The New York Jets could come to regret not adding an experienced QB

The New York Jets’ backup quarterback conundrum was thrust back into the spotlight when Zach Wilson struggled in Sunday’s home opener.

Two games into the Zach Wilson era, the New York Jets are once again embroiled in a quarterback controversy.

Rest assured, this isn’t a call to usurp Wilson from the Jets’ passing throne, even if many Gang Green supporters potentially did so (even facetiously) after being granted entry to MetLife Stadium for a regular season game for the first time since December 2019 on Sunday. Sam Darnold’s strong early returns in Charlotte have done nothing to quell the storm surrounding Wilson, whose 56.1 passer rating ranks dead last amongst 33 qualified NFL passers.

A four-interception outing during the Jets’ 2021 home opener, a 25-6 defeat at the hands of the Patriots, caused the statistical sinking. The road gets no easier with a visit to the Rocky Mountains to battle the undefeated Denver Broncos and their third-ranked defense (251.5 yards allowed) per game looming this coming Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).

Even the most naive and optimistic Jets fans had to know that Wilson’s rookie season was going to feature some growing pains. But it’d help if Wilson had some form of on-field assistance and guidance to work through them. Yes, the Jets prepared for Wilson’s arrival by replenishing their offensive cabinet (Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Alijah Vera-Tucker, etc.)…but they need a veteran backup thrower.

As Wilson’s Sunday passer rating continued to numerically resemble the bullpen ERA of New York’s woebegone baseball squads, some began to ponder if leaving him in to clean up the mess his turnovers created was the right move. It was prudent to keep Wilson in the game as the score worsened, as it presented a rare chance for him to build confidence in a consequence-free situation. But Wilson probably could’ve used a veteran voice in his ear to help him work through his tumultuous first taste of NFL regular season action.

Even if the Jets wanted to remove Wilson from Sunday’s carnage, it’s hard to say their current contingency plan would’ve beautified the situation. Mike White appears to be stuck in some sort of gridiron limbo, a quarterback whose first professional passes (in the regular season, anyway) are more likely destined for the third iteration of the XFL than Sundays in the fall. Even if the Jets were to mount an unlikely playoff push, White isn’t exactly the best option in case of a Wilson medical emergency. The South Florida/Western Kentucky alum’s NFL experience has been exclusively limited to preseason work and even that (71.5 passer rating over three summers with New York and Dallas) hasn’t been inspiring.

One of the more unfortunate parts of the affair is that the Jets are actively employing a quarterback who has been there and done this before, a veteran with a multitude of professional experience under his belt. Alas, Josh Johnson has been stashed on the practice squad, his services open to any team in need of an emergency veteran option.

What’s even more puzzling about this situation is that the Jets know just how valuable a veteran backup quarterback can be. Head coach Robert Saleh has repeatedly declared his reluctance to add a veteran backup for tradition’s sake. But recent history should’ve pushed the Jets in that direction.

Darnold’s finest New York hours, for example, came in the shadow of another well-traveled veteran: Josh McCown. Brought in as an emergency starter in 2017, McCown took Darnold under his wing during the latter’s rookie season and put him on a path to success. Darnold credited a sterling stretch at the end of year one (99.1 passer rating, 6 touchdowns, 1 interception, a comeback win over Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills over his final four freshman games) to observing and working with McCown.

“(I watched) the way he went about studying the plays that are in the game plan, it’s literally everything, walkthrough, practice, how he treated everything,” Darnold told reporters of McCown’s impact in December 2018. “I think it was just awesome to be able to learn (from) and watch him.”

A similar situation served as a subplot in the Jets’ most recent glory days: in helping the Jets reach the latter of consecutive AFC title game appearances, Mark Sanchez had the therapeutic services of Mark Brunell, the architect of Jacksonville’s conference championship game visits toward the turn of the century. Under Brunell’s watch, Sanchez posted the finest numbers of his career. In the five years after Brunell’s retirement, the rest of his career was anchored down by 31 touchdowns and 38 interceptions over 32 games in New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Washington. With Brunell behind him, he had 43 touchdowns and 31 interceptions over 32 starts, posting a 19-13 record as a starter in that span.

Sanchez would later fulfill a similar role with the Cowboys during the 2016 season, helping oversee Dak Prescott’s breakout freshman season in the absence of the injured Tony Romo.

Even in the fickle, hard-to-please world of NFL quarterbacking, Sanchez was happy to embrace the role of a mentor. The pair partook in a 13-win season for the Cowboys, matching their best victory tally in the new century.

“I don’t want to cloud (his) head, but from my experience, I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what happened to me,” Sanchez said at the time, per Kate Hairopoulos of The Dallas Morning News. The former Jet went on to recall a humorous incident during Dallas’ October visit to Green Bay, in which he heard that a “crazed fan” attacked Prescott after leading a 97-yard, 33-second scoring drive just before the half. That lunatic turned out to be Sanchez, the afternoon’s backup and the first person to greet Prescott following the game-changing drive, which ended on a 20-yard scoring pass to Brice Butler.

Shortly before that possession, Dallas was reeling from a pair of Prescott fumbles (one lost, one forcing America’s Team to resign itself to a field goal) that allowed Green Bay to linger in a crucial NFC showdown. Cameras caught Prescott in constant contact with Sanchez after the miscues, which accounted for some of the first blemishes on his NFL ledger. Prescott had entered that anticipated matchup with just a single lost fumble to his name.

Not only did that drive of recovery permanently shift momentum into Dallas’ corner (taking a 17-6 lead into the halftime break en route to a 30-16 triumph) but it arguably sealed Prescott’s destiny as the Cowboys’ franchise quarterback.

“I jumped on him because I was so just happy for him, because you talk about coming back from adversity and he hadn’t really faced it yet,” Sanchez said in Hairopoulos’ report. “On the road, they’re trying to call timeouts to get the ball back and he takes it (97) yards. That was awesome.”

That’s quite an impact for a guy with 18 passes with a star on his helmet to leave on an organization.

Barring injury or an absolute meltdown…say, consecutive games with an imperfect 0.0 passer rating…it would be foolhardy to bench Wilson at any point this season. The Jets’ current situation enured that the playoffs were a long-shot right from the get-go. but this season still offers a bittersweet gift in the sense that he (and the rest of the fledgling Jets) gets 17 consequence-free opportunities to find himself and crack open the dangerous yet euphoric puzzle box that is passing success in the NFL.

Unless the Jets miraculously convince the Kansas City Chiefs to send Patrick Mahomes their way, no one wants to see anyone other than Wilson under center for the Jets this year. This is his time to work things out, to build confidence for the road ahead.

The Jets has spent the last five decades search for the long-sought successor to Joe Namath. Their failure to add a veteran, on-field quarterback in these vital hours of development only eliminates more clues and landmarks toward ending that hunt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

The New York Jets can’t ignore the (backup) quarterback problem much longer

Robert Saleh doesn’t seem too worried about it, but the New York Jets’ backup quarterback situation creates an eerie offensive aura.

Rejoice, New York and New Jersey, for it’s officially summer in the metropolitan area.

Don’t turn your calendar to June 21 just yet. It’s perfectly fine if you haven’t run to the ice cream truck for a Choco Taco. Summer in the city is often welcomed not by the beach, blockbusters, and burgers…but rather a New York Jets quarterback controversy.

Now, rest assured, Jets fans, you who have been granted legitimate hope in the form of Zach Wilson. The second overall pick of April’s draft is the latest (and, the Jets certainly hope, last for a while) name chosen to lead Gang Green into the 21st century. Time will tell if he lives up to his status as the long-awaited passing prophet absent since Joe Namath hung up his helmet adorned with a green oval, but there’s no doubt that he is the man the Jets envision starting in three, five, ten years from now.

This time around, however, the problem lies behind Wilson.

As New York commences their minicamp proceedings this week, three quarterbacks reside on the current passing ledgers. Wilson is far and away the top option, with James Morgan and Mike White sitting behind him. There’s not much in common between the three, with the glaring exception that they all have the same number of regular season passes in the National Football League: zero.

The goose egg is a startling contrast to the last few attempts the Jets have made in providing insurance, both mentally and physically, to their would-be backup quarterback. Todd Bowles’ tenure began with Ryan Fitzpatrick set to mentor Geno Smith before an infamous training camp altercation thrust the bearded Harvard alum into the starter’s role (and deeper into the hearts of the American football fan). After being used as a stopgap the year before, Josh McCown was re-signed with the purpose of being the Yoda to Sam Darnold’s Luke Skywalker. Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco took over the role last season, though it was clear to the Jets that there was no saving Darnold from the Adam Gase era, leading to Wilson’s selection. Years beforehand, Mark Sanchez earned some of his final football hours thanks to the late-career efforts of fellow two-time AFC finalist Mark Brunell.

New York Jets, Mark Sanchez
NY Jets quarterback #6 Mark Sanchez runs off the field with Mark Brunell after the Jets win 17-16. The New York Jets defeated the Indianapolis Cols 17-16 in an AFC Wild-card game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN, January 8, 2011. ***** ALL NEW YORK NEWSPAPERS OUT —- ALL NEW YORK NEWSPAPERS OUT ***** (Photo by Anthony J. Causi/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)Mar

 

Flacco switched his shades of green in the offseason, moving on to Philadelphia to mentor (and possibly compete with) another young hopeful, Jalen Hurts. For the three weeks between the Darnold trade and the draft’s opening night, Morgan and White were the only quarterbacks on the roster before Wilson heard his name called in Cleveland.

Yet, Jets coach Robert Saleh doesn’t sound overly enthused about bringing in a backup any time soon. Speaking after the Jets’ minicamp proceedings on Monday, Saleh seemed to hint that bringing one in at this point in time wouldn’t have much of a purpose at this point in time.

“If you just bring in a veteran who doesn’t know your scheme, he’s learning just like the rookie is,” Saleh said, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. “Aside from helping him with rehab…and study habits, which I think Zach and that entire quarterback room is already ahead of the curve on how they handle their bodies and study, I don’t know if there’s much value aside from being comfortable that if the crap hits the fan you have a veteran who has played football. It’s more of a comforting feeling rather than working your ass off to develop the quarterbacks who are already in the building.”

The role of the backup quarterback may well be the most underrated job in professional sports. Sometimes, the role proves to be bizarrely rewarding. Fitzpatrick, for example, has built a 17-year NFL career through quasi-Winston Wolf endeavors, solving starting quarterback problems in various locales. He’s spending the 2021 season in Washington, which is still buzzing from the antics of Taylor Heinicke, the Old Dominion legend who viral for playing respectably during the NFC Wild Card playoffs against Tampa Bay last winter. Charlie Whitehurst, he of a Christ-like physical appearance and nearly 400 pass attempts over 11 NFL seasons, earned a cult following as “Clipboard Jesus”.

In these modern NFL Sundays, dominated by the social media behemoth of Twitter, it doesn’t take much for overzealous fans, even facetious supporters looking for engagements, to start calling for the backup’s name. Once he’s in, the primary directive is simple: do not be the reason your team fails to prevail. For instance, Heinicke (26-of-44, 306 yards, 46 rushing yards, 2 total scores, 1 interception) was far from the primary reason that Washington fell to the eventual Super Bowl champions, and it convinced the Football Team to bring him back on a two-year deal. The same couldn’t be said about, say, 2019’s Pittsburgh Steelers, who failed to keep up the same offensive production with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges after Ben Roethlisberger went down.

But when a rookie quarterback, an anointed franchise man, joins the fold, the backup takes on double duty: serving as a mentor or even holding down the fort while the freshman gets his NFL legs.

The latter concept is an endangered species. Kansas City’s gambit…remaining in immediate contention with effective incumbent Alex Smith before turning the reigns over to future champion Patrick Mahomes…probably bought it some time. The Los Angeles Chargers were set to roll with such a strategy before a medical emergency forced the chosen veteran, Tyrod Taylor, to vacate the starter’s role in favor of eventual Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. Miami partially employed it, but never truly committed to Tua Tagovailoa last season. When thrust into a surprise playoff run, they turned to, who else, Fitzpatrick.

Right now, neither of the understudies on the Jets’ roster seems capable of fulfilling those roles. The fourth-round selection of Morgan was bizarre when it happened (especially when Gabriel Davis went to Buffalo three picks later) and was made even more puzzling when the Florida International alum couldn’t even earn a dressing during a meaningless two-win season. White, a fifth-round pick in Dallas back in 2018, at least has the benefit of a couple of preseasons under his belt, but those numbers (68.5 passer rating over eight contests) aren’t inspiring.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – OCTOBER 08: Nick Foles #9 of the Chicago Bears passes under pressure from Devin White #45 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Soldier Field on October 08, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Bucs 20-19. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Jets have actually had ample opportunities to address the area this offseason, but have curiously passed on each one. Brian Hoyer, another thrower who has extended his career through sizable backup endeavors, was brought in for a workout but he chose to continue his third tenure in New England. Nick Mullens, a former pupil of the Jets’ new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur back in San Francisco, seemed like another prime candidate before he joined Flacco and Hurts in Philadelphia. The free agent market is relatively shriveled at this point, with the best option perhaps being a trade with Chicago, inquiring about Nick Foles. Flacco’s fellow Super Bowl MVP is a popular entry in the backup quarterback Mount Rushmore who won the 52nd alongside current Jets general manager Joe Douglas, the latter then residing in the Eagles’ front office. He’s expendable in Chicago through the arrivals of veteran Andy Dalton and rookie Justin Fields.

Between Saleh’s words and the logistics and protocols involved with a new entry, it’s probably not wise to assume that Jets (who have a decent amount of extra draft picks to barter with) will be welcoming Foles to their minicamp proceedings this week. But they’d be better off trying to solve the situation sooner rather than later.

As the Darnold era quickly proved, the Jets can hope all they want that a certain prospect will pan out, but they need to have both guidance and insurance working with the rookie. Darnold would routinely mention that his best days came under the watch of McCown, years after Mark Sanchez built a strong relationship with Brunell. Otherwise relatively quiet on the football timeline, the early summer months can be a perfect time for Wilson to work with a mentor. By neglecting this area for so long, they’ve wasted some valuable time in Wilson’s development.

One can have the highest hopes and dreams for Wilson, and it’s abundantly clear that the Jets have such fantasies in store for him. However, when the prized rookie comes in and is somehow tied for the title of the most experienced man in the room…that’s a controversy.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags