected to make a Super Bowl run behind a quarterback intent on cementing his legacy as an all-time great.
Saleh did not run from the lofty expectations as he proclaimed the Jets one of the teams with a chance during the offseason. Though the enthusiastic leader discussed the importance of focusing on winning the daily tasks, he encouraged his team to embrace being one of the league’s title contenders.
“You want all the positivity obviously, but once we kick off on Monday night in that opener, the results are all that’s gonna matter,” Saleh said in May. “To achieve the results you want, it doesn’t happen on game day. It happens today. It happened yesterday. It happens tomorrow. It happens with every breath you take in terms of how you’re preparing to achieve and keep that positivity rolling. Would love to go 17-0 and cruise through the playoffs and win a championship, but you’re not going to be able to unless you focus on the moment.
“So acknowledge the noise, acknowledge the positivity, be excited about it. … Thirty-two coaches stand in front of their teams every year, talk about winning a championship. Realistically, there’s maybe six or eight teams that have an actual chance to do it, and I do think we are one of those teams.
“But none of it matter unless we take care of it today.”
After watching his franchise quarterback suffer a heartbreaking injury, Saleh has to convince his team and everyone else within the Jets’ practice facility that the goal does not change with Rodgers on the sideline. The Jets have enough talent to battle the top contenders in the AFC, but they must continue to believe in their chances with Zach Wilson at the helm.
Despite his scattershot performance since entering the league as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft, the 6-foot-2, 214-pound quarterback gives the Jets the best chance to win it all this season. The naysayers will scoff at the notion of Wilson leading this team into the postseason tournament due to his previous struggles, but the third-year player has shown signs of improvement throughout training camp and preseason after serving an apprenticeship under Rodgers this offseason.
Studying the Jets’ tape from the preseason, Wilson looked like a more confident and decisive player from the pocket. He quickly worked through his progressions to connect with the third or fourth option within the progression. His improved patience and pocket discipline resulted in more efficient and consistent production and performance. Wilson posted a 66% completion rate with a touchdown and zero turnovers.
Though the preseason features backups and vanilla looks, the solid numbers and steady play were significantly better than when we last saw Wilson on the field at MetLife Stadium in 2022. That version of Wilson lacked confidence, poise and composure, and his game was gunslinger-like, making him a turnover machine at the position. With a reported persona that did not resonate with his teammates, Wilson could not lead, inspire or encourage a squad to dream playoff dreams.
In his third year, Wilson can lead the Jets into the playoffs with a better plan and supporting cast in place. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett helped the Jacksonville Jaguars earn a playoff berth with Blake Bortles at the helm, and he could rely on those experiences to help him craft winning game plans with a young QB1 with limitations. Whether it is utilizing a smaller menu with Wilson’s favorite concepts featured prominently throughout the plan or relying on a running game keyed by a dynamic collection of runners (Breece Hall, Dalvin Cook and Michael Carter), the Jets’ offensive architect has experience scheming around a young quarterback.
In fact, Hackett needs to pop in the tape from last season with Hall featured as the team’s RB1 to see how the Jets scratched out wins with Wilson on the field. While the numbers were not impressive, the Jets found ways to win with the quarterback cast in a managerial role. The combination of a stingy defense and a punishing running game worked for the Jets, and it could work again with an offensive line that features five road graders at the point of attack.
With Hall and Cook capable of churning out 100-yard games as electric runners, the Jets can win with the running game setting the table for big play chances for Wilson on play-action passes. In addition, the dynamic skills of Hall and Cook as runner-receivers should make the screen game (and option routes) a focal point of the game plans.
Zach Wilson, Jets have to hold their own vs. Cowboys in Week 2
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Garrett Wilson’s presence as the No. 1 option on the perimeter gives the quarterback a “matchup” player to target on downfield throws. The spectacular route-runner is nearly impossible to guard on isolation routes, which makes it easier to build simple concepts for Zach Wilson to execute with his top receiver and a running back featured as the primary targets within a progression. If Hackett can build out a few “either-or” concepts with his WR1 and Cook or Hall in the window, QB Wilson should be able to ring up completions without forcing the issue.
Saleh can help his young quarterback by putting the onus on the defense to keep scores down (21 points or fewer) while generating turnovers to create short fields. Although the takeaway has not been a major factor for the Jets in the past, the three-interception effort from Jordan Whitehead could signal a change in the team’s defensive production.
As Quinnen Williams & Co. impose their will on opponents at the point of attack, the Jets’ sticky-fingered secondary could snag more interceptions on tips and overthrows from harassed passers. Given the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, the uptick in takeaways could help Wilson lead the Jets to more wins as an opportunistic offense.
The Jets did not plan on relying on their third-year quarterback to spark a playoff run, but an unfortunate injury and a clever change of plans could keep the team on track as a postseason contender.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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