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Amidst a Budding Quarterback Controvery, LaFleur Has Proven His Worth

Mike LaFleur has flipped the script these last few weeks with Zach Wilson on the sidelines, putting backup Mike White and the Jets' offense in the best position to succeed.

“Mike White! Mike White! Mike White!”

That’s what the New York Jets are chanting as their quarterback walks in the locker room. Nearly two weeks removed from his stellar performance in a win over the Cincinnati Bengals, White still hears his name echoed by his teammates on a regular basis.

“I go, ‘that’s something that’s got to stop at some point, guys,’” White said on Thursday.

Like most of the Jets' fan base, the players themselves aren’t quite accustomed to a quarterback putting up numbers like they saw against Cincinnati, much less from a guy who was viewed as a subpar backup.

If not for a dismal defensive performance just four days later, though, lightning would have struck twice for New York. For all the fanfare White has gotten, Josh Johnson took over for him after two drives in Indianapolis and stuffed the stat sheet himself, throwing for 317 yards and three touchdowns with a 103.4 passer rating.

That marks two weeks in a row, both since Zach Wilson suffered a PCL injury, that the offense has soared, reaching the 30-point mark both times. The Jets have notched 997 yards, the third most in franchise history over a two-game span. Wilson will miss a third consecutive week as he looks to get back to 100%, so White will have at least one more shot against the league’s best defense to show he can be “the guy.” And maybe he can be.

But maybe, just maybe, after years of searching for the right guy, the Jets have multiple quarterbacks on the roster who can get the job done down the road. Because amidst a pseudo-controversy at the quarterback position, the Jets have quietly found their guy. His name is Mike LaFleur. And his sudden emergence as a dynamic offensive coordinator in today’s NFL has catalyzed this upstart offense.

READ: Zach Wilson Opens Up About Jets' Quarterback Situation, Knee Injury

The Jets’ scoring outbursts have certainly coincided with Wilson’s recent absence. They’ve also correlated with LaFleur’s move to the booth. Previously on the sideline to aid Wilson during games, New York’s offensive coordinator was out of his comfort zone, unable to see the field from the bird’s eye view he grew accustomed to in San Francisco. When White stepped in, he was able to make that switch back.

“Just to be truthful with you guys, I always wanted to be up there,” LaFleur said after the loss to Indianapolis. “Right when I first got here, that’s 100% where I was gonna go. Watching Kyle [Shanahan] in 2016 and then being up there the last two years in San Francisco, I feel like everyone sees it a little bit better up there.”

LaFleur plans to stay in the booth even when Wilson returns. New York hired John Beck—who has acted as Wilson’s personal quarterback coach—to the staff after the bye week, giving the rookie someone to meet with during games and allowing LaFleur to focus on play-calling.

Upstairs or downstairs, it’s the offense LaFleur has transformed that has made all the difference. It’s an offense that has become more aggressive as a whole despite eradicating specifically aggressive plays.

Often criticized for being too run-heavy to start games and putting Wilson in difficult third-and-long situations, LaFleur flipped the script with White. He opened the game with five straight passing plays against the Bengals and four straight against the Colts. He’s used those to get the offense into a rhythm, allowing him to sprinkle in gadget plays like wide receiver passes, reverses and flea flickers.

With Wilson, the Jets experienced the chaotic type of aggressive plays that penalized them, chucking balls deep down the field, trying to find big plays with reckless abandon. With White and Johnson, LaFleur has called the controlled, premeditated type of aggressive plays that have largely garnered success.

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The biggest difference, though, are the simple throws. White and Johnson have taken the easy stuff, picking up large chunks of their yardage finding receivers in the short and intermediate pockets that the defense gives them.

Through five full starts, 54% of Wilson’s passes traveled ten yards or less in the air. Those resulted in 89 yards per game. In the last two weeks, 66% of the passes from White and Johnson have traveled ten yards or less, resulting in 261 yards per game.

Where Zach Wilson’s average depth of target is 8.8 yards, fifth highest in the league, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, White’s sits at just 5.7 yards, lowest in the league.

A lot of that comes with the NFL experience of White has, even if he didn’t see action until a couple weeks ago. Johnson, who hasn’t thrown enough pass attempts to qualify, has oodles of experience too. That’s given them the leg up on Wilson thus far from a production standpoint. A lot of it is also the shift in play-calling, though.

The Jets invested valuable draft picks in Elijah Moore and Michael Carter, and LaFleur and his staff are growing to understand that they’ll get the greatest return on their investment if they can put the ball in those guys’ hands in space. Running a smaller back like Carter into the A-gaps and targeting Moore a couple times on deep shots wasn’t the best way to use them. Finding them underneath and allowing them to pick up yards after the catch is.

READ: Jets' Rookie Elijah Moore Is Finally Breaking Out

And when you bury teams with the short stuff to those guys, you open up a shot or two behind the defense, like White did finding Moore against Indianapolis.

This offense can work with Wilson. He has the ability to do everything White and Johnson have done with twice the talent. He just needs to get back to the basics. And that’s going to be tough for a quarterback who was drafted largely because of his big arm and his improvisational skills. But Wilson needs to wield those tools sparingly, and understand that some plays don’t need to be improvised. They’re right there in front of him. And if he can make those and move the ball down the field, the big play will come.

Buffalo will be the biggest test of the new-look LaFleur offense. The Bills have the best defense in football for a reason.

“They’re very talented, they play very hard and they’ve been in this system for so long,” LaFleur said. “They don’t need to even communicate because they know where they’re going to be. They don’t seem like they’re never out of place. It’s been a machine that’s been in the process for four years now.”

If Mike White can get it done again this week, maybe Wilson won’t see the field for a while. Regardless, Jets fans should rest assured that if LaFleur can stay hot, the Jets can be competitive with whoever lines up under center. And that’s something to be excited about in New York.

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