MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Garrett Wilson leaned against a locker, clenched his fist, and then unclenched it, over and over. He grabbed his left hand and went finger by finger, squeezing each one, veins popping. Wilson’s frustration has been simmering for weeks. Now it’s boiling.
It took Wilson three quarters to receive his first target Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
“I’m aware,” Wilson said, cutting off a question before it was finished.
Across the locker room, New York Jets players bemoaned the team’s poor effort in a 30-0 loss. Wide receiver Allen Lazard took it even further.
“I think they just played a better game,” Lazard said. “They outschemed us, out-efforted us.”
Wilson didn’t disagree with the assessment.
“Yeah,” Wilson said. “If Allen said it, it’s probably true.”
Last week, the Jets snapped a five-game losing streak by beating up the Houston Texans in a surprising 30-6 win, with all of the points coming in an explosive second half for an offense that had otherwise struggled all year. Zach Wilson had his best game. There was a feeling that performance might’ve saved some jobs, secured them for 2024, when Aaron Rodgers will come back to save the day.
The best plans are laid to waste by blowouts. Jets cornerback D.J. Reed called Sunday’s effort a “good old ass whupping.”
Did Reed feel the Jets showed enough fight? Not really.
“Quite honestly, I would say up until the mid third” quarter they did, Reed said. “You could see the energy … and the emotion on guys’ faces was kinda down about the whole game. I wouldn’t say I was too happy about that.”
The Jets are 5-9. Sunday’s loss — along with some other results around the league — eliminated them from playoff contention for the 13th year in a row, the longest playoff drought in any of the four major professional sports leagues. If Robert Saleh felt safe after last week, he should be worried now. There is losing games, and then there is losing the locker room, and Saleh is getting dangerously close to the latter. It might already be happening.
The Jets were outclassed by the Dolphins, and it’s not the first time Saleh was outcoached this season.
“You put together the best plan possible — sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not,” Saleh said. “But overall, just from coaching to execution, all of it on the offensive side just wasn’t good enough today.”
Losing Rodgers four snaps into the season with an Achilles injury was a tough circumstance. Most teams struggle to survive without their starting quarterback, and much of the offensive line has been decimated by injuries, too. But that’s not an excuse for this level of misery. The Jets started their 11th new offensive line in 14 games against the Dolphins, and it was a disaster from the get-go. Zach Wilson was bruised and battered all day, and strip-sacked on the first possession. He was sacked four times in total, hit seven times and retreated to the locker room before halftime.
Wilson initially left the game due to “dehydration,” according to the CBS broadcast. After halftime, Wilson was declared out with a head injury but, according to ESPN, was not being evaluated for a concussion yet. Later in the game, Wilson was ruled out with a concussion. Late in the fourth quarter, The Athletic saw Wilson entering the X-ray room. Saleh said after the game that Wilson was in concussion protocol. His status for next week is unclear.
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) December 17, 2023
When Wilson was initially reluctant to return to the starting lineup a couple of weeks ago, one reason was a fear of getting hurt behind the offensive line. His fears were clearly realized. The Jets’ offensive line might have been the most obvious issue the team had Sunday, which Saleh pointed out repeatedly in his postgame news conference.
“Yeah, when you get beat up front, yeah, it’s not — doesn’t feel good,” he said in response to a question asking if Sunday’s performance was “embarrassing.”
But the issues run deeper than that. The Jets are not the only team in the NFL devastated by injuries to the offensive line, or who have had their starting quarterback go down with a season-ending injury. The Bengals are 3-1 with Jake Browning since he was tapped to fill in for Joe Burrow. The Browns are 2-1 with Joe Flacco, and 9-5 overall despite losing both of their starting tackles and their top backup tackle. Their center (Ethan Pocic) missed Sunday’s game, and one of their starting guards (Joel Bitonio) left early with an injury.
The best coaches make the most of what they have, and put their players in position to succeed even when they are outmanned. The Jets aren’t doing that — and that’s with one of the NFL’s best defenses, an elite wide receiver (Wilson) and explosive running back (Breece Hall).
This team has mostly wasted a stellar season from that defense, though even the defense struggled against Miami. Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle burned Reed on a 60-yard touchdown and finished with 142 yards. Running back Raheem Mostert scored two touchdowns and the Dolphins scored 30 points even without Tyreek Hill playing.
And then there’s Wilson, one of the NFL’s most talented wide receivers, wasting away. He watched from the sideline as Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel schemed Waddle open, something Nathaniel Hackett has failed to do for the Jets all season.
“I think they have a lot of pieces in their favor that make it easier to scheme,” Wilson said. “Tyreek goes down, they put Waddle in there and he goes for 150 (yards). And that’s, that’s the ball I grew up loving. But that’s not how it’s going to be. I gotta figure out how to be better, run better routes, be better in the meeting rooms, figure out how I can be involved early and often. And how we can win games.”
Wilson is having a harder time hiding his frustration, especially Sunday, when he was targeted just four times and cameras caught him on the sideline getting animated with his irritation.
Garrett Wilson and Aaron Rodgers having a chop sesh on the sidelines pic.twitter.com/hgXZEMbn0f
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) December 17, 2023
“I mean, it seems like we’re being unintentional, to be honest,” Wilson said. “That’s my mindset. It’s simple. I feel like that doesn’t have to be the case. But it was. I guess I gotta fix it. I gotta figure out how I can get involved in the first quarter. Maybe it’s starting practice fast. I don’t know. I gotta show something, I gotta do something. They’ve got a good plan for us. They did a good job getting after us and stuff made it hard. That’s the way it was and I gotta be able to adjust. I don’t know. I gotta figure it out.”
It’s not Wilson’s job to figure it out. That’s on Saleh, and Hackett.
Now there are three games left in this season, and players are starting to say the quiet part out loud. The truth: The Jets were not prepared for Sunday’s game.
Against the Texans last week, the Jets offense was productive. Otherwise, this has been one of the worst offenses in franchise history by most metrics, and the worst third-down offense in recorded NFL history. At halftime, the Jets had accumulated only 4 net offensive yards — and negative-10 net passing yards. At the end of the game, the Jets had gained 103 total yards and Zach Wilson and Trevor Siemian combined to account for 80 passing yards.
Think about this: Saleh has (and will continue to) refuse to make a change to his offensive play-calling structure, where Hackett remains untouchable not only because of his relationship with Rodgers — but because Saleh doesn’t believe Hackett is to blame for the Jets’ issues on offense. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles are 10-3 and just benched defensive coordinator Sean Desai for Matt Patricia.
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Those 103 yards by the Jets tied for the fourth fewest in franchise history, and three of the five lowest yardage totals have come under Saleh’s watch. Once Zach Wilson was strip-sacked on the opening possession, it felt like it was going to be a long afternoon, and then it was. On the next drive, the Jets attempted a fake punt on fourth-and-4, a direct snap to safety Ashtyn Davis, which predictably failed. By the time Wilson exited the game, the Jets trailed 17-0. It was 24-0 at halftime, and 27-0 after the third quarter.
“They executed more than us,” cornerback Sauce Gardner said. “I don’t know what to say. They outexecuted us.”
It’s fair to wonder if Saleh’s job is on the line next week. If the Jets lose to a 4-10 Washington Commanders team, at home, it might really be the end of the road. It would be difficult for owner Woody Johnson to justify running it back with this coaching staff.
“It’s disappointing,” Saleh said. “Starting from the first series of the year all the way to now, it’s just been a constant battle. I do appreciate the heck out of our guys. We still got three games left to finish strong. As bad as we feel now, we got to remember we felt pretty good last week, too. We got a good Washington team coming in that’s going to be licking their chops, so we got to go and take care of business and get ourselves ready to play that one.”
When the Los Angeles Chargers lost to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12, coach Brandon Staley said his team would be getting “blown out of the stadium” if his messaging had stopped coming across to the players, if he’d lost the locker room. A few weeks later, the Chargers lost 63-21 to the Las Vegas Raiders and Staley was fired the next day.
So, has Saleh lost the locker room?
Check back next week.
(Photo: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)