Is NY Jets QB Mike White really ‘just’ a game manager?

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By: Rivka Boord

Mike White’s average depth of target belies his true role in Jets’ offense

Following the New York Jets‘ 31-10 victory over the Chicago Bears, the person of the day was quarterback Mike White.

Robert Saleh was asked about White’s aggressiveness and willingness to stretch the field against the Bears compared to his checkdowns against the Bengals last season.

Saleh corrected that impression quickly: “I think where people get confused is—that’s all Cincinnati gave him, and so he just kept taking it. I think Mike is able to process in a way that if that’s what you give him, that’s what he’ll take. He’ll play boring ball with you, he’ll push the ball downfield if he has to, and he’ll make very good decisions with the football and he’ll make them quick.”

We’ve talked a lot on Jet X about White’s love of checkdowns and dump-offs. His favorite targets last season were Ty Johnson and Michael Carter. He had another 7 running back targets against the Bears. In 2021, White’s average depth of target (ADOT) was 6.4 yards, and he went even lower against the Bears with a 5.9 ADOT. He threw only five passes that traveled 10 or more air yards with a long of 20.

There were times against the Bears that White did look to throw the ball further downfield, but it was not there. This happened at times last season, as well; in fact, White was more likely to get sacked when looking for a downfield throw that was not open.

Against Chicago, Jets receivers got open quickly in the short area of the field, so White did not need to do anything more. He certainly showed zip and timing on many of his throws, including his initial pass of the game to Garrett Wilson and his two completions to Elijah Moore.

The Jets’ offensive system, like the 49ers’ with Jimmy Garoppolo, calls for a quarterback to be on time, accurate, and strong in decision-making. Call it a game manager or call it good quarterbacking, but those are White’s strengths. He read his keys for the conflict defender and immediately got the ball out.

Mike LaFleur does a nice job putting defenders in conflict to give the quarterback easy reads; Zach Wilson just did not take advantage of them. For all the criticism of LaFleur not getting Wilson going, this Bears game proved that LaFleur does exactly that. It’s just that Wilson could not execute, leading to stalled drives and disgruntled receivers who did their jobs.

It’s interesting to note that some of the league’s better quarterbacks are below average when it comes to average depth of target. This season, the ADOT among 35 qualified quarterbacks (min. 150 dropbacks) is 8.2 yards, per Pro Football Focus. However, Justin Herbert’s ADOT is 6.7, and Kirk Cousins (7.4), Joe Burrow (7.5), Tom Brady (7.7), Patrick Mahomes (7.7), and Jalen Hurts (7.8) are also below average.

You certainly wouldn’t think that Mahomes and Burrow are game managers. While their ADOT is still significantly above White’s, the point remains that these quarterbacks are taking what the defense gives them. Both QBs were initially explosive deep passers, had defenses adjust and play two-high coverages to limit the deep availability, and, after some struggles, counter-adjusted to become masterful at hitting the open target, regardless of depth.

Some will argue that Mahomes and Burrow throw deep far more often than White. It’s worth noting, though, that among 35 QBs with at least 15 deep pass attempts, Burrow ranks 33rd with just 8.1% of his attempts of 20+ yards and Mahomes is 31st at 8.6%. The most frequent deep passers are Mitchell Trubisky (19.5%), Justin Fields (17.5%), and P.J. Walker (17.0%), not exactly the representation of the league’s best passers overall.

White was at just 3.6% against the Bears, though, which would be by far the lowest rate in the league, and he was at just 6.4% last season, which would rank second-to-last. The league average is 11%.

However, on intermediate passes, defined as passes traveling between 10-19 yards in the air, White stacks up pretty nicely with the NFL averages. This season, among 35 QBs (min. 150 dropbacks), the average rate of intermediate passes is 20.5%. Last season, White threw in that range on 21.2% of his targets, which would rank 14th this season (just below Patrick Mahomes at 21.5%). Although he was at just 17.9% against the Bears, the sample from last season indicates that he is perfectly willing to throw passes that are in the intermediate range.

Yes, White does throw short very often, as he did so 50% of the time last year. However, it’s again worth noting that Joe Burrow does, too. Last season, Burrow threw passes traveling between 0-9 yards 51.2% of the time, which was tied for fourth-most among 36 qualified passers (min. 75 attempts in that range). Justin Herbert was also at 51.2%. This year, although both have lowered their rates, they’re still in the upper half of the league (46.2% and 45.1%, respectively), as is Patrick Mahomes (45.5%). The league average is 44.6%.

Even on passes behind the line of scrimmage, White wasn’t so high in 2021 relative to the league average this year. He attempted passes behind the line 15.2% of the time. The 2022 league average is 15.3%.

The biggest difference between White and other QBs seems to be a propensity to throw about 5-6% more short passes than average, which takes away 5% from his deep passing. The average number of attempts for a starting quarterback last season (among 35 QBs with min. 200 attempts) was 471, and 6% of that is roughly 28 pass attempts, which would mean that over the course of a whole season, White threw 28 fewer deep balls than the average QB and 28 more short passes. That’s 1.6 passes per game.

Although the aggregate of that difference can be significant over the course of a season, remember that we are looking at a very small sample size with White. He started just three games last season and came out with an injury after only 11 attempts in one of them. Yes, a pattern can emerge from five career games played (four starts, three complete games), but going back to what Robert Saleh said, White takes what the defense gives him.

Also important is that the Jets struggled mightily against man coverage last season, as Vitor Paiva noted in his film review of White’s four-pick performance against Buffalo. Therefore, White rarely had an opportunity to push the ball deep downfield since his receivers were covered. We’ll see what happens as time goes on this year, as Garrett Wilson has shown an ability to get open deep.

Considering his willingness to throw the ball in the intermediate range, I think that White is not merely a checkdown artist. He showed zip and accuracy on the ball when he threw it in the middle against the Bears.

The most important point to note about White is what the Jets need from their quarterback right now. Despite the defense’s struggles with tackling in the last couple of games, the Jets are still ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense DVOA despite facing the fourth-hardest offensive slate in the league to this point. This stat about the Jets’ offense says it all: when the Jets score more than 17 points this season, they are 6-0.

Though there are still many skeptics about White’s ability to lead the Jets to the playoffs, he can do so if he does what he did in three of his four games last season and continued this year: make good decisions, get the ball out to the open man, stay poised under pressure, and read the defense properly.

In looking at these numbers, does it appear that White is a game manager? Yes. But would you call that “just”?

Next Article: A big Mike LaFleur adjustment sparked NY Jets’ outburst vs. Bears 

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