Zach Wilson to start for Jets as Mike White not cleared for contact

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Friday, December 16, 2022

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets made an unexpected quarterback change Friday, announcing that Mike White is out Sunday and that former starter Zach Wilson is back in the lineup to face theDetroit Lions.

White, who told reporters Friday that he suffered fractures to his ribs, wasn't cleared for contact by team doctors, coach Robert Saleh said. White sought but failed to receive clearance from outside doctors, Saleh said.

The quarterback "exhausted every measure" in trying to find a doctor to give him the green light, Saleh said, adding, "That opinion will not change and it's gotten to the point where we could drag this out to Sunday, but this is one of those deals we have to do what's best for the player and protect the player from the player."

While disclosing the severity of the injury for the first time, White said he visited 10 doctors seeking clearance and noted that the fractured ribs were discovered in a postgame CT scan.

"If I get hit in the wrong spot, it could lead to some further damage," White said.

The injury occurred Sunday on a crushing hit to the midsection by Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milanoduring the Jets' 20-12 loss. White went to the locker room for an X-ray and was cleared by team doctors to return. He finished the gamebefore undergoing a precautionary CT scan at a Buffalo-area hospital and then flying home with the team.

The Jets didn't announce their quarterback plans beyond Sunday. White could return Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but Saleh acknowledged it would be a "challenge" on a short week.

White said he will have more scans next week.

Saleh had said as recently as Wednesday that the Jets (7-6) were "still working as if he's playing this week," never mentioning that White still had to be cleared for contact. There might have been some gamesmanship at play, keeping the Lions (6-7) in the dark as long as possible.

White was cleared for practice -- he was a limited participant Wednesday and Thursday -- but Saleh said they made "an organizational decision" Thursday night to make the change. White had said repeatedly throughout the week that he felt fine and was preparing to play.

"He's not B.S.-ing," Saleh said. "He feels fine. He can throw a ball fine. He's not in pain. It's a contact issue. If it was 7-on-7, he'd be out there playing. But it's not."

The Jets, in a playoff race for the first time since 2015, will turn to Wilson, who spent the past three games as the third-string/inactive quarterback. He was elevated this week to QB2, replacing Joe Flacco. Saleh said that decision had been made last Friday, two days before White was injured.

Wilson, who was told he would start Friday, said he believes he has improved during his three-week respite. He said he won't play tentatively, worrying about his job security.

"The worst has already happened for me, personally, right?" Wilson said. "I'm just going to go out there and have fun."

According to ESPN Analytics, a win over the Lions would give the Jets a 34% chance of making the playoffs. Their chances would drop to 14% with a loss.

The Jets had rallied around White in his three starts. They went 1-2 and averaged only 22 points per game, but he passed for 952 yards and was able to get every player involved. In all likelihood, he would have remained the starter for the rest of the season -- or as long as the Jets stayed in contention -- even though Saleh said his intent was to play Wilson again.

Now there is no choice.

"We feel very comfortable about Zach's preparation as the first-string quarterback," said Saleh, adding that Wilson has received "a normal workload" for a starter in practice and that he knew at the beginning of the week there was "a strong possibility" that Wilson would have to start.

Wilson has won five of seven starts but has only four touchdown passes, an NFL-worst 56% completion rate and has averaged only 183 passing yards per game. He was benched after a 77-yard performance against the New England Patriots on Nov. 20. After the game, he created a firestorm by refusing to take any accountability for a poor offensive outing. His comments irked many players, sources said. Three days later, an emotional Wilson apologized in front of the team.

The Jets described the benching as a "reset," an opportunity for Wilson to sharpen his fundamentals without the pressure of having to prepare for an opponent.

"I definitely believe in myself," Wilson said Wednesday when it was announced that he was elevated to No. 2. "Of course, I have all the confidence in the world -- I think that's how it should be -- but you have to be able to prove that."

The Jets also ruled out wide receiver Corey Davis (concussion). Star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (calf) missed practice for the third straight day, but the Jets didn't declare him out, holding out hope he can play.

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