The most important New York Jet is a former Division III quarterback-turned-safety who looks like the second-string water boy. Mike LaFleur is the offensive coordinator, and if he cannot protect quarterback Zach Wilson this year, he will severely compromise the Jets’ goal of molding the rookie into a franchise-changing star.
To help make the point, I asked a long time NFL executive and scout to watch tape of Wilson’s debut against Carolina. He came away impressed with how the No. 2-overall pick recovered from a brutal first half — shaped by constant pressure from the Panthers — and showed some poise in the second half. The evaluator thought Wilson looked smaller than his listed size (6-foot-2, 214 pounds), and when assessing his playing style even referenced Doug Flutie (I countered with Fran Tarkenton). But he appreciated Wilson’s arm strength and accuracy, his ability to read the defense when given time, and his athletic escapes from the pocket.
“Overall I’d give him a B as a rookie playing his first game,” the evaluator said. “But they have to find a way to protect him better or they are going to get him killed.”
Sacked six times and smacked around all day, Wilson showed up for his postgame news conference looking as if he’d come up short in a street fight, his face three different shades of red.
“I feel like I got hit by a truck for a second,” Wilson said of sack No. 6, while admitting he felt whiplashed. Thursday, after he practiced for his upcoming duel with the Patriots and Bill Belichick’s own first-round quarterback, Mac Jones, Wilson looked and sounded like a 22-year-old kid without a care in the world.
Wilson reminded everyone that he has been getting hit since he was 8 years old.
“I feel great,” he said.
There is no way Wilson will continue feeling great if his rookie coordinator can’t keep him upright and out of harm’s way. Wilson said that he deserves some of the blame for not reading and reacting faster to the Carolina rush, and that’s fine. In the end, the near-impossible task of keeping the quarterback healthy for a full NFL season now belongs to LaFleur.
“Absolutely, the whole thing starts with me,” the 34-year-old coordinator said. “Any time a play doesn’t work, whether it be run or pass, you look at yourself first. I’m going to be as hard on myself as possible.”
LaFleur’s boss, Robert Saleh, would second that notion. When addressing protection breakdowns the other day, Saleh maintained that the offensive line isn’t the lone culprit.
“The coordinator has got to protect the quarterback,” the head coach said. “The O-line got to protect the quarterback, the receivers got to protect the quarterback, and the quarterback needs to protect the quarterback.”
Given that NFL head coaches measure every word they speak for public consumption, and constantly send messages through the media, it was interesting that he mentioned LaFleur first in his explanation, if not by name. While counting up the people responsible for Wilson’s rough opening day at the office, Saleh added that “coaches [are] not excluded in this.”
Of course, the Jets need their line to play better against the Patriots on Sunday. They also need to establish a running game that produces more than 45 yards on 17 carries. All of that falls on LaFleur, the former D-III player at Elmhurst (in the Chicago suburbs) who last called plays at Davidson College, an FCS program, in 2013, when the school lost all 11 of its games.
The brother of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, and a former 49ers colleague of Saleh’s (the Jets head coach is a longtime friend of the LaFleurs), Mike was hired to run the Shanahan version of the West Coast offense. But no matter what offense he is running, his one and only job is to develop Wilson into a championship-level quarterback.
Belichick has already called Wilson “an explosive player” with “a great arm.” To get the most out of those tools, LaFleur has to keep the kid on the field. Belichick won six Super Bowls because he built a support system that kept his quarterback healthy. Tom Brady had his 2008 season wiped out by a knee injury, yet he never missed a single start because of injury in any other season during his iconic 19-year career as New England’s starter.
Brady set a standard for toughness that Wilson matched in the opener at Carolina, especially on his second touchdown pass to Corey Davis — only two plays after he had been flattened by two large pass rushers.
But as Saleh said: “I don’t like judging his toughness. Ideally, his toughness is never judged.”
LaFleur needs to make sure that Wilson’s ability to dissect defenses —not his ability to take hits — is the focus of 2021. And if he fails, this season could devolve into another unholy Jets mess.