Mike White has virtually no chance of becoming another Tom Brady, the greatest of them all. But that does not mean White cannot develop into a special long-term quarterback, and the kind of player who can someday win the Jets a Super Bowl.
The kind of player who gives the Jets a better chance of ending their biblical title drought than Zach Wilson does.
Late Sunday afternoon, after White delivered perhaps the most improbably amazing debut in NFL history in the Jets’ 34-31 upset of Cincinnati, I asked Saleh if it were possible that his first-time starter could join the list of long-shot athletes who came out of left field, seized an opportunity, and never looked back.
“We’ll go day-to-day,” Saleh responded, “but anything is possible, right?
“Anything is possible.”
How could he say anything else after he watched his guy shred a good Bengals team that had just shredded the Ravens? White threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns, completed 82 percent of his attempts, caught a two-point conversion pass, executed a game-clinching sneak, overcame two deflected interceptions and a concussion scare, and inspired the MetLife Stadium crowd to chant his name.
Damn right anything is possible.
Twenty years ago, on the first Sunday football was played after 9/11, I was standing on the field in Foxborough when the Jets’ Mo Lewis knocked out Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe with the loudest hit I’ve ever heard. In trotted Brady, the 199th pick in the 2000 draft. He did not look like a man who was ready to win his first of seven Super Bowl titles. He looked more like a scarecrow who was about to get Bill Belichick fired.
Bledsoe overcame life-threatening internal injuries to return later that season, fully expecting to reclaim his job. Some Patriots veterans wanted him to replace Brady, and why not? After Bledsoe landed a record $103 million contract the previous spring, the Associated Press reported the deal “virtually guarantees he will spend his entire career with the New England Patriots.”
Bledsoe lasted all of two starts on that contract, then was traded after the season to Buffalo. Belichick thought he had a better player at that position in Brady, and he didn’t care about the size of Bledsoe’s contract, or the fact that Robert Kraft wanted his veteran quarterback and good friend to be the face of the franchise as the team entered the new stadium being built next door.
Just as Saleh should not care now that the Jets traded Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick, to clear room for Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick, to lead the Jets for the next 10-15 years.
This is certainly not to say that White is a better player than Wilson, not after one magical start. White is still the same guy who was cut four times last season by these same Jets, and still the same prospect who was taken 169 spots later in his draft (2018, by Dallas) than Wilson was taken in his. But this is to say that strange things do happen in sports, some best described as temporary (Linsanity) and others as permanent (Brady). Nine years ago, after giving big free-agent money to a quarterback named Matt Flynn, Seattle gave the starting job to its fourth-round pick, Russell Wilson, because he turned out to be a better football player than Flynn. Good organizations and good coaches embrace the fact that difference-making athletes arrive in all kinds of shapes and sizes, under all kinds of circumstances.
Recovering from a brutal beatdown at Belichick’s hands, Saleh was smart enough Sunday to stay open-minded to a possibility that seemed absurd the day before — that Mike White would come dressed for Halloween as Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, take your pick, and that the Jets would explode for more than 500 yards, and that beleaguered offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur — kicked upstairs into the booth — would pitch a perfect game.
White completed his first 11 passes on the way to becoming the first Jets quarterback in more than two decades to throw for at least 400 yards, and when the crowd expressed its appreciation, the incredulous 26-year-old journeyman asked himself, “Are they chanting my name?”
Wearing eye black and a flak jacket in his postgame news conference, White said he “100 percent” believes he’s a quality NFL starter and that he has “an immense amount of faith in myself.” He would not say that his next mission is to keep the starting job from Wilson. So be it.
On his end, Saleh named White Thursday night’s starter over Joe Flacco (who has to be wondering what the hell he’s gotten himself into) and discussed how opportunity and reps are all that separate those who play and those who don’t. Saleh called White “fantastic” and said he deserves to stand among those who play.
As he left the locker room dressed in street clothes, White hardly looked like the NFL’s best player (for a day). He appeared stunningly skinny and ordinary as he exited the stadium to delayed cheers of the fans behind barricades who clearly needed a moment or two to recognize him.
The sun was setting in the distance, but crazy as it sounds, this might’ve been the dawn of a new Jets era. Good for Robert Saleh for saying he is open to that possibility.