FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — With starter Zach Wilson still recovering from a knee injury, New York Jets coach Robert Saleh pulled a quarterback stunner on Wednesday, opting to start recently acquired Joe Flacco over upstart Mike White on Sunday.
The decision came two days after Saleh, defending White after his four-interception game against the Buffalo Bills, chided the media, saying that “now everyone wants to throw him away. He deserves better than that.”
Explaining the move, Saleh said he wanted Flacco, 36, to face the Miami Dolphins because his “calm and experience” would help the offense against Miami’s blitz-heavy defense.
The Jets (2-7) were hoping that Wilson, who remains day-to-day after a posterior cruciate ligament sprain nearly four weeks ago, would be ready to face the Dolphins. If not, it was widely assumed that White — only three weeks removed from a 405-yard passing performance in Wilson’s absence — would again get the nod.
Instead of White, a fan favorite, the Jets are giving Flacco his first start since Nov. 22, 2020, when he replaced the injured Sam Darnold for the Jets. Flacco, obtained in an Oct. 25 trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, saw his first 2021 action last Sunday in a mop-up role. He completed three passes, including a touchdown, in a 45-17 loss to the Bills.
“Joe’s got a history,” Saleh said. “He’s in the record books all over the place. He’s a world champion, so he’s got a history of playing good ball. One drive didn’t solidify anything; it’s his history more than anything. He’s seen these type of defenses many times over.
“There’s a young group that’s playing its butts off, and it’s just a chance to get the chains moving and get the ball to our guys. Just like Mike proved, if you can get the ball to our guys, they can do a lot of damage with it. In this situation, where you’re seeing a very complex defense, we feel like Joe can get the ball to those guys.”
Flacco said he received the news Tuesday night from senior offensive assistant Matt Cavanaugh, who coaches the quarterbacks. He said Saleh reached him by text.
“I don’t know if I’m surprised about anything in this league anymore,” Flacco said.
Flacco, whose hope is to play beyond this season, said he relishes the opportunity.
“You can’t take this game for granted,” he said. “I’m 14 years in. I want to play now more than ever. When you’re a backup and you get traded, all kinds of things run through your head. You want to play. Not only that, but you want to prove again to yourself that you can play. A lot of emotions come up.”
White will be the backup Sunday, while Wilson will be inactive for the fourth straight game.
Saleh said White expressed “a lot of disappointment” upon being told that he’s headed back to the bench. He went 1-2 as the starter, with four touchdowns and six interceptions. His stats weren’t good, but he energized the offense and drew glowing praise from teammates.
The decision raises questions because the Jets are a rebuilding team with no shot at the playoffs, so it would seem more beneficial in the long term to give the inexperienced White another chance to play while Wilson recovers. Saleh seemed to be leaning toward White on Monday.
“I want to be very, very clear on this one: My comments on Monday were because people wanted him out of New York,” Saleh said. “What Mike has done in three weeks as a starter has proven to this organization and, in my opinion, to the entire New York fan base, that he’s a capable quarterback who can play in this league.”
Added Saleh: “His story is not done being written. He has solidified, in my opinion, his stay here as a Jet.”
The Dolphins are “a completely different challenge,” said Saleh, adding that Flacco can make quick pre-snap decisions that can offset Miami’s blitz. But Flacco’s lack of mobility could be a problem. Last week, the Dolphins recorded four sacks against Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was frustrated and ineffective against 24 defensive-back blitzes.
“This is why we brought in a guy like Joe, for situations like this,” Saleh said.
Flacco, wearing a mask at his news conference, confirmed that he has not received the COVID-19 vaccination. That explains why he was unable to practice with the Jets the week of his trade; he had to pass certain league protocols. At the time, Flacco said the delay was due to family matters, not anything related to COVID-19.
“Listen, I definitely have my reasons,” said Flacco, explaining why he’s not vaccinated. “Honestly, I’d probably like to talk about this topic more than anybody. It’s one of those things that you can debate all the time. But, overall, I feel like it’s more of a distraction than anything. So I feel like if you talk about it too much and give you all my beliefs, it’s more of a distraction than anything. I think the most important thing is going to play a football game.”
Flacco didn’t wear a mask at his post-trade news conference on Oct. 29, an apparent violation of the league’s COVID-19 protocols. However, there was no discipline from the NFL.