The 2023 New York Jets thought of themselves as Super Bowl contenders after acquiring four-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers this offseason. The former Packers legend, combined with a top-five scoring defense, was supposed to be enough to challenge in a tough AFC.
"I feel more for Aaron than anyone," head coach Robert Saleh said Tuesday. "He has invested so much into this organization and this journey he's embarked on and wanting to be a part of what we've got going on here. How much he has invested into not only this organization but his teammates, himself, this fanbase, this city. I have a lot of emotions for him and for us. It's really all about him. I don't look at it as 'woe is me.' I think guys are excited to step up and continue the things we have been building, but a lot of hurt for Aaron."
Naturally, Gang Green is going to do its due diligence on veteran quarterbacks it could acquire from other teams around the league, but Saleh was demonstratively clear about who the Jets next quarterback is going to be: their second overall pick from the 2021 NFL Draft, Zach Wilson.
"We are going to look through some things, but I do want to make it very clear, Zach's our quarterback. We have a lot of faith in Zach. We're really excited about his opportunity. We're rolling with Zach and excited for him. We're going to look at everything. You're going to look at veterans, you're going to look at young guys. Under no circumstance is this a [quarterback] competition, this is Zach's team. We're rolling with Zach."
It's fair to question why Saleh and the Jets organization has so much confidence in Wilson given he has the unique distinction of being the only quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to finish last in the NFL in passer rating in consecutive seasons (69.7 in 2021 and 72.8 in 2022). However, his play was better prior to losing two of his top teammates, running back Breece Hall and right guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, to season-ending injuries in Week 7 against the Denver Broncos.
Zach Wilson's 2022 Season
|Weeks 8-9, 11, 15-16
*Eighth-most in NFL in span with Hall and Vera-Tucker healthy
**Last in NFL in Weeks 8-9, 11 15-16
"I think people forget Zach Wilson was 5-1 as the starting quarterback before the bye week last year with Breece Hall and AVT [guard Alijah Vera-Tucker] and everybody healthy. We lost half our offense. ... Zach is a very capable quarterback. He has proven to be a very capable quarterback. We have what we believe is a championship-caliber defense, and we have offensive skill guys we are very confident in. We have an offensive line that is, knock on wood, healthy and that we hope will stay healthy to build continuity. We have all the faith in the world in Zach. The best part of Zach is he is leap years from where he was a year ago."
A year ago, Jets players were seen gleefully sporting Mike White T-shirts when he was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Wilson. Those feelings were stoked when Wilson failed to take accountability for the offense's performance in a 10-3 loss at the New England Patriots in Week 11 of last season. Now, those sentiments are in the past over in Florham Park, New Jersey.
"From a mental standpoint, he's so much different than this time a year ago," Saleh said of Wilson. He is in a great frame of mind. He's loving the game of football. He's loving the process he's going through. He has a lot of confidence. All the little things we saw in college [at BYU] that he was struggling with a year ago... he has fixed a lot of things. We're very excited about him. He would acknowledge he has a lot of things to learn and grow, but we're excited to do that with him. He has been able to rebuild rapport with his teammates. The overall way he has handled himself has been fantastic. ... It is happening faster than anyone expected, obviously under the circumstances. He is someone who has made a drastic improvement from a year ago."
Saleh went out of his way to clarify how he would describe Wilson's relationship development with his teammates.
"It's more confidence in terms of his ability to enjoy the process and the practice habits, not that they were bad, but teammates want to see guys make plays and have confidence you can do your job to the best of your ability. Over the course of training camp and OTAs, Zach has had a lot of success. He had a really nice preseason. He has built a lot of confidence with his teammates. We still think Zach is fully capable of running the offense. There is going to be nuance that might be different [with him in place of Rodgers]."
While the hope is for Rodgers to be ever present like a coach for Wilson and the rest of his teammates, the Jets understand he may want to take some time away from it all to process his season-ending injury.
"We all want him here," Saleh said of Rodgers. "We all want him to be connected and I think he wants to be here. We will give him time to breathe and digest everything."
What Saleh and the Jets refuse to digest is the idea that their 2023 season is done for after one game, even with the loss of a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
"I don't know why people are trying to put an obituary on our team name," Saleh said. "Aaron is an unbelievable piece of this whole thing and we love him, but I think there are 52 other guys in the locker room plus the 16 practice squad guys that believe we can do a hell of a lot of things. We have a championship-caliber defense, great skill guys on the offensive side of the ball. Our offensive line is going to continue to gel and get better. We're excited about our group. We have worked hard the last couple of years: players, coaches, scouts, and our GM to build a pretty cool organization. There is still a lot of faith in the locker room for the things we can still accomplish this year. While the outside world can go ahead and write whatever story you want to write, there's still the true story being written in this building."
When asked what his message to the Jets' wounded fanbase would be Tuesday afternoon, Saleh kept it short and sweet, looking forward to what lies ahead in Week 2.
"We're on to Dallas," Saleh said, channeling AFC East rival and New England Patriots head coach.