The Jets’ offseason tough talk became a cultural building during the season. Benching Zach Wilson cemented that

In early August, the day the New York Jets lost first-round offensive tackle Mekhi Becton to injury for yet another season, head coach Robert Saleh began to grapple with the impact that he might have had on Zach Wilson. General manager Joe Douglas had retreated to his office and was lining up potential free agent options to patch up the offensive line, while Saleh leaned against the wall of a practice facility and contemplated what that meant for his would-be franchise quarterback.

I asked him if that would change his calculation for Wilson. After all, losing an anchorage was no small feat.

Saleh rejected the suggestion.

“It’s frustrating, but let’s just call it what it is — nobody cares,” she said. “If you’re going to preach to kids that it’s a ‘next man’ mentality, you need to be prepared to live up to it. You have to perform. End of the story. It’s the same expectations for everyone out there. It’s the same expectations for Zach. No one is going to feel sorry for us, so we better not feel sorry for ourselves.”

He paused for a tick and then pointed out a bottom line that would come to define the season ahead.

“We have to find a way to make it work,” Saleh said.

At the time, it didn’t seem like much of a revealing moment. Coaches are notorious for speaking in these kinds of clichés: next man, get the job done, nobody feels sorry for us, etc. Especially in boot camp, when talking is easy and the losses haven’t piled up yet. But there was a lot of believable no bullshit tone in the way Saleh was delivering the message on this particular day. The Jets were coming off a deeply disappointing 4-13 season in which Wilson’s development and toothless defense — which should have been Saleh’s wheelhouse — would be seismic issues in 2022.

Looking back on Saleh’s “no apology” reaction to the loss of Becton, something else also stands out from that day: Asked to put a coaching microscope on Wilson and find his most important point of emphasis, Saleh responded in a nanosecond.

Robert Saleh and Jets bench Zach Wilson could be a good sign, one that says the organization is no longer accepting underperformance. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

“For me, it’s the intangibles,” he said. “How does he behave? How is it conducting? She has all the physical tools. We know it. But it’s the intangibles that really set players apart at the quarterback position.

Again with those boot camp clichés, yet Saleh is not wrong. A repetitive principle about quarterbacks can be ground to dust in the NFL every year and still be true. And in this case with the Jets, it proved to be true. It’s been nearly four months, and Zach Wilson’s intangibles remain a matter for the organization. And coming off last week’s extraordinarily jarring response about him feeling like he let the defense down (“No,” Wilson said without hesitation), it’s probably fair to ask whether his leadership also has some distance to go.

It’s fair to assume this is how Wilson was benched by the Jets on Wednesday. Blowing through a red light question and smashing in the middle of the intersection where the ways of leadership and “no excuses” meet. And to make matters worse, do it in a season where that other Last year’s problem, Saleh’s defense received nothing but the green light.

Reflecting on Saleh in August and then pitting him against Wilson’s performance and recent behavior, it’s no wonder he’s sitting out. Maybe it’s not permanent, as Saleh suggested on Wednesday. But it’s certainly needed when so many other parts of the roster and coaching staff have overcome a significant hurdle.

In one sense, you could argue that what’s happening right now is a good thing for the Jets. Because it’s suggestive that the franchise is becoming more of a product of in-season culture building rather than off-season hard talk. The squad is 6-4, stacking young building blocks and making progress worth fighting for. Particularly after six straight years of averaging under five wins per season and feeling hopeless almost everywhere you look on the depth chart.

Having standards is a good thing. Living up to them is a great What. Especially when that goes for a franchise quarterback who was selected No. 2 overall and with ample opportunity to show some kind of growth. Wilson had a few moments, but not enough to justify believing he was on the right track. Right now, he’s not. It means that something had to change. It meant the Jets had to show everyone and themselves that the will was there to make a tough choice, even if some might disagree.

That doesn’t mean Wilson is done with New York. It just means the schedule has changed and he’s on edge. As Saleh said about Becton’s injury in August, this could be frustrating, but nobody cares. He finds a way to make it work. Understand expectations and act accordingly.

That mentality is exactly what is shaping the Jets right now. And Wednesday is proof that it now applies to everyone in the organization.

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