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Everything changed for Jets’ ‘whiz kid’ OC Mike LaFleur with emergence of Mike White

Jets OC Mike LaFleur solo

Jets OC Mike LaFleur solo

The red flags were out through the first six games of the season when it looked like Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was in over his head. There was even some criticism directed at Robert Saleh for passing on an experienced coach and instead hiring his friend.

Then along came Mike White (and even Josh Johnson) and magically, everything changed. The Jets offense started rolling behind somewhat-seasoned quarterbacks, and the 37-year-old LaFleur became the NFL’s latest offensive whiz kid, at least for a couple of games.

But LaFleur didn’t suddenly become a better coordinator overnight. He didn’t change his philosophy, throw out his old playbook, or even dramatically change the way he calls plays. His metamorphosis from overwhelmed to overachiever was more subtle than it seems. And it was because of a tried-and-true coach-player formula:

He got better because his players played better. It’s really amazing how good a coach can look when his players actually execute his plays.

“The offense has been on repeat with regards to what they’re being asked to do now — and it’s been over and over and over again,” Saleh said earlier this week. “So they’re not really thinking about the game plan anymore. They’re getting faster, their routes are getting more precise and they’re starting to recognize what defenses are trying to do.

“They’re not thinking about what they have to do. They’re thinking about how they’re going to do it.”

All that is true and important as the Jets’ revitalized offense heads into its toughest game yet – a brick-wall like Buffalo Bills defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL. It’s like Saleh said from the day he arrived with the Jets: Everything they’re trying to do is going to take time. That was obviously true for his players. And that was true with LaFleur, since he’s a first-time coordinator. He had to figure things out, too.

That wasn’t easy while he was also tasked with developing a rookie quarterback. It became much easier when the cool, calm, White stepped in three weeks ago. All of a sudden, the plays he called started working. White’s quick reads, short throws and impeccable decisions showed everyone how this Kyle Shanahan-style offense was supposed to work.

That freed up LaFleur to be the coach he wanted to be. His dink-and-dunk strategy kept the offense moving. The running backs started to contribute. He was even able to use more multiple-receiver sets instead of tight-end heavy packages, because White’s ability to get the ball out quickly meant the Jets didn’t have to keep as many players in to block. And because of all that, LaFleur was even able to dip into his bag for an array of “gadget” plays.

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson and offensive coordinator Mike Lafleur before the New England Patriots played the NY Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on September 19, 2021. The New England Patriots Came To Play The Ny Jets At Metlife Stadium In East Rutherford Nj On September 19 2021

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson and offensive coordinator Mike Lafleur before the New England Patriots played the NY Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on September 19, 2021. The New England Patriots Came To Play The Ny Jets At Metlife Stadium In East Rutherford Nj On September 19 2021

For most of the last three weeks it’s been a wonderful thing to see.

But it’s not because of any great change in LaFleur. It’s more about the switch to a competent quarterback and the other players finally doing what they’re supposed to do. LaFleur got a lot of deserved plays for the way he handled White, telling him ahead of his first start that the plan was to “let it rip”. And he did. The first five plays he called against the Cincinnati Bengals were passes. So were eight of the 11 on that game-opening touchdown drive. White dropped back to throw 47 times that day, while the Jets ran only 22 times.

Why wasn’t he that aggressive with Zach Wilson? Because he couldn’t be. Remember that first game against the Patriots? Wilson did come out throwing, but his first two passes were intercepted. He was also sacked 15 times in the first three games. It’s hard to be a pass-happy coordinator when the passing game is crumbling like that.

And maybe this is a little bit of a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum, but in Wilson’s five-plus games, the Jets had 57 offensive series and a startling 72 percent of them (41-of-57) resulted in zero, one or two first downs. That means on three-quarters of their drives, the offense never really got started. In 10-plus quarters under White and Johnson, that number has dropped to 55 percent (15-of-27).

That means about half the time, White and Johnson have at least been able to sustain the drive.

That’s not all on the quarterbacks or LaFleur, but when things start to click – as they have with the Jets – everything starts to get better. It freed LaFleur up to call the game he wanted to call. Also, don’t underestimate this: Beginning with White’s first start, LaFleur began coaching from the booth, where he wanted to be all along. He reluctantly spent the first six games on the field, because that’s where Wilson wanted him to be. And not only did that rob LaFleur of the birds-eye view most coaches prefer, but it also tasked him with some hand-holding of his rookie quarterback between series, instead of focusing on everything else.

So now, whether he’ll admit it or not, LaFleur can be more focused on the game plan. And calling the game is easier when the quarterbacks are doing the things they’re supposed to do. It allows LaFleur to be more creative, more daring. And it hammers home the unstated point that the problem over the first six games weren’t with his calls.

Whether any of that will still work on Sunday against a Bills defense that LaFleur described as “a machine” is uncertain. But he sure has a better chance with a quarterback who doesn’t seem fazed by anything than with a kid whose head was spinning from everything he was trying to learn.

LaFleur said, when going against a defense as tough and as difficult to decipher as Buffalo’s, he tells his quarterbacks “Take an educated guess. Whatever you think they’re doing, you’re probably right. Don’t overthink it. If you start overthinking, you’re just not going play the play.”

His quarterbacks and his players are playing the play now. That’s the simplest reason why the Jets offense is suddenly better. And it’s the real explanation for why LaFleur suddenly looks like a much better coach.

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