Jets' offseason tough talk has become in-season culture-building. Benching Zach Wilson cemented it

In early August, on the day the New York Jets lost first-round offensive tackle Mekhi Becton due to injury for yet another season, head coach Robert Saleh began to grapple with the impact it could have on Zach Wilson. General manager Joe Douglas had retreated to his office and was lining up potential free agent options to patch the offensive line, while Saleh leaned against a practice facility wall and contemplated what this meant for his presumed franchise quarterback.

I asked him if this would change his calculus for Wilson. After all, losing an anchor tackle wasn’t a small thing.

Saleh brushed off the suggestion.

“It is frustrating, but let’s just call it like it is — nobody cares,” he said. “If you’re going to preach to guys about it being a ‘next man up’ mentality, you have to be prepared to live up to that. You’ve got to perform. End of story. It’s the same expectations for everybody out there. It’s the same expectations for Zach. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us, so we better not be feeling sorry for ourselves.”

He paused for a tick and then underscored a bottom line that would come to define the season ahead.

“We’ve got to find a way to make it work,” Saleh said.

At the time, it didn't seem like much of a revelatory moment. Coaches are notorious for speaking in these kinds of cliches — next man up, get the job done, nobody feels sorry for us, etc. Especially in training camp, when talk is cheap and the losses haven't piled up yet. But there was a very believable no-BS tone in how Saleh was relaying the message on this particular day. The Jets were coming off a deeply disappointing 4-13 season in which Wilson's development and the toothless defense — which was supposed to be Saleh's wheelhouse — were going to be seismic issues in 2022.

Looking back at Saleh’s “no excuses” reaction to the loss of Becton, something else about that day also stands out: Asked to put a coaching microscope on Wilson and come up with his most important point of emphasis, Saleh answered in a nanosecond.

“For me, it’s the intangibles,” he said. “How is he carrying himself? How is he leading? He’s got all the physical tools. We know that. But it’s the intangibles that really set players apart at the quarterback position.”

Once again with those training camp clichés — yet Saleh isn't wrong. A repetitive principle about quarterbacks can get pounded into dust in the NFL every year and still be true. And in this case with the Jets, it has proven true. It's nearly four months later and Zach Wilson's intangibles remain a question for the organization. And coming off last week's remarkably tone-deaf answer about whether he felt like he let the defense down ("No," Wilson said without hesitation), it's probably fair to question whether his leadership has some distance to travel, too.

It's fair to presume that this is how Wilson got benched by the Jets Wednesday. By blowing through a red light question and wrecking in the middle of the intersection where avenues of leadership and "no excuses" meet. And to make matters worse, doing it in a season where that other issue from last year, Saleh's defense, has been catching nothing but green lights.

Reflecting back on Saleh in August and then pressing it against Wilson’s performance and recent demeanor, it’s no wonder he’s getting sat down. Perhaps it’s not permanent, as Saleh suggested on Wednesday. But it’s certainly necessary when so many other parts of the roster and coaching staff have gotten themselves over a significant hump.

In a way, you could argue that what is transpiring right now is a good thing for the Jets. Because it’s suggestive that the franchise is becoming more of product of in-season culture building than offseason tough-talking. The franchise is 6-4, stacking young building blocks and making progress that’s worth fighting for. Particularly after six straight years of averaging less than five wins a season and feeling hopeless almost anywhere you looked on the depth chart.

Having standards is a good thing. Living up to them is a great thing. Especially when that applies to a franchise quarterback who was selected No. 2 overall and given ample opportunities to showcase some kind of growth. Wilson has had some moments, but not enough to justify a belief that he's on the right track. Right now, he isn't. That means something had to change. It means the Jets had to showcase to everyone and themselves that there was a willingness to make a hard choice — even if some might not agree with it.

That doesn’t mean Wilson is done in New York. It just means the program has changed and he’s on notice. Like Saleh said about the Becton injury in August, this might be frustrating — but nobody cares. Find a way to make it work. Understand the expectations and act accordingly.

That mentality is precisely what is shaping the Jets right now. And Wednesday is the proof that it now applies to everyone in the organization.

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