NY Jets quarterback Zach Wilson and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur are experiencing growing pains together. The journey of the 22-year-old rookie signal-caller and the 34-year-old first-time play-caller is a shared one.
Both Wilson and LaFleur are learning on the job. We are only two weeks in watching them at work, and thus far, it's been a rocky start for arguably the franchise's most crucial duo moving forward. The Jets' hopes for success in the future hinge on the development of Zach Wilson and Mike LaFleur.
The road for this work-in-progress tandem was always going to be a challenging one. But circumstances beyond their control this summer have altered the path for Wilson and LaFleur and slowed down the duo's learning curve.
Back on April 29th, when the Jets drafted their new franchise quarterback, head coach Robert Saleh famously told Wilson, "The biggest thing I want to tell you, remember this. This organization is going to lift you. Not the other way around."
The NY Jets planned to support Zach Wilson as much as possible
Saleh, Joe Douglas, and the organization's goal for Wilson was to give the rookie QB all the support he needed to succeed.
The Jets demonstrated this by utilizing their next top three picks in the draft, on Alijah Vera-Tucker, Elijah Moore, and Michael Carter to go along with their offseason acquisitions of Corey Davis, Keelan Cole, and Morgan Moses.
The Jets were also planning the same support structure for neophyte offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur.
As many who follow the Jets know, Saleh and LaFleur have a close friendship and working relationship that goes back nearly two decades.
In 2004, Saleh and current Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur were graduate assistants together at Central Michigan. That's how Mike LaFleur got to know Saleh back then. Saleh and his brother Matt lived together in the same apartment while they were working as GAs.
The two were living on a very tight budget, and they would go to the LaFleur household down the street to watch TV and eat food. Two luxuries that Saleh and Matt LaFleur did not have at the time.
The experiences not only led to Saleh forming a tight bond with Matt, but also with Matt's younger brother Mike. Saleh was the best man at Matt's wedding, and now Mike has become Saleh's right-hand man with the NY Jets.
After both Saleh and LaFleur were tied at the hip together as assistants in San Francisco, it was only fitting that LaFleur would join him when Saleh got his first head coaching job.
Both were taking on big responsibilities with significant career promotions, with Saleh taking leadership of an entire NFL franchise and LaFleur getting the opportunity to run his own offense.
The NY Jets wanted to support Mike LaFleur just as they did Zach Wilson
Much like Zach Wilson, the plan was to support LaFleur as much as possible in his role as a rookie play-caller. It was a big jump for LaFleur, from being a receivers coach and pass game coordinator to running an entire NFL offense.
To help LaFleur in the transition, the Jets brought along 49ers offensive line coach John Benton to coach the same position with New York and coordinate the team's running game.
Benton was bringing the wide zone-blocking scheme made famous by Shanahan coaching staffs in the past. New York also brought on former college QB and Denver Broncos assistant Rob Calabrese to coach the team's quarterbacks.
But the one person who was supposed to aid Mike LaFleur, Zach Wilson, and the entire Jets offense incredibly was veteran play-caller and noted quarterback guru Greg Knapp.
One of the NFL's most beloved assistants, who had coached for 24 years in the league, was arguably the Jets' best hire on their entire staff this past offseason.
Knapp had many years of experience coaching some of the NFL's best quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Steve Young, Mike Vick, and Matt Ryan. He also brought multiple years of experience in the NFL as a play-caller.
The Jets hired and named Knapp their pass-game specialist. But in truth, the role, Knapp would have played, was going to be more significant than the title he was given.
The NY Jets hoped that Greg Knapp would mentor Zach Wilson and Mike LaFleur
Knapp was going to be a mentor for Mike LaFleur and Zach Wilson to lean on. His knowledge and experience would have benefitted both Wilson and LaFleur greatly.
Unfortunately, on July 17th of this year, Greg Knapp was struck by a motorist near his home when riding his bicycle in San Ramon, California. As a result of the injuries he sustained, Knapp tragically passed away on July 22nd.
Knapp was 58. He is survived by his wife, Charlotte, and three daughters. Knapp's family and loved ones suffered a great loss, as did the entire NFL community.
It was also arguably the biggest loss the Jets suffered this offseason. Particularly as it pertains to the future development of the team's franchise quarterback and its offensive coordinator.
The Jets have since brought on board Matt Cavanaugh as a senior offensive assistant to try and help fill the significant role that Knapp would have provided.
Cavanaugh, a former NFL quarterback, is also a longtime offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He certainly has the resume and experience to help assist the Jets staff, a role he played a decade ago when assisting Mark Sanchez.
But Knapp was the Jets' handpicked choice to help groom both Wilson and LaFleur. Knapp was forming a strong bond with LaFleur and Wilson before his passing.
Mike LaFleur told Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated that the two Jets colleagues had become quite close in a brief amount of time, from hours in the offensive film rooms and meetings to “dozens of dinners” together. They even met up in Napa over the NFL’s summer break, according to Breer.
“LaFleur, Jets quarterbacks coach Rob Calabrese, and Knapp were connected at the hip,” wrote Breer,
Knapp also never got the chance to help Wilson grow as a rookie quarterback in the NFL. A player he fell in love with during the draft process and the brief time that they spent together as Jets. As Hall Of Fame quarterback Steve Young told Peter King back in late July:
"He told me before the draft [that] Zach was the number one quarterback in the draft in his book. After working with him for a while, Knapper loved Zach. He was a grinder. He wanted all the information. I can tell you Knapper was so excited — he was going to take a young kid and give him every chance to be a great player. As a coach, that was his dream. That was his calling."- Steve Young, on Greg Knapp
Greg Knapp's dream and calling in life was to help others fulfill theirs. Hopefully, the memory and experiences shared with Wilson and LaFleur live on with them.h
The journey for the both of them got a bit more challenging without Knapp around to help guide them.
His presence is sorely missed. Now more than ever.