How can Robert Saleh win back the NY Jets locker room?

What can Robert Saleh do to win back the locker room?
NY Jets, Robert Saleh
NY Jets, Robert Saleh / Elsa/GettyImages

It seems to just keep getting worse and worse for NY Jets’ fans. After all of the buildup and excitement of the preseason, draft, and summer workouts, this season has gone off the rails before September ends. 

Fans watched horrified as Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles just four snaps into his Jets career. Miraculously, though, the team still won the game, headlined by four Josh Allen turnovers and a punt return walk-off touchdown from undrafted rookie Xavier Gipson.

Since then, it has gone from bad to worse. The Jets lost embarrassingly 30-10 against the Cowboys, with much of the attention on the poor offensive line performances and struggles of the defense. Three late Zach Wilson interceptions seemed to be forgotten. 

Nothing about Wilson was forgotten in week three against the Patriots. Wilson struggled all day, amassing only 56 yards of offense on the Jets' first nine drives of the game.

A late touchdown drive made the game closer than it ever felt, as the Jets lost 15-10. As a fan watching the game, it was obvious that the reason the Jets lost was because of Wilson’s inability to move the ball or gain first downs.

Shockingly, in the aftermath of the game, coach Robert Saleh publicly not only defended Wilson as the “unquestioned starter” but also claimed that players “needed to step up around him” if the team was to win.

I warned earlier this week that these comments did not bode well for Saleh, and it appears they have already struck a nerve with some Jets in the locker room.

Rich Cimini’s Podcast

On Tuesday’s edition of the Jets Flight Deck Podcast, hosted by ESPN Jets writer Rich Cimini, Cimini commented on the postgame debrief of Saleh.

He was very critical of the coach, claiming that many felt his comments painted him as a “Zach Wilson apologist.” Not only did Saleh defend Wilson publicly, as he should have, but he also took his comments a step further.

He argued that Wilson was not the reason the team lost at all and that he played a really good game, specifically mentioning he didn’t turn the ball over. He also stated, again publicly, that the team around Wilson needs to be better to win games.

As Cimini said in his podcast, these rubbed some guys the wrong way, especially on the defense. Don’t forget, it was the defense last year that lost their cool and forced Saleh’s hand to bench Wilson after the terrible 10-3 New England loss.

As Cimini further noted, the defense and other skill positions see that, if this were any other player at any other position, they would be benched already, and if not, they'd at least be forced to compete for their weekly job.

Instead, Wilson is getting a complete pass. He’s called the team’s “unquestioned starter.” Saleh is going so far as to blame others for Wilson’s inability.

Cimini wrapped up the segment by stating that he’s already heard grumblings from the locker room about how the comments are rubbing guys the wrong way. They are upset and frustrated, and Cimini concludes by saying the locker room is “ready to implode."

How did we get here?

There are so many levels to the problems with the Jets that it becomes difficult to identify how this all went so bad, so fast.

Going back to last year, Wilson showed on numerous occasions that he simply doesn’t have what it takes to play NFL quarterback. At different points throughout the year, he was benched for Mike White, now retired Joe Flacco, and now non-rostered Chris Streveler.

The worst of these benchings came during a must-win game on Thursday Night Football against the Jaguars. Wilson played so poorly through three quarters that despite White being injured, the Jets still removed Wilson for practice squad player Streveler, who led the Jets on a few decent drives.

Also alarming last year was how quickly Mike White got the support of the team and looked capable of playing NFL offense. Mike White is a career backup player and not even a very good one at that.

But the difference between White and Wilson was enormous. Wilson was actively losing the Jets games, whereas White was running an NFL offense at a mediocre level.

The failure of the organization to not only bring Wilson back after his abysmal season but to also not bring in any competition for the QB2 job was malpractice. They were always one hit away from Wilson, and although no one expected it to be four plays in, it was always a possibility.

The team and the coaches can publicly say whatever they want about Wilson, but the reality is that once Rodgers went down and the Buffalo game ended, the team realized that the season was in jeopardy.

Wilson can’t play the position. He has no confidence in himself, and no one has confidence in him. The first three offensive performances have been embarrassingly bad, as Wilson is completing just 52 percent of his throws and is on pace for just 2,600 yards and 11 touchdowns to 23 interceptions. That is not winning football.

It should be no surprise that a defense that is surrendering just 18 points per game is already frustrated by Wilson’s inability to play the position. It is further compounded by Saleh suggesting the defense needs to be even better for the team to win games. What exactly are they supposed to do?

Looking ahead for the NY Jets

Moving forward, the Jets have to play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night and also have games against the Broncos and Eagles on the schedule before the bye week.

If Wilson looks bad against the Chiefs, it could get ugly fast. Kansas City just beat the Bears 41-10 last week, and although I don’t think this Jets defense gives up 41 points, I could easily see 28-7 or 24-3 as realistic options.

With Wilson, can they even beat the Broncos? I would argue probably not, and on the road, that would be a tough game even if Rodgers was playing. The Eagles' game before the bye can get ugly also.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Jets will be 1-5 at the bye week if Saleh continues to support Wilson and have him be the unquestioned starter. For a team that had preseason Super Bowl aspirations, they will certainly implode at 1-5.

If Wilson struggles again this week, they must turn to Trevor Siemian against the Broncos. Even just a change to a new starter could spark life into the team. 2-4 sounds much better than 1-5, especially when the schedule lightens up down the stretch.

Turning to Siemian could be enough to get the Jets a win against the Broncos and then allow the team to regroup during the bye week. If they can regroup, with the easier schedule, they could pull off a few quick wins against lackluster teams and make a late-season push.

The bottom line here is that Saleh must start holding Wilson accountable for his lackluster performances, at the least. Even if he does not want to bash Wilson publicly, he needs to state that Wilson struggled or contributed to the loss, and he needs to be better, just as he would any other player or position group.

Even if he does hold Wilson accountable, it might be too late. If Saleh loses the locker room this year, he should start packing his bags early. If the locker room turns, Saleh will be gone, and rightfully so.