Jets have to ride with Mike White as long as he plays well

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What is Mike White’s upside?

“Who knows?” Jeff Ulbrich said.

Ulbrich, the Jets’ defensive coordinator, has nearly two decades of NFL experience as a coach and player behind him, yet he doesn’t have a good handle on what his team’s new starting quarterback can become. Head coach Robert Saleh doesn’t know either, a truth he made clear when he said, hypothetically, “I could be the next Vince Lombardi.”

Saleh is right. Though he might ultimately win five championships, as Lombardi did with Green Bay, Saleh should rest easy knowing that the average Jets fan doesn’t need him to win enough rings so he or she can have one for the thumb.

That fan just wants Saleh to be the next Weeb Ewbank. One magical Super Bowl Sunday will be plenty, thank you very much.

Now Saleh just has to figure out who gives him the best chance to move the Jets closer to their first title since January 1969. The smart money still says Zach Wilson, the No. 2-overall draft pick this year, will develop into a better player than White, the 171st-overall pick (by Dallas) in the 2018 draft. But over the years, the smart money has sometimes ended up looking pretty dumb in the NFL.

Mike White
Mike White
Getty Images

Throughout sports history, there have been stories of a long-shot athlete getting an unexpected break, seizing the opportunity and leaving a lasting mark on their teams and leagues. That doesn’t mean Mike White will join that group. In fact, there’s probably a better chance that he will never win a playoff game than there is of him winning a Super Bowl.

But the Jets need to give White a full opportunity to declare whether he is a temporary sensation or the next Kurt Warner, the grocery store clerk turned Super Bowl MVP. They shouldn’t automatically bench White if he doesn’t beat Buffalo’s league-best defense Sunday at MetLife.

Under impossible circumstances, White was impressive in relief at New England. He was the NFL’s best player the following week against Cincinnati in his first career start, inspiring the home crowd to chant his name. And then he looked ready to go off against the Colts before he took a hit to his throwing arm that put the show on ice.

White’s arm feels better now than Wilson’s injured knee does, so that’s one reason why the 26-year-old backup from Western Kentucky is running the first-string offense this week while the 22-year-old bonus baby from BYU is simulating Josh Allen against the first-string defense.

Another reason? Saleh has smartly decided against raining on the fan base’s parade (since that fan base never gets to savor an actual parade). White is a feel-good story, and the paying customers aren’t the only ones responding to him. Thursday, the quarterback revealed that his teammates still chant his name when he enters the locker room. “It’s kind of crazy,” he said of being the improbable toast of the town.

Only it’s not that crazy. Asked if he believes he can become one of the NFL’s better starting quarterbacks, White responded, “Yes. I definitely believe that.” He qualified it by saying that every quarterback needs to have extreme self-confidence to thrive, but make no mistake: White thinks he can beat out Wilson over the long haul and emerge as the Jets’ starter. He just sees no point in saying that with Buffalo representing such a formidable short-term obstacle, and with his good friend, Wilson, being as gracious and supportive as a teammate and competitor can be.

White is an accomplished golfer, and everyone around him knows that confidence is the most dangerous club in his bag. When a reporter wondered why he had been an “under the radar” prospect coming out of college, White couldn’t explain it. “If you ask me,” he said, “I should’ve been a first-overall pick.” Again, this from the man competing against a second-overall pick.

Ulbrich, the defensive coordinator, is a big fan of Wilson’s, and yet his eyes lit up Thursday when he was asked about White’s ability and potential.

“Mike has that moxie, that confidence, that swag that’s just uncoachable,” he said. “He just has it. … It’s translated to Sundays.

“He’s one of those guys who’s just good at everything he does. I don’t think these last couple of games have been a fluke. … I think that he’s a skilled player that’s got some special qualities to him, and it will be exciting to see what he can become the more opportunities that he gets.”

So if White plays a good game against the Bills — win, lose, or draw — he should earn another start against Miami no matter how Wilson’s knee feels. The Jets should keep playing White until he plays himself off the field.

And if that means White is their first-string quarterback for the rest of this year, or the rest of this decade, so be it.

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