Jets QB Zach Wilson to start vs. Jaguars as Mike White not cleared

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 20, 2022

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets are entrusting their fading playoff hopes to Zach Wilson, who will be the starting quarterback Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Coach Robert Saleh, who announced the decision Tuesday, made it sound like he didn't have much of a choice. Mike White, who fractured ribs nine days ago and sat out Sunday's loss to the Detroit Lions, wasn't cleared by doctors, according to Saleh.

They haven't ruled out White for the final two games, with Saleh calling it "a week-to-week evaluation."

The Jets (7-7) have lost three straight and have only a 13% chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN analytics. Their place in the standings likely will have an impact on next week's choice at quarterback. If they're still in contention and White is cleared for contact, it would set the stage for a major decision.

For now, Saleh is doing his best to rally around Wilson, who is coming off an uneven start against the Lions in a 20-17 loss.

"There are quarterbacks through the history of time that needed just a little bit longer to find their groove," Saleh said. "So, when you see Zach, he's got a lot of things you just can't teach. You just can't teach some of the stuff he does.

"For him, it's just learning the timing and rhythm aspect of it, the intermediate passing game and finding that consistency for four quarters. When he's in rhythm, and he is hitting on all cylinders, it's pretty cool to watch."

Wilson, who returned from a three-game benching to face Detroit, displayed the arm strength that made the Jets draft him second overall in 2021. He was "on fire" in the first half, Saleh said.

He passed for 317 yards and two touchdowns, but he missed several open receivers and threw a costly third-quarter interception. His off-target percentage (35.3) was a season high, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Wilson said Tuesday he's confident and "grateful" for another opportunity, saying the biggest positive from the last game was the number of explosive plays. He said they have to be more consistent on first and second down.

Overall, Wilson is 5-3 as the starter. In a wild quarterback year, the Jets also have started Joe Flacco (1-2) and White (1-2).

Chances are, the Jets would've continued with White, but that changed Dec. 11 when he got drilled in the ribs by Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano.

Aware that White's ribs were fractured, the Jets still wanted to play him last week but made the surprising announcement on Friday that Wilson would start against the Lions. Saleh said White wasn't cleared for contact by team or outside doctors.

That hasn't changed, apparently.

"Everything for Mike is to give him the opportunity to seek second opinions and for him and his team to make sure all the boxes are being checked," Saleh said. "From our vantage point as coaches, we're allowing that process to happen. When everything aligns, then we make a decision."

When he benched Wilson on Nov. 23, Saleh said his intent was to get Wilson back in the lineup before the end of the season -- but not like this.

After his benching, Wilson sought advice from former quarterbacks Drew Brees, Kurt Warner and Steve Young. He picked those quarterbacks because they had to overcome adversity in their careers.

"Some of the biggest things I took from it was, where you want to get, this is just going to help you get there faster," Wilson said. "The bumps, the ups and downs, it's tough, but you eventually make your way through it."

In other injury developments, star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams will be a game-time decision, with Saleh expressing optimism about his chances after missing last week.

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