INDIANAPOLIS — Mike White stood on the sidelines, holding a football in his left hand and wiggling the fingers on his right. Then making a fist and extending his fingers again. Over and over, as if he was willing to make the pain go away and render his throwing arm whole again.
At one point, he walked over to the bench to pick up his helmet and put it on, hoping that somehow, some way, he could get back on the field and continue to live the dream that began with a resplendent performance on Sunday in his NFL starting debut. Things could not have gotten off to a better beginning for White in that game against the Bengals, as he threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns, presided over an upset win of the Bengals and had his game-worn jersey shipped to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to be put on characterize.
But now, just minutes into Thursday night’s game against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, he stood by helplessly after throwing a touchdown pass to Elijah Moore in the left corner of the end zone and continuing what felt like a storybook opening to his fledgling career as a starter until Zach Wilson’s return from a knee injury.
It was not to be.
Just a few plays before White delivered the throw to Moore, who was left wide open after a miscommunication in the Colts’ secondary, the quarterback had been hit on his right arm by Colts defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. White played by it and famous his throw to Moore by pretending to shoot into the air with his fingers. But the pain ultimately replaced the euphoria as White walked to the sidelines
After being examined for several minutes by the Jets’ medical staff, it was backup Josh Johnson who donned his helmet to replace the 26-year-old White.
A dream begun, and now a dream delayed.
White made the most of his opportunity against the Bengals, creating the kind of buzz that backups rarely produce and giving Jets fans at the minimum something to keep up onto until Wilson comes back. And the speculation machine went into high gear when the question of whether White might keep up onto the job just a bit longer, already after Wilson was sufficiently healed from the posterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered in the Jets’ harrowing loss to the Patriots nearly two weeks ago.
Alas, White’s own injury problem now delays that kind of speculation. And the Jets, now 2-6 after what turned into a predictable loss to the Colts, are left to muddle by however another rebuilding season. Maybe White would have been an afterthought anyway, because the Jets are fully committed to Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick last April. But if he’d enjoyed the luxury of good health for longer than he had, then he would have at the minimum made things interesting.
White looked terrific once again in his limited action against the Colts, going 7-for-11 for 91 yards and showing the kind of field leadership that was so apparent against the Bengals. There was a terrific 26-yard pass over the middle to Moore that preceded his perfectly-placed scoring strike to the rookie receiver.
Neither Johnson nor the Jets’ defense distinguished themselves in White’s absence, as the Colts scored touchdowns on their first four drives and Johnson led the offense to just a field goal to make it 28-10 at the half. The 35-year-old Johnson has bounced around between a dozen NFL teams, a stint with the XFL and a league called the Alliance of American Football.
Perhaps if the Jets had activated Joe Flacco, who was acquired in a trade after Wilson was hurt, there would have been a better chance at putting some points on the board. But Flacco isn’t close to being the same quarterback who once won a Super Bowl with the Ravens, so already he couldn’t have been expected to match the Colts’ offense.
The Jets hope Wilson can return as early as next week against the Bills at home, and the young quarterback took some practice reps hours before Thursday night’s game. He’s nevertheless in a brace, but he’d be functional enough once there is enough stability in the ligament.
The prognosis on White is less certain, so it appears as if his fleeting time as a starter may not blossom into a more extended look. Jets fans will have to recalibrate their expectations, especially if Wilson founders as he did by a good chunk of his first six games.
Then again, perhaps Wilson will have learned from White’s time in the lineup to get rid of the ball quicker, to take what Robert Saleh calls the “boring” plays and to become a more impactful quarterback. And if that’s the case, then White’s shooting star moment as the Jets’ starter won’t have been in vain.
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