FLORHAM PARK, NJ — Things started to unravel for the New York Jets in the first quarter of the first preseason game, Aug. 12., when quarterback Zach Wilson injured his right knee on a non-contact scramble. Talk about foreshadowing.
While his Oct. 2 return coincided with the start of a four-game winning streak, making everything seem right in the Jets’ universe, the seven-week layoff robbed him of valuable practice time and hampered his development even though it was camouflaged in real time by a strong supporting cast.
It also set a tone of quarterback instability — the story of the 2022 season.
In a dizzying year of change, the Jets went from Wilson to Joe Flacco to Wilson to Mike White to Wilson to White, with a Chris Streveler cameo sandwiched between the last Wilson-to-White switch. All told, they’ve started three quarterbacks for at least three games apiece — a lot of movement, even for the Jets. The last time that happened in a single season was 2005 (Chad Pennington, Vinny Testaverde, Brooks Bollinger), a year that ended with coach Herm Edwards’ departure.
Coach Robert Saleh and key veteran leaders admitted the constant upheaval has had a negative impact on the season, which has collapsed as a five-game losing streak marred a 7-4 start.
“I’ve said it before: The quarterback is the head of the snake, the most important position in football,” Saleh said. “Just that little bit of uncertainty, the play hasn’t been where we want it to be. [It] doesn’t mean that we don’t think that it can’t get to where we want it to be, but it makes it difficult.”
Some of the changes have been out of their control — namely Wilson’s knee injury and White’s fractured ribs (Dec. 11). But the other moves were performance-related, spawning these questions:
Was starting the season with Flacco, who went 1-2, over White the right call? Was benching Wilson with a 5-2 record a knee-jerk reaction to his awful game against the New England Patriots and the unfortunate news conference that followed it? After White’s rib injury, should they have gone to Flacco instead of pulling Wilson out of his quarterback “reset”?
There might be a lot of second-guessing, but that’s what happens when a season ends with disappointment. As of now, the Jets haven’t committed to anyone as their 2023 starter, not even Wilson, drafted second overall in 2021.
“It’s tough,” said linebacker CJ Mosley, a team captain. “You always want some type of consistency when you’re playing, no matter what side you’re playing on. [Quarterback] was just one of those positions — unfortunately, one of the most important positions — when it comes to building the offense, building the team and all those good things.
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“It’s happened before to other teams, and it’s happened to us before since I’ve been here as a Jet. What are you going to do about it? That’s not really my department.”
A total of 64 quarterbacks have started games this season, tied for the most in a non-strike season, according to Elias Sports. The Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Rams have played the most quarterbacks — four each. Some have overcome it (see: 49ers), others haven’t. The Jets rank 28th in Total QBR (34.8), which suggests they belong in the latter category.
Of the 38 quarterbacks with at least 150 pass attempts, White (37.5), Wilson (37.0) and Flacco (28.8) rank 31st, 32nd and 37th in QBR, per ESPN Stats & Information research.
In an era of prolific passing and elite quarterback play, the Jets have only four games with multiple touchdown passes. Wilson had two apiece against the Detroit Lions and Patriots (both losses), White had three against the Chicago Bears (a win) and Flacco had four against the Cleveland Browns (a miracle win).
For a stretch, the Jets overcame their shortcomings because of a rushing attack led by rookie Breece Hall (average 5.8 yards per carry) and a shutdown defense. Then Hall went down with a season-ending knee injury (Oct. 23) and the big-play production by the defense fell off as the quality of the opposing quarterbacks improved. All of that put more pressure on Wilson, whose deficiencies were exposed.
That led to his benching, which led to White, who probably would’ve started the remainder of the season if he hadn’t fractured his ribs on a hit by Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano. That led to Wilson (again), who was booed off the field Dec. 22 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
All told, they’ve had five quarterback changes in four months, with players not knowing until midweek who their starter would be in that particular game. That impacts game planning and preparation and makes it difficult to build continuity.
Center Connor McGovern said “it isn’t easy, having any sort of rotation at any position. It adds just a little bit more difficulty, but this team has done a pretty good job of handling the next-man-up mentality.”
Maybe at other positions, but not at quarterback. Wilson’s initial benching, coupled with the last-second loss to New England on Nov. 20 (remember the punt-return touchdown?), seemed to take a psychological toll on the team. Since then, they’ve dropped five of six games. Mosley, for one, doesn’t buy that theory.
“Whether it’s a big-picture or a small-picture thing, that’s what we have to figure out when the season is over,” he said. “For now, we just have to own that we put ourselves in great position in the middle of the year and, for whatever reason, we couldn’t find a way to get it done, to get to the playoffs. That’s something we have to grow from, build on it, live with it and feel that pain.”