FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets have the "best scheme in the world" on offense, coach Robert Saleh has said on multiple occasions. But they don't have the best offense in the world, that's for sure. Heck, they don't even have the most productive offense in their own town, as the boys from Hanover Park High are averaging more than 38 points per game.
Clearly, Saleh has a strong belief in the Kyle Shanahan version of the West Coast offense, which is tried and true, but it doesn't work on auto pilot. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur can't call plays based on cheat sheets he saved from his years at Shanahan's side. He must provide a sound plan and the players must execute that plan.
Right now, there's a huge disconnect.
The Jets look utterly clueless at the start of games. Their first-half tape is an endless loop of three-and-outs, penalties and negative plays, and it's "crushing us," quarterback Zach Wilson said Sunday. In five games, the Jets (1-4) have scored 13 first-half points and none on opening drives. In 32 games under previous coach Adam Gase, the Jets actually scored 75 points on opening drives, 12th in the NFL over that span. These Jets haven't even scored points in the first quarter.
Blame the playcaller, right? It must be LaFleur's fault.
Well, yes and no.
While LaFleur has a tendency to be pass-happy early in games, putting too much pressure on Wilson, he can't be blamed for routine throws that fail to connect because of off-target throws or dropped passes. Look at Sunday's 27-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, specifically Wilson's first eight incompletions: Four were bad throws (including an interception), two were drops and two were throwaways. If the bad throws and drops went as complete passes, it could've been an entirely different game.
Is that LaFleur's fault? Of course not.
The Jets are experiencing acute growing pains, a symptom of having a rookie quarterback. Wilson can make spectacular, off-platform throws, but he struggles with the "boring" plays, to use one of Saleh's words. His completion rate on attempts of 10 yards or less is only 61%, 27th among qualified passers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Fellow rookie quarterback Mac Jones of the New England Patriots leads the league at 77% from that distance.
You can't blame the coach if a player misses layups.
Overall, Wilson's first-half numbers are terrible: Six interceptions and zero touchdown passes. That's one of the big reasons why the offense can't score. Because of his inexperience, it takes time to get into the rhythm of the game and get a feel for what he's seeing from the defense.
Example: On Sunday, his interception came on a "bench" route to Keelan Cole, a ball thrown behind the wide receiver. Later, in the fourth quarter, Wilson hit Cole for 23 yards on the exact same route. A perfect throw.
Saleh said he will huddle with LaFleur during the bye week to discuss the bad starts, but he's not dissatisfied with the playcalling. He said a lot of Wilson's improvement will occur organically, through repetition, getting familiar with the speed and schemes of defenses.
"It's not easy being a rookie quarterback," Saleh said Monday. "If you look at -- I'll just throw a guy out there -- [Buffalo Bills quarterback] Josh Allen, who everyone wanted to throw away after his first two years. His first five games of his rookie year are damn near identical to what our young kid is going through. He's going to get better."
Saleh is fiercely loyal to LaFleur, whom he has known his entire adult life. When it was suggested maybe LaFleur's 15-play script to start games needs to be tweaked, Saleh looked in other directions.
"It's a collective thing," he said. "Sometimes the scripted call might not be worth a damn, sometimes the execution isn't there and sometimes it's a really good play by the other side of the ball."
A stronger commitment to the running game would help. In the first half, LaFleur has called more passes (71) than runs (54), although it's skewed in the other direction on first down -- 29 runs, 23 passes. A run-pass balance would ease the burden on Wilson and help the play-action game, which is supposed to be a staple of this offense.
Speaking of runs, where's the creativity? The jet sweeps? The misdirection? Those, too, are hallmarks of the Shanahan offense.
They also need to rethink the way they deploy their wide receivers. Talented rookie Elijah Moore, a non-factor, is playing out of position. He's a slot receiver, not an outside receiver. But if Moore plays the slot, what happens to Jamison Crowder? Denzel Mims should be on the field because of his vertical speed, but he gets a handful of snaps per game.
The lack of a pass-catching tight end is another issue; there's no threat in the middle of the field, which limits Wilson's options.
The Jets have some talent, especially at receiver, but they don't fit together particularly well. Throw in a rookie quarterback, and the problems are exacerbated. That's what you're seeing now -- a unit that can't get out of its own way in the first quarter. The players and coaches say it's not about preparation, but remember the old Mike Tyson line: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
The Jets are spitting out teeth.
Let's not forget, this is LaFleur's first gig as an NFL coordinator. The last time he called plays was 2013 at Davidson College, an 0-11 season. There are easier ways to break into a job, considering the coaches he has faced: Dean Pees (Falcons), Vic Fangio (Denver Broncos) and Bill Belichick (Patriots). Those guys could comprise a Mensa society for defensive minds.
So, yeah, LaFleur is getting roughed up by better, more experienced coaches. He's learning on the job. So is Wilson. Not even the best scheme in the world has a fix for that.