FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The quarterback went out, the playcaller went up and the offense went off.
The New York Jets, three-and-out kings over their first six games, produced 64 points and 997 total yards in Weeks 8 and 9, fueling debate on why they have morphed into, you know, a functional NFL offense.
Are they better without rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, who missed the past two games with a knee injury? Is offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, now working from the coaches’ booth, smarter at a higher elevation?
Football rarely is a “one-answer-fits-all” sport. It’s too complex to be that convenient, and this is a case where there’s more than one reason for the mini-turnaround.
Yes, LaFleur has made subtle changes in his playcalling. Yes, his replacement quarterbacks, Mike White and Josh Johnson, have executed the offense more efficiently than Wilson. While some might argue the offense fattened its statistics in garbage time last week in the blowout loss to the Indianapolis Colts, it should be noted that Wilson & Co. had ample opportunities in the first six games to do the same.
“We’ve improved in a number of areas, for sure,” said LaFleur, who faced heavy scrutiny after a historically bad start.
LaFleur, with help from offensive line coach John Benton, has simplified the offense, which faces the NFL’s top-ranked defense Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) with the Buffalo Bills coming to town. Like his unit, which includes four rookies, LaFleur is learning on the fly.
“He is a first-year coordinator working with a first-year team, so everyone is trying to figure each other out,” said Robert Saleh, a first-time head coach. “All of that takes time. I think they’re doing a fantastic job on offense.”
Let’s examine the recent surge:
• Location, location, location: LaFleur always wanted to call plays from upstairs, which he did for the past two games, but he started out on the sideline because it was Wilson’s preference. In retrospect, that was a mistake.
Not only does he get a better view of the field from the coaches’ booth, but he doesn’t have the distraction of having to huddle with Wilson in between series. He can focus on his play script and leave the face-to-face coaching to senior offensive assistant Matt Cavanaugh and the newly hired John Beck, Wilson’s personal quarterback coach.
LaFleur downplayed the change as a reason for the improvement, but acknowledged, “I feel like everyone sees it a little bit better up there.”
It would be a surprise if you ever see LaFleur on the field again.
• Better tempo: This is the main reason, according to LaFleur, who said, “I’m pleased with just the speed at which we’re playing.”
The entire offense is predicated on timing and tempo. With the inexperienced Wilson, it operated like an engine with a faulty spark plug. In the first six games, the Jets averaged 28.1 seconds in time of possession per play (15th), according to ESPN Stats & Information. With White and Johnson, they have cut it to 25.8 seconds (third).
White has less game experience than Wilson, but he has more practical experience, having been around the league since 2018. It shows. Everything moves quickly, from time in the huddle to time in the pocket. He makes quicker decisions than Wilson, getting through his reads and to his checkdowns in a timely manner.
The time-to-throw numbers, via NFL Next Gen Stats, are telling: White 2.63 seconds, Johnson 2.79 seconds and Wilson 3.10 seconds. Fractions are huge in the NFL.
Wilson’s struggles aren’t unexpected; such is life as a rookie quarterback. As a result, the Jets are paying “the rookie tax,” according to Saleh.
• More wide receivers: LaFleur, criticized for employing too many tight end-based personnel packages, has adjusted his approach. In the past two games, his usage of “12” personnel (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR) has dropped to 18% from 32%.
At the same time, there has been a significant uptick in “10” personnel (1 RB/0 TE/4 WR), a rarely used grouping over the first six games. The usage has gone from 1% to 13%, meaning there’s more speed on the field. It’s interesting to note this change has occurred without their top wide receiver, Corey Davis (hip). It has created more opportunities for rookie Elijah Moore, who has 13 catches, 151 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games.
LaFleur praised the receivers and “how much faster they’re playing. When you’re playing faster, you’re freer and you’re able to go, kind of show the talent you have.”
The Jets have more talent at wide receiver than tight end. They’re finally playing to their strength.
• Aggressive playcalling (kind of): The current narrative is that LaFleur has transformed into a modern-day Mike Martz, ditching his previous tendencies for a daring, wide-open approach that incorporates elements of trickery.
“Yeah, I guess a little bit,” said LaFleur, commenting on whether he has cranked up the aggressiveness.
While it might seem they’re passing more often with White and Johnson, the reality is not much has changed. There has been a small increase in pass plays (from 63% to 69%), but some of that could be attributed to being so far behind against the Colts. The first-down passing rate has remained virtually the same.
What has changed is the sudden unveiling of gadget plays — four in the past two games, compared to none in the first six. We’ve seen laterals and backward passes, mainly involving White, running back Michael Carter and wide receiver Jamison Crowder. And here’s the crazy part: They’ve all worked, including a “Philly Special” on a two-point conversion.
“We call them creative plays, not trick plays,” Saleh said. “But has he gotten a little creative there? For sure.”
Chances are, White will start against the Bills, as Wilson takes another week to recover from his sprained knee. Two things will happen if the offense has another big day: The offense will be stamped as legit and they will have a quarterback controversy.