Friday, July 19

Jets have no answers after Zach Wilson’s benching, a tunnel dust-up and bad loss to Bills

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The noise in the tunnel was loud, but the locker room was quiet. As Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson headed toward the visitor’s locker room at the Buffalo Bills’ stadium, there was commotion behind them. New York Jets defensive end Micheal Clemons and Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins had to be separated, a dust-up that carried over from the field into the tunnel as the two teams headed to the locker room, located in the same tunnel, directly across from each other, without much space between them.

It could’ve been worse, but multiple teammates helped to hold Clemons back in the midst of the hubbub, and a coach attempted to calm Clemons down as he walked into the locker room. Inside, the mood was dour and words were scarce.

Saleh appeared to be on the verge of tears in his postgame news conference. When wide receiver Garrett Wilson spoke, it was barely above a whisper. Tight end Tyler Conklin admitted he’s run out of ways to explain the Jets’ mess. Usually, it’s the same issues, week after week. But in this game, which the Jets lost 32-6, it was worse than it has been since at least last year. They were outmatched, outclassed and laughed off the field by players like Ed Oliver, who shouted at Jets players as they retreated to the locker room.

“What do you want me to say?” Conklin said after his team dropped to 4-6. “If I had answers or someone had the answers I like to think it wouldn’t be happening like this.”

Maybe the answer will come with a quarterback change, but probably not. It’s hard to believe Aaron Rodgers would actually still want to return after watching Sunday’s game. The Jets’ issues go beyond the quarterback position, even if Zach Wilson has reached a point of no return — where the Jets might bench him, again, and this time for good. When he was pulled for Tim Boyle with 2:17 left in the third quarter, the Jets were losing 29-6. Wilson had completed 7 of 15 passes for 81 yards, one touchdown — the Jets’ first offensive touchdown in 40 possessions — and a brutal second-quarter interception. He didn’t complete a single pass to a wide receiver.

Saleh has made it a point to say that Wilson was not the problem, and that he would only bench him when it was clear he was the one gunking up the works. He adamantly pushed back on the idea of making a change simply to find a spark — and then that’s exactly what he did Sunday when the game was already too far out of reach.

“Just tried to see if we could get something going on the offensive side of the ball,” Saleh said.

Saleh would not say whether Wilson’s benching will carry over to Friday’s game against the Miami Dolphins, if it’ll be Wilson, Boyle or Trevor Siemian taking over. It might not matter, and it’s fair to wonder if that’s entirely Saleh’s call anyway. The Jets have reached a point now with Wilson that if he’s benched, the possibility of them moving on from him altogether — as in, releasing him in-season — shouldn’t be entirely ruled out. If he’s benched, that should be it for him in a Jets uniform. Wilson is a problem, maybe the biggest problem, but he’s not the only issue. The Jets already had one of the NFL’s worst offenses last year and it’s somehow gotten worse with Nathaniel Hackett running the show at offensive coordinator.

The unit feels like it’s reached a point of no return and the statistics are so pitiful, it’s barely worth mentioning them anymore. This week, Saleh said there would be some “personnel” and “schematic” changes to try and jumpstart the offense. That included giving more playing time to young players like undrafted rookie receivers Jason Brownlee and Xavier Gipson, young tight end Jeremy Ruckert and rookie running back Israel Abanikanda. The Jets also held a players-only meeting on Tuesday, and Hackett moved from the sideline to the press box to call plays to, as Saleh said, “give him another perspective, get up there and quiet his world down.”

None of it worked.

Brownlee played 19 snaps and wasn’t targeted. Gipson fumbled the opening kickoff and had one catch for 7 yards. Ruckert had a nice 18-yard catch but otherwise his impact wasn’t noticeable. Abanikanda barely played on offense until late in the second half when things were already out of reach. And the play-calling didn’t get any better, either: The Jets were 0-for-11 on third down, further cementing this as the NFL’s worst third-down offense, and one of the worst in recent memory. The running game, which was supposed to be the staple of this offense, has fallen off a cliff, too: Against the Bills, Breece Hall rushed for 23 yards on 10 carries after getting 28 yards on 13 carries last week against the Las Vegas Raiders. Finally, Hackett schemed to get Hall the ball more in the passing game and it worked — five catches for 50 yards and a touchdown — but that was the only positive result from changes this week.

It is important to mention that the Jets’ offensive line is in disarray. Chris Glaser (zero career starts) started at right guard. When left tackle Mekhi Becton left with an injury and didn’t return, he was replaced by rookie Carter Warren in his first career offensive snaps. The unit allowed five sacks in total. But before Sunday, the Giants were the only offense worse than the Jets in most areas (namely scoring and in pass blocking), and then they went and scored 31 points in a win over the Washington Commanders. Quarterback Tommy DeVito threw three touchdowns, which is something Wilson has never done.

“I don’t think anyone did anything today,” Saleh said. “Players, coaches, schemes, it was obviously not good enough. None of it was good.”

The supporting cast around the quarterback isn’t helping much, either. Wilson has had 19 of his passes dropped by his receivers this season, the third-most of any quarterback. A few plays after Boyle checked in, Garrett Wilson lost another fumble.

“I’m trying to make a play, catch the ball and I decide to try and make a move on the linebacker with not good ball security,” Wilson said. “That’s what happens in this league. This season, I’m getting exposed for it and I gotta fix it. I will.”

Garrett Wilson admitted that the offense’s struggles, and his lack of targets and catches on Sunday, has him pressing to make a play anytime he actually gets the ball. That might be the issue for some of his teammates, too.

“I do feel like that, and I feel like I play worse when I do that,” Wilson said. “So I’m trying to fight human nature and we all maybe gotta feel that way and that compiles with the struggles on offense. It’s hard, man, when you’re playing like this and you feel like you’ve got to. I’ve got to take those bad plays off the field because I’m pressing.”

And finally, the Jets defense had its first truly bad game of the season. It’s hard to pin much of the problems of this team on them; at some point, the straw was going to break the camel’s back. Saleh said a few weeks ago the Jets had “dominated” the star quarterbacks they were playing this season, comments that surely made their way to the Bills locker room. Josh Allen made him eat crow for that Sunday, throwing for 275 yards and three touchdowns in a get-right game for Buffalo, the same week it fired former offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey.

“I give them credit, they dominated us,” cornerback D.J. Reed said. “It’s painful to say.”

Robert Saleh has to get his team ready to play again on Friday, when they host the Dolphins. (Mark Konezny / USA Today)

But this is not the fault of the defense. If fingers are getting pointed at anyone, it should start at the top of the organization, in the direction of the most important people running the show:

That’s general manager Joe Douglas, for building an offense that all of a sudden feels devoid of talent outside of Hall and Garrett Wilson.

That’s Saleh, who has had a difficult time getting the ship steered back in the right direction. The Jets have turned into an undisciplined team prone to penalties and back-breaking mental mistakes.

That’s Hackett, whose offense has become predictable, boring and wildly unsuccessful — somehow less productive than many terrible Jets offenses of recent years.

And then there’s Zach Wilson.

He wasn’t supposed to play this year, remember. He was supposed to learn from Aaron Rodgers. Instead, he’s started every game and has turned into the face of the organization’s biggest issue: offense.

Wilson admitted that he was “frustrated” that he got benched (again), but understood why.

“When things aren’t getting done a change has to be made and I understand that,” he said.

Boyle replaced him and completed 7 of 14 passes for 33 yards and an interception, after not getting any first-team reps all week. He should this week, especially if he winds up replacing Wilson as the starter.

If that happens, the drawn-out end of Wilson’s tenure with the Jets will come to pass.

Early in the third quarter, Wilson scrambled to the sideline and barreled into Saleh, taking him out, a fitting image for the state the Jets find themselves in as an organization.

At this rate, the Jets’ decision to roll with Wilson this season might take out Saleh in another way, too.

(Top photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)