Mike White couldn’t help but jump on the Cincinnati Bengals’ bandwagon during their surprise run to Super Bowl 2022.
As the Bengals ended a 31-year drought of playoff wins with three straight in January, White’s phone started blowing up with messages from friends pointing out that the Jets’ third-string quarterback had the game of his life against the AFC champions, whose defense stifled former MVP Patrick Mahomes.
“You’re rooting for them, in a sense, to win the Super Bowl because it makes the win look that much better — not even for me but for our team,” White told The Post. “There’s definitely an element where you have people texting you saying, ‘What did you see that everyone else can’t see?’ ”
It was the final page of a crazy season for White, who morphed from unknown to AFC Player of the Week when he threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 34-31 win against the Bengals on Halloween. He became an overnight cult sensation who energized Jets fans and inspired practice-squad quarterbacks across the league to keep working for an opportunity to affirm their self-confidence.
“I learned first-person that there are some passionate fans here and when you win they are loud, which is cool,” White said after Monday’s practice. “But I tried not to get too caught up in it because things change in a heartbeat.”
That they did. White threw four interceptions in his third and final start and didn’t play in any of the final eight games.
When free agency rolled around, White welcomed the restricted tender (a non-guaranteed one-year, $2.45 million contract) from the Jets instead of hoping to parlay his one-hit wonder into a higher spot on another team’s depth chart. That doesn’t mean he is content as QB3.
“Everyone is a competitor, so you are going to be disappointed,” White said, “but the moment you get into your head and get all mad is when you don’t play well, and you will find yourself as a fourth-stringer real quick. You have to take it in stride.
“I know what the Jets think of me and what I think of them. I’m glad I’m back because I think we’re building something special and I didn’t want to leave just when it’s starting to get going.”
The strength of the relationship between White and the coaches crystalized again within the last few days.
With Zach Wilson sidelined for at least 2-4 weeks pending the results of Tuesday’s surgery on his torn meniscus, the Jets elevated Joe Flacco to starter and quietly bumped up White without scouring the waiver wire. Most teams in that position would be nervous about being one snap away from turning to a complete unknown, but the Jets have the luxury of depth.
“We feel like we have three starting quarterbacks,” coach Robert Saleh said. “Mike has gone out and proven that he can beat a really good defense. We have all the faith in the world in Mike.”
White completed 10 of 20 passes for 98 yards Friday after Wilson limped off the field against the Philadelphia Eagles. He will back up Flacco on Monday against the Atlanta Falcons, but it no longer feels like an audition for 31 other teams as much as it is to stay sharp for the Jets.
“You worry for your friend at first,” White said of “mixed emotions” to Wilson’s injury. “After the game, it’s like, ‘No different than last year. Control what you can control.’ I’m sure stepping into a huddle, guys know what to expect from me more because I’ve done it before. The most important thing about playing quarterback is confidence, and when you have the proof to back it up, it helps make you play that much better.”
White is satisfied (with expectations to improve) with his performance at the start of training camp, showing decisiveness on reads and leadership with younger third-teamers.
“As a backup quarterback,” White said, “any time you have an opportunity to put something on film, that is your job résumé.”
Or White’s résumé could just describe how he contributed in a small way to the Bengals’ success.
“I think they made a lot of corrections after they played us, and got really good at it, and that’s what helped them make the run,” White said. “I guess you could say I’m a very, very, very tiny piece.”