The New York Jets were literally inches away from defeating Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17.
Unfortunately, the NFL tends to be unforgiving when you come up short — especially when Brady is standing on the opposite side of the football field — and the Green & White did just that on a crucial decision to try and ice the game on a fourth down and two from the Bucs seven-yard line.
With a 24-20 Jets lead and the game on the line, rookie Zach Wilson attempted a quarterback sneak instead of handing the ball to playmaker Braxton Berrios on a reverse. It was an odd play call, to say the least, and both Robert Saleh and Wilson explained the game-changing stop that led to their immediate demise.
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Lack of Communication in Crunch Time
Coach Saleh was asked about the final offensive play several times throughout his postgame press conference. In the end, the placement of blame from the Jets HC was clear — it was on the coaching staff, not the rookie signal-caller.
“It was a reverse to Berrios,” he began, “quarterback has an option based on the look that he has to sneak the ball. In that situation, we wanted the ball handed off to Berrios but we did a very poor job as a coaching staff communicating that in the huddle and Zach executed the playbook as it’s designed… poor job on our part for lack of communication.”
For those that aren’t familiar with the Xs and Os of a football playbook, this call normally has two options for Wilson. One is the designed hand-off to the wide receiver, Berrios, who would come across the backfield on an end-around run. The other is a QB sneak where Wilson pushes forward himself.
Normally, the quarterback would make that choice based on the defensive front and what they’re showing — commonly referred to as a pre-snap read. In this case with it being such a huge moment, Saleh’s point was that the coaching staff should have told Wilson the sneak was no longer an option from two yards out.
Later, Saleh reiterated: “Braxton’s one of our best players and we wanted the ball in his hands, and we just didn’t communicate it the way we needed to across the board. [Wilson] executed the playbook and in that situation, we needed to communicate to him — hand this ball off no matter what.”
The head coach added that it should have been a first-down if not for the lack of communication and that “makes you sick.”
Considering that the Jets took a timeout before this pivotal moment, it’s almost mind-numbing that such a simple mistake cost them the victory. When asked who this relaying of information falls on specifically, Saleh did not mince words.
“That’s Mike [LaFleur] to Zach. It’s simple, he calls the play and says hand this ball off no matter what, and that’s all the communication that needs to be said. And it never got across, and so Zach executed the playbook as designed,” he stated.
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Wilson Takes Full Blame
Saleh may have put the monumental error on the coaching staff, and his offensive coordinator in particular, but the rookie quarterback felt it was a collective mistake.
“I think everyone is just being a little hard on themselves because of what happened. I think from an offensive perspective, we just got to execute the play that we had called. They’re learning for next time. If next time they really do want that handed off, we’ll communicate that but I just think when something doesn’t work out it’s easy to say after the fact,” Wilson voiced, defending LaFleur.
“I did what I thought was necessary to do right there,” the rookie added later. “The hard thing right here is it’s easy to say — I hand that off and we get the first down. Say it’s reversed, say I handed that off and we get stuffed, now everyone’s saying — hey, why didn’t you take the open A gap? It goes both ways. Unfortunately, this is a really good defense we’re playing against and those guys do a great job upfront and we just didn’t execute right there. It’s part of the game, that’s why situations like fourth and two are so hard… we’re all going to learn from that and it’s part of it but I thought LaFleur did an amazing job today of just putting us in good situations. We get that and no one says anything.”
You could argue that the BYU product played his best game of the season against Brady in what should have been a Jets win. Coming off his top Pro Football Focus grade of the year in Week 16, Wilson has been getting better and better down the stretch with most of his strongest playmakers sidelined.
It has been an impressive run for the rookie, who has had some help from an unlikely breakout candidate in Berrios. The quarterback’s new favorite weapon spoke on the final play.
“I fully trust 2 [Wilson] in whatever he does and whatever decision he makes,” the wide receiver replied. “If he makes that call, then I’m riding with that call.”
Berrios described the play as having a “two-way go,” which would back Saleh’s statement that LaFleur failed to take the option off the table. The speedy slot receiver finished with two touchdowns against the Bucs off 10 total offensive touches (77 total yards).
“I thought our guys were outstanding today, they deserved better,” Coach Saleh told the media. “We won that game and we’ve gotta be better for our players.”
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