Maybe the decision was rigged by the New York Jets. Maybe it was just a remarkable coincidence of timing and the health of quarterback Mike White’s ribs. Or maybe Zach Wilson responded appropriately to his first NFL benching and had some of the best practices of his life the last two weeks.
The reasons don't really matter. Because Friday's decision by the Jets — putting Wilson back into the starting lineup — was baked into this situation the very second he went to the bench. Head coach Robert Saleh telegraphed the move repeatedly because he knows what everyone else inside the organization knows: An important offseason decision has to be made at quarterback. And the only way to make it with confidence is on the other side of Wilson getting one more chance.
That might not be the popular move, but it’s the right one. Because as much as it looks like nothing has changed in the matrix surrounding Wilson, that’s not really true. This is the first time he’s been benched in the NFL. What he does with another opportunity will say a lot about his viability moving forward.
Nobody should kid themselves about that being a real thing heading into Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions. An important part of Wilson's future is hanging in the balance now. Yes, he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft, but that line of credit is running out quickly. The team around him is improving rapidly and should be poised to take a big step forward this offseason. The Jets need to know whether Wilson can be a part of it, or if it's time to start mapping out contingency plans.
Those designs will have everything to do with how Wilson finishes the season. And yes, it’s fair to suspect that he’s likely going to start beyond the Detroit game, unless his return to the field is so monumentally bad that it risks a locker room mutiny. But if he’s mediocre? He’ll likely start again, sheerly out of the need to get as much data as possible heading into the offseason.
That might not be the best decision for a playoff race, but there's an overarching problem that has far greater implications than how 2022 ends. The Jets' talent and cohesion is growing and changing in a way that is on the verge of either relegating Wilson to a much smaller part of the future or potentially writing him out of it completely. The coming offseason will have a lot to do with that.
But general manager Joe Douglas and the coaching staff first have to know how Wilson responds to the last few weeks. Not just the benching, but also the knowledge that the locker room rallied around White instantly. If Wilson didn't realize his career with the Jets was in jeopardy before the benching, he certainly must understand it now. Everything about how the offense has looked and how his fellow offensive players have reacted should tell him all he needed to know.
And let’s be honest, if Wilson can’t get at least some traction against a Lions defense that is opportunistic at best and often just plain bad, then he’s in some significant trouble. Which is why it’s so easy to believe conspiracy theories that maybe the Jets refused to clear White for this game because it represents the last best chance Wilson has at getting a foothold. In fact, when Wilson was benched and you looked at the schedule, the most sensible place to insert him as a starter was going to be this week, when Detroit heads into MetLife Stadium
There simply won’t be an easier defense in a more friendly environment the rest of the way. And in some respects, that could help cement the mindset of the Jets' front office, which undoubtedly knows that a critical Wilson failure against the Lions is the first step toward paving on offseason quarterback pursuit.
In a way, this is all shaping up to a scenario we saw only a few years ago with the Tennessee Titans. That franchise began an elongated turnaround after drafting Marcus Mariota No. 2 overall in 2015, but grew consistently frustrated that Mariota couldn’t take another step in his development. He was always injured or inconsistent or regressing into bad habits. Finally, after a 2018 that had shown them everything they needed to know, the Titans went into the offseason committed to acquiring a player capable of taking the starting job from Mariota and keeping it. They ultimately traded for Ryan Tannehill and, just a few games into the 2019 season, the veteran did exactly that. He's been Tennessee's starter ever since.
This is the decision the Jets are facing. As much as they appreciate the job Mike White has done, the team will need to bring in someone who has shown the ability to take a starting job permanently. Jimmy Garoppolo will be the sensible connection, because of his familiarity with the Jets' coaching staff. But whether it’s Garoppolo or not, the Jets won’t stand down in the face of Wilson failing with this second chance. They will go get another quarterback and give themselves someone capable of stepping into what should be a very good young core in 2023.
That’s what is hanging in the balance right now. That’s what Sunday’s game against the Lions means to the organization. Either this is the second beginning for Wilson, or the first step toward his ending in New York.