Over the past few weeks, it only took a visit or two to the Jets’ locker room to feel the love for Mike White. You could hear it in the terms of endearment the players used to describe their quarterback.
They called him a baller, a soldier and a warrior. They repeatedly called him a dog.
The Jets appreciate White’s long-shot backstory, his generosity of spirit, and his refusal to allow the brutality of pro football to keep him from coming back for more. White feels an obligation to his teammates, no matter how loudly his ribs are barking at him, and in turn those teammates would like nothing more than to call him the one thing they can’t yet call him:
White is 2-4 as a starter, 1-2 this year. It’s a small sample size, and he was indeed knocked out of last year’s Colts game after a fast start — that loss wasn’t on him, in other words. White has played at a high level for most of his time on the field in 2021 and 2022, so he clearly looks more like part of the solution than part of the problem, which is something that could not be said of the would-be franchise player is replaced.
Given how Zach Wilson fared on the road against New England, it’s hard to imagine the No. 2-overall pick in 2021 leading the Jets to victory at Minnesota or at Buffalo. Without question, the team’s best chance to steal one of those games was to put Mike White under center, and the 171st pick in 2018 played his heart out both times.
But there’s a reason the quarterback is the only player who gets assigned a W or L after every game. Although his passing yardage numbers have dwarfed Wilson’s, White failed to make the extra play needed to beat either the Vikings or Bills. It’s hard to define what, exactly, he could’ve done to seize one of those games, other than perhaps leading Braxton Berrios a bit with that fourth-and-goal throw in Minnesota. Bottom line: In a game of inches the past two weeks, the Jets have come up a few yards short.
Asked Thursday if a quarterback’s ability to find a way to win is a skill that can be coached up or something more innate in an either-you-have-it-or-you-don’t form, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur defaulted to a lot of coach-speak nothingness about victories requiring contributions from all 11 players, or all 22 players, or blah blah blah. The greatest to ever do it, Tom Brady and Joe Montana, were later draft picks with moderate physical gifts and an otherworldly capacity to make the biggest plays in the biggest moments.
Winning is a talent, and they had it, and it was far more important to the cause than whatever their nickelback and noseguard co-workers were doing.
So that is Mike White’s final frontier. He has inspired his teammates to wear “Mike F’N White” T-shirts, and he has compelled Sunday’s opposing head coach, Detroit’s Dan Campbell, a first-ballot Badass Hall of Famer, to go on and on about his ability to take a punch.
“When you see a guy with that sort of toughness and resolve and commitment to the team,” Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said, “it’s a powerful thing.”
White has proven he can absorb one of the most vicious straight-on hits (from Buffalo’s Matt Milano) that just about any quarterback has ever absorbed and returned to the game. He has proven he can make the short throw, and that he can make plays downfield, and that he can fire a fastball through a tight window on fourth-and-long. He has proven he can lead the offense in ways Wilson did not.
Now he appears ready to prove he can make a start seven days after landing in a hospital. Still sore on Thursday, White said he had no doubt he would play against the Lions, likely with some padding around those ribs. His backup for the first time will be Wilson, who hurdled Joe Flacco on the depth chart after impressing head coach Robert Saleh with the work he did on his fundamental footwork and delivery.
Saleh said his goal is to get Wilson back out there, and the deposed quarterback said he still believes he represents the future of the franchise. But this isn’t about merely holding off Wilson in an intramural battle to keep a job. This is about White taking the next step in the evolution of a potential long-term starter for a title contender.
The good news? He understands that the final score is his responsibility.
“When you’re leading an offense,” White said, “first and foremost you’ve got to figure out how to get it done, whether it’s throwing the ball, getting our run plays in the right position. … By any means necessary, I’ve got to figure it out. And it starts with me.”
The Jets will need to score a lot of points to beat the high-flying Lions. More than anything, they’ll need their tough-guy quarterback to find a way to win.