Jets Failed Zach Wilson by Ignoring Mike LaFleur’s Red Flags

Zach Wilson

Getty New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson calls out pre-snap directions on October 3, 2021.

When the New York Jets hired Robert Saleh to be their new head coach in 2021, most fans were happy with the decision.

There was one large concern, however, Saleh was a defensive-minded coach and the Jets needed to develop a franchise quarterback — whether that was Sam Darnold or someone new. That’s why the offensive coordinator hire was so crucial towards the franchise’s long-term success, but Joe Douglas never really had much say on who that man might be.

Saleh sold himself to the Jets as a package deal with rising star Mike LaFleur — and that was his single greatest mistake so far as head coach. The latest “offensive guru” is a Kyle Shanahan disciple who is also the younger brother of Green Bay Packers HC Matt LaFleur (Saleh’s best man). One could argue that the personal connection gave him the inside track at the job.

Since joining New York he’s shown just how ill-prepared he was for this promotion going back to his media blunders during training camp, but Douglas should have realized he was being sold a bill of goods long before this based on these major red flags.

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LaFleur’s Mentor Is Overrated

The Jets ended up entrusting their future in BYU product Zach Wilson, a generational prospect that is only 22 years old. They entrusted his development with LaFleur and Rob Calabrese though, as well as the late Greg Knapp whose passing was a horrible tragedy.

Matt Cavanaugh eventually joined the staff after Knapp’s death but LaFleur has always been the most important figure in the room, being that he’s responsible for calling the plays. The former San Francisco 49ers passing game coordinator has learned most of what he knows from Shanahan, following his mentor from Cleveland, to Atlanta, to San Fran.

Now besides his last name, Coach Shanahan’s original claim to fame was Matt Ryan’s MVP season, which lead to a Super Bowl appearance on the back of an explosive west coast offense. His impressive resume with the Falcons ended up earning him a head coaching deal with the Niners, which turned into a six-year extension in 2020.

At this point, Shanahan was one of the hottest coaching candidates in the NFL, but it’s been downhill from there.

In 2016, Atlanta’s offense ranked first in the NFL in points scored. Shanahan and LaFleur joined San Francisco in 2017. Their offensive ranks from that point on are below.

  • 2017: 20th in points, 21st in rush yards, 9th in pass yards.
  • 2018: 21st in points, 13th in rush yards, 15th in pass yards.
  • 2019*: 2nd in points, 2nd in rush yards, 13th in pass yards.
  • 2020: 21st in points, 15th in rush yards, 12th in pass yards.
  • 2021 (no LaFleur): 20th in points, 12th in rush yards, 20th in pass yards.

Outside of the Super Bowl campaign in 2019, which was also aided by Saleh’s top-ranked defense, Shanahan’s offensive statistics have been pretty lackluster as a head coach. His unit has ranked 20th or higher in points scored four out of five seasons and his win-loss record is worse.

Connor Hughes of The Athletic recently pointed out that Shanahan has one winning season as an HC, the 2019 Super Bowl run. Take away that campaign and the highly touted coach is a combined 18-35. Include it and he’s only 31-38.

I’ll admit, I was enamored by the LaFleur hire too after Adam Gase, mostly because I prayed we would get that 2016 Falcons or 2019 Niners offense — like most fans. After six weeks of football, I’m disgusted by what I’ve seen and stunned by the realization of these statistics. The difference is that I didn’t hire the Jets OC, Saleh and Douglas did.

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Inconsistent Track Record Was Far Too Risky

As fans, we all expected the Green & White brass to do their homework on LaFleur, and in hindsight, his track record is spotty. First off, the former Shanahan mentee has never called plays. This was always a major risk, being that the plan was to draft a rookie QB.

Diving into the passing analytics, LaFleur’s side of the offense only ranked in the top 10 once (9th) during his run in San Fran. Granted, it was consistently in the top 15 and has decreased to 20th in 2021, but these numbers aren’t anything special.

He’s also only 34 years of age, just 12 years older than the youthful Wilson and one year younger than punter Thomas Morstead. Right guard Greg Van Roten and tight end Ryan Griffin are the elder statesmen on the offensive side. Both are three years younger than LaFleur at age 31.

Then there are his interpersonal communication skills with players. Whether it was done accidentally or on purpose, the folksy OC seemed to piss off left tackle Mekhi Becton this summer after calling out his pass protection during a press conference. He’s also kept Denzel Mims on the bench despite the former second-rounder’s production on the field. Becton even tweeted “UNLEASH MIMS!!!!” from the sidelines.

This offense has been historically poor during the first half of games and that’s been the only constant. Just as the sun rises every morning, LaFleur’s offense puts up a zero in the first quarter every week.

There have been many complaints as to why that is, from the questionable play-calling to the head-scratching usage of skill sets, to the play design itself. A recent example from Week 7 came on the quarterback hit that injured Wilson, where LaFleur’s negligent scheming was actually responsible for the blocking mismatch. New York Daily News reporter DJ Bien-Aime shared the explanation from the OC’s latest press conference.

“You never want to put your tight ends in a situation where they have to block a guy like [Matt] Judon,” stated LaFleur after the pass-rusher blew past Griffin — yet he did. His explanation was basically that he took a chance in an attempt to catch Bill Belichick off-guard. The end result was Mike White.

This is LaFleur’s first year on the job and the hope is that he learns from his mistakes, but the early returns have been atrocious. The OC has failed Zach Wilson, and by ignoring all these glaring red flags, both Saleh and Douglas have failed their franchise quarterback too.

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