Jets’ offseason tough talk has become in-season culture-building. Benching Zach Wilson cemented it


In early August, the day the New York Jets lost Mekhi Beckton in a first-round offense to injury for another season, head coach Robert Saleh began to grapple with the impact this could have on Zach Wilson. General manager Joe Douglas retired to his office and mulled over possible free agent options to fix the offensive line, while Saleh leaned against the wall of the training ground and pondered what it meant for his presumed franchise quarterback.

I asked him if this would change his calculation for Wilson. After all, the loss of anchor gear was no small thing.

Saleh brushed off the offer.

“It’s frustrating, but let’s just call it what it is – no one cares,” he said. “If you’re going to preach to guys that this is the ‘next man’ mentality, you have to be prepared to live up to that. You must perform. End of story. It’s the same expectations for everyone out there. Those are the same expectations for Zach. No one will feel sorry for us, so we better not feel sorry for ourselves.”

He paused for a tick and then underlined the final line that determined the upcoming season.

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

It didn’t seem like a revelation at the time. Coaches are notorious for saying such clichés: next person, do the job, no one feels sorry for us, etc. Especially at the training camp, when the talk is cheap and the losses have not yet accumulated. But it was very real. no-bs the tone is in how Saleh delivered the message on that particular day. The Jets were finishing a highly disappointing 4–13 season in which Wilson’s development and the toothless defense that was supposed to be Saleh’s wheelhouse would become seismic issues in 2022.

Looking back at Saleh’s “no excuses” reaction to the loss of Beckton, there was something else that day: when asked to put Wilson in a training microscope and highlight the most important moment for him, Saleh responded in a nanosecond.

Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson on the Jets bench could be a good sign that the organization no longer accepts inefficiency.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson on the Jets’ bench could be a good sign that the organization no longer accepts inefficiencies. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

“For me, these are intangible assets,” he said. “How does he behave? How does he drive? He has all the physical tools. We know it. But it’s the intangibles that really make players stand out as quarterbacks.”

Once again with these training clichés – and yet Saleh was not mistaken. A recurring principle about quarterbacks can turn to dust in the NFL every year and still hold true. And in the case of the Jets, this was confirmed. Nearly four months have passed and Zach Wilson’s intangibles remain an issue for the organization. And after last week’s remarkably muted response about whether he felt he had let the defense down (“No,” Wilson answered without hesitation.), it’s probably fair to wonder if his leadership has a path of some sort.

It’s fair to assume that’s how Wilson ended up on the bench at the Jets on Wednesday. Passing a question at a red light and crashing in the middle of an intersection where the paths of leadership and “no excuses” meet. And what’s worse, do it in the season when Another last year’s issue, Saleh’s defense, gets nothing but the green light.

Reflecting on Saleh in August and then comparing him to Wilson’s performance and recent behavior, it’s no wonder he sits down. It may not be forever, as Saleh suggested on Wednesday. But it is certainly necessary when so many other members of the roster and coaching staff have overcome a significant hump.

In a way, one could argue that what’s happening right now is good for the Jets. Suggests that the franchise becomes more a product of creating culture in the season than tough talk in the offseason. There are 6-4 people on the team, they are building young bricks and making progress worth fighting for. Especially after six years in a row averaging less than five wins per season and feelings of hopelessness almost everywhere you looked at the depth chart.

Having standards is good. Living by them is big thing. Especially when it comes to a franchise quarterback who was selected second overall and given ample opportunities to show some growth. Wilson has had his moments, but not enough to justify believing he’s on the right track. Now he is gone. This means that something must have changed. This meant that the Jets had to demonstrate to everyone and to themselves that they were willing to make difficult choices, even if some disagreed.

This does not mean that Wilson ended up in New York. This means that the program has changed, and he is aware. As Saleh said of Beckton’s injury in August, it can be frustrating, but no one cares. Find a way to make it work. Understand expectations and act accordingly.

It is this mentality that shapes the Jets. And the environment is proof that this now applies to everyone in the organization.