FLORHAM PARK, NJ — The day he lost his starting job in a dramatic quarterback shakeup, Zach Wilson tried to win back his New York Jets teammates with an apology.
Under heavy criticism from fans and media, Wilson spoke to the entire team on Wednesday, admitting he botched Sunday’s postgame press conference, one in which he refused to take responsibility for his poor performance in a loss to the New England Patriots.
“I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” she said.
That game, combined with what coach Robert Saleh called a deterioration in basic fundamentals, resulted in Wilson being benched. Mike White will start Sunday against the Chicago Bears at MetLife Stadium. Joe Flacco will be No. 2 quarterbacks; Wilson will be inactive.
Wilson, acknowledging his bad play, did not question Saleh’s decision. In speaking with the team, he expressed support for White but also promised to win his job back, the players said. He wanted to clear things up with teammates, some of whom were upset by his post-match comments, sources said.
“It was the only thing I could think about for the past couple days,” Wilson said. “I wanted the opportunity to talk to those guys and really do it from the heart.”
Wilson’s benching was a significant turning point for an organization that had pivoted almost everything around him since drafting him second overall in 2021. It raises questions about the future of their quarterback position, a proposition the Jets would not never thought I’d face so soon.
Explaining the decision, Saleh said Wilson’s fundamentals are “really out of control” and he needs time to refocus. He has ” every intention ” of playing Wilson again this season , insisting that ” they have not wavered in our belief that he will be the future of the franchise ” . Saleh described the demotion as a temporary reset.
“Is that a small step down? Absolutely,” Saleh said. “But I think it’s going to be a big leap forward when he gets a chance to reset himself? Absolutely. So, this isn’t putting a nail in his coffin. This isn’t that. This isn’t close to that. But I think, ultimately out of all this, he will be a rejuvenated and renewed young man”. Understandably, Wilson was not happy with the decision, with Saleh describing his reaction as “Why me? Why now? I want to play.”
“It’s tough, man. It’s never fun,” Wilson told reporters. “The first thing that came to my mind is that I have to get to work, I have to improve.” It wasn’t a shock.
“You know what? I wouldn’t say (I was) necessarily surprised because I didn’t do my job,” he said. “Sure, I’d like to disagree with the decision and all that, but it depends on whether I have to play better.”
Saleh has declined to set a timetable for Wilson’s return, saying he will take it “day by day”. This, of course, opens the door to potential quarterback controversy if White is successful.
The Jets (6-4), hoping to end an 11-year playoff drought, switched to a win-now mode. They believe their defense is worthy of the league and they don’t want to waste this opportunity due to the quarterback’s erratic play.
They’re 5-2 since Wilson returned from a preseason knee injury, but his play has been wildly inconsistent—a two-year trend. With a total QBR of 37.6, he ranked 31st out of 33 qualifying passers over the past two seasons. He bottomed out with a season-high 77 passing yards in Sunday’s 10-3 loss to the Patriots.
Wilson was called by coaches into Monday’s team meeting, sources said, leading some to believe his dismissal was inevitable. Saleh said Wilson’s postgame comments weren’t a factor in his decision. Wilson said he had no idea he had caused an uproar until his father reached out by phone and asked, “Bro, what are you doing?”
“It’s deserved,” Wilson said of the nationwide criticism. “The way I handled the situation was not right. I have to be a better footballer and then I have to be a better leader for these guys. I have the opportunity to move on here as a player and a boss.”
Cornerback DJ Reed appreciated Wilson’s apology.
“Everything he said came from the heart,” she said. “He was very genuine and everyone respected him.”
“The way I handled the situation was not right. I have to be a better footballer and then I have to be a better leader for these guys. I have the opportunity to move on here as a player and a boss.”
Just three weeks ago, Wilson received a strong vote of confidence from Saleh, who said Wilson would start the remainder of the season barring injuries. What has changed?
“There are some basic fundamental things that have gone really nuts for him,” Saleh said. “This is just a chance for him to sit down and focus on those things and find a way to reconnect with all the different things that we fell in love with during the draft process. It’s something I feel like he’s going to be able to do. “
Saleh said there are “just a few things in his game right now … that will continue to deteriorate if we keep throwing him out there.” They devised a practice plan that will allow them to focus on those fundamentals. Saleh said the problems are “solvable”.
Statistically, Wilson is historically bad when pitching under pressure. He has a tendency to look at the pass rush instead of the downfield, often resulting in back foot shots. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur acknowledged that footwork is an issue.
“I’ve got to figure out a way to get it to sound fundamentally sound in the bottom half,” LaFleur said.
White is hardly a sure thing; he only has three career starts.
With Wilson injuring his knee last season, White achieved near-cult hero status in his first career start, throwing for 405 yards and three touchdowns in an upset of the Cincinnati Bengals. The former Dallas Cowboys draft pick got two more starts: an incomplete game against the Indianapolis Colts (he left with an injury) and a clunker of four interceptions against the Buffalo Bills.
White actually started this season as No. 3 quarterbacks, behind Wilson and Flacco. They changed the depth chart in Week 8, promoting White to QB2, a move that left some squad members scratching their heads. Saleh said it was to “give him the opportunity to prepare like he’s the next man.”
And now it is.
“Initially, just excited,” White said of his reaction to the promotion. “It’s just what every player in this dressing room wants, a chance to compete and prove themselves. But most of all, it’s just a chance to be a good teammate and help the team and care about the team first.”