Robert Saleh had a choice.
The New York Jets head coach could wallow in the disappointment that weighs on his franchise after losing four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers just four snaps into their marriage. Or Saleh could refocus on the players — and the quarterback — still available on his roster.
Saleh has chosen the latter, almost to an unbelievable point.
Monday night and again Tuesday afternoon, Saleh distinguished between feeling disappointed for Rodgers and disappointed for his team. Take Saleh’s response when asked Tuesday about his disappointment over Rodgers missing the remainder of the season due to a torn Achilles that will require surgery.
“For … us?” Saleh said. “[The disappointment] is really all about him. I don't look at it like, ‘Woe is me’ here for the organization. Guys are excited about being able to step up and continue the things that we've been building.
“But a lot of hurt for Aaron.”
The approach dovetails with the biggest challenge the Jets now face: rallying a playoff-caliber collection of talent around quarterback Zach Wilson.
The Jets say that is their 2023 game plan. It’s entertaining to consider what might happen if the Jets made another wild trade or lured out of retirement someone such as seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. But Saleh insists that the search for quarterback depth will be just that — depth. Whether via trade or free agency, the Jets say they will not create a quarterback competition with Wilson.
“I do want to make it very clear: Zach's our quarterback,” Saleh said Tuesday in a Zoom media conference. “We got a lot of faith in Zach. We're really excited about his opportunity. We're rolling with Zach and excited for him and this opportunity that he's gonna get.”
Wilson’s Jets career has underwhelmed
The Jets selected Wilson with the second overall draft pick in 2021. What followed were two years in which Wilson failed to fill the role of franchise quarterback, on and off the field.
In 22 games across those two seasons, the Jets went 8-14 as Wilson completed just 55.2% of pass attempts and threw more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (15). In making his case for Wilson on Tuesday, Saleh pointed to the Jets’ 5-1 record with Wilson at quarterback last season before the team lost running back Breece Hall (torn ACL) and offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker (torn triceps) for the season.
“Zach is a very capable quarterback,” Saleh said. “He has proven to be a very capable quarterback.”
Jets will look for QB depth. But Saleh emphatic on Zach Wilson: "Under no circumstances is any of this a competition. This is Zach's team."
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 12, 2023
Wilson completed 57.5% of passes for 1,202 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions during that stretch. Arguably, the Jets won five of six in spite of their quarterback — not because of him.
Wilson also lost the locker room’s belief last year when the Jets benched him in November for Mike White. After White completed 78.6% of his pass attempts for 315 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-10 win over the Bears, Jets teammates went so far as to wear T-shirts with White's face on them to their next game. The bold print across their chests: “MIKE F’N WHITE.”
While White’s subsequent three starts were more troubling — three losses, zero touchdowns to four interceptions and a rib injury — the locker room’s message was clear: They didn’t view Wilson as their leader anymore.
The Jets lost their last six games and missed the playoffs, their highly public offseason love affair with Rodgers following. Coaches and Rodgers alike have touted Wilson for welcoming the veteran and being a good sport, ensuring that eventually he would be ready to succeed the man they were treating like a savior.
But no one expected Wilson’s return to come so soon. So without a better option, Saleh is leaning into his new role as Wilson’s hype man.
Do expectations change for Jets with Zach Wilson at QB1? Yes and no
The Jets’ head coach now touts Wilson as “leap years ahead” of where he was last year, “so much different” after making a “drastic improvement.”
“Obviously, he will acknowledge he still has a lot of things to learn and grow,” Saleh said. “We're excited to be able to do that with him. I think he's been able to rebuild rapport with his teammates. Just the way he's kind of handled himself has been fantastic.”
Saleh corrected himself in his next answer.
"Let me fix that word ‘rapport,’” Saleh said. “It’s more ‘confidence.’ I should say confidence in terms of just his ability to, from the process and the practice habits, not that they were bad, [but] there's a confidence, like teammates want to see each other make plays and have confidence that you can do your job to the best of your ability.
“From a mental standpoint, he's so much different than this time a year ago. He's in a great frame of mind, loving the game of football, loving the process that he's going through. He's got a lot of confidence.”
Saleh referenced the offseason and preseason as examples. During Monday’s 22-16 overtime win against the Bills, Wilson completed 14 of 21 passes for 140 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
In many ways, whether Saleh believes the narrative he’s sharing or not, this is his best choice. The Jets’ ability to beat the Bills on Monday even without Rodgers underscores how complete the rest of the team is. The Jets have a nasty defensive front, a secondary that intercepted Josh Allen three times, a highlight-reel receiving star in Garrett Wilson and a dynamic running back in Breece Hall, who’s backed up by four-time Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook. The offensive line’s pass protection needs to improve, but more reps together over the course of the season should move the group in the right direction.
This team still has a chance to earn a playoff berth for the first time in 13 years. But their road will be more difficult than those of teams that aren’t in the quarterback-stacked AFC and especially the hyper-talented AFC East. The Jets mortgaged plenty for Rodgers because they knew excellence in their conference demands elite quarterback play. They no longer have that, defiant as Saleh might be.
“I don't know why people are trying to put an obituary on our team name,” Saleh said. “Aaron is an unbelievable piece for this whole thing, and we love him. But there's 52 other guys in the locker room, plus the 16 practice-squad guys that believe that we can do a hell of a lot of good things here.
“While the outside world can go ahead and write whatever story they want to write, there's still the true story being written in this building.”
Perhaps the most revealing point Saleh made Tuesday was his explanation of why expectations won’t change inside the organization.
“The only expectation we have of ourselves is to go out and do our best every single day and maximize who we are and go to bed better than when we woke up,” he said. “Attack the day and attack the moment and do the best you can.”
That’s the exact reason that even as expectations stay the same inside the building, they’ll plummet elsewhere: Wilson might do the best he can, but no evidence exists to suggest that the best Wilson can play football in 2023 will come anywhere close to the best Rodgers has shown he can play.
The Jets know that, even if they’re not saying it.