“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…”
Robert Saleh probably isn’t in the mood to reflect on the most popular line from Robert Burns’ famous poem “To a Mouse,” but the line 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 as the four-time MVP joined a roster filled with top-tier talent on each side of the ball. As a team that has the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year, and arguably the best defensive staff in football, the Jets were expected to reach the Super Bowl behind a quarterback determined to cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
Saleh didn’t shy away from lofty expectations and proclaimed the Jets as one of the teams with a chance this offseason. Although the enthusiastic leader spoke of the importance of focusing on winning daily tasks, he encouraged his team to accept being one of the contenders for the league title.
“Obviously you want all the positivity, but once we start Monday night in that first game, the results will be the only thing that matters,” 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 maintain that positivity.” I would love to go 17-0 and make the playoffs and win a championship, but you can’t do that unless you focus on the moment.
“So recognize the noise, recognize the positivity, get excited about it… Thirty-two coaches stand in front of their teams every year, talking about winning a championship. Realistically, there are maybe six or eight teams that have a chance real to achieve it. and I think we are one of those teams.
“But none of that matters unless we deal with it today.”
After watching his franchise quarterback suffer a heartbreaking injury, Saleh has to convince his team and everyone else inside the Jets’ practice facility that the goal doesn’t change with Rodgers on the bench. The Jets have enough talent to contend with the AFC’s top contenders, but they must continue to believe in their chances with Zach Wilson at the helm.
Despite his mixed performance since entering the league as the second 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. Detractors will scoff at the idea of Wilson leading this team to the postseason tournament because of his past struggles, but the third-year player has shown signs of improvement during training camp and the preseason after serving as an apprentice under Rodgers. this off season.
Studying the Jets’ preseason tape, 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 increased patience and pocket discipline resulted in more efficient and consistent production and performance. Wilson posted a 66% completion rate with one touchdown and zero turnovers.
Although the preseason features backups and a vanilla look, the solid numbers and consistent play were significantly better than the last time we saw Wilson on the field at MetLife Stadium in 2022. That version of Wilson lacked confidence, poise and composure, and his game was that of a gunslinger. Like, turning him into a turnover machine at the position. With a personality that did not resonate with his teammates, Wilson could not lead, inspire or encourage a team to dream playoff dreams.
In his third year, Wilson can lead the Jets to the playoffs with a better plan and a supporting cast in place. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett helped the Jacksonville Jaguars earn a playoff berth with Blake Bortles leading the way, and he could rely on those experiences to help him craft winning game plans with a young QB1 with limitations. Whether utilizing a smaller menu with Wilson’s favorite concepts featured prominently throughout the plan or relying on a running game fueled by a dynamic group of running backs (Breece Hall, Dalvin Cook and Michael Carter), the Jets’ offensive architect has experience planning around a young quarterback.
In fact, Hackett needs to watch tape from last season with Hall as the team’s RB1 to see how the Jets achieved wins with Wilson on the field. While the numbers weren’t impressive, the Jets found ways to win with the quarterback 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 levelers at the point of attack.
With Hall and Cook capable of producing 100-yard games as electric running backs, the Jets can win with the running game setting the table for big play opportunities for Wilson on play-action passes. Additionally, Hall and Cook’s dynamic abilities as running back-receivers should make the screen game (and option routes) a focal point of game plans.
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The presence of Garrett Wilson as the number one option on the perimeter gives the quarterback a “matchup” player to target on downfield throws. It’s nearly impossible to defend the spectacular route runner on isolation routes, making it easy to build simple concepts for Zach Wilson to execute with his best receiver and a running back as primary targets within a progression. If Hackett can develop some “either/or” concepts with his WR1 and Cook or Hall in the window, QB Wilson should be able to get completions without forcing the issue.
Saleh can help his young quarterback by putting the onus on the defense to keep the scores low (21 points or less) while creating turnovers to create short fields. Although takeaways haven’t been a major factor for the Jets in the past, Jordan Whitehead’s three-interception effort 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 get more interceptions on downs and tackles from harassed passers. Given the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, the increase in turnovers could help Wilson lead the Jets to more wins as an opportunistic offense.
The Jets weren’t planning to rely on their third-year quarterback to start their playoff run, but an unfortunate injury and a smart change of plans could keep the team on track as a postseason contender.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also analyzes the game for NFL Network and as co-host of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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