Zach Wilson, Sam Darnold
Zach Wilson, Sam Darnold, NY Jets, Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

The NY Jets’ next stop features a couple of QB narrative fighters, past and present

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ—Last stop: an answered prayer that kept Robert Saleh‘s undefeated New York Jets mark alive.

Next stop: a Week 1 showdown featuring a couple of narrative-fighting quarterbacks—whose careers always feel front and center.

Now that the James Morgan-to-Kenny Yeboah magic has subsided, it’s time for the good stuff. With the preseason storm of ruptured achilles tendons, on-field vomiting and overexaggerated practice mishaps behind us, the next stop in the Jets’ 2021 journey can firmly take root.

It’s finally on … for real, this time, in exactly 15 days; and two fascinating quarterbacks take center stage.

It’s officially Zach Wilson time: Just one more narrative to overcome

Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson did not partake in his team’s unbelievable walk-off 31-31 tie with the Philadelphia Eagles Friday night. In stark contrast to Nick Sirianni’s upfront announcement that most of his starters wouldn’t play, Jets head coach Robert Saleh played it a bit coy prior to the preseason finale at MetLife Stadium.

Nobody knew whether Wilson would dress or not—until moments prior to the game.

After the game, Saleh admitted that the decision had been made prior to the area storm that delayed the start time.

In spite of any old-school notion that wants football players to play football, no matter the circumstance, sitting the kid quarterback was the right move—especially after his impressive tape showcased readiness over the first two preseason weeks.

Now, it’s all about the Carolina Panthers and a chance to overcome just the latest narrative.

Remember, a narrative suggesting that he cannot get it done has followed Wilson around for some time. There were questions when he chose BYU to play collegiately. Could this extremely young-looking quarterback actually approach Steve Young or Jim McMahon status?

It then rolled into his senior season. Failing to top 12 touchdowns in a single season over his first two years led to major questions in the summer of 2020.

A 3,692-yard, 33-touchdown, three-interception season put that one to bed. But then the NFL draft narrative began to hit home.

“Come on … it’s BYU. Do you see the schedule this school plays? Navy, Boise State and the WKU Hilltoppers represent a smidge difference in class compared to the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs of the league that plays for pay.”

The idea that the kid carried superb quarterback traits into the league was one most could agree on. It was everything else that had opinions differing.

How would he handle the bright lights on the big stage? How would his “smallish” frame hold up against the rigors of the National Football League?

Before we can even move on, yet another incredibly unfair narrative arises in his perceived size.

When viewed next to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, the kid matches up.

Zach Wilson, Aaron Rodgers
Zach Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, NY Jets, Green Bay Packers, Getty Images

No, he’s not the 6-foot-3 that appeared next to his name in the collegiate gameday program. But he’s also not the frail youngster many perceived and/or propagated during draft season.

Sprinkle on unsubstantiated reports that Wilson’s spoiled and bratty attitude rubbed teammates the wrong way and Johnny Manziel suddenly enters the building like the Kool-Aid Man (perhaps with Colin Cowherd initially blowing up the wall for easier entry).

So, let’s see … there’s the idea that his collegiate competition was never up to snuff, his smallish size, and his bratty and spoiled nature. Anything else? Oh, of course …

He’s only faced second-stringers this preseason.

Granted, the idea Wilson’s faced mainly second-team defenses deserves worthwhile attention. The team-on-team NFL philosophy holds true no matter the experience level.

Then again, why make the same mistake twice when projecting the kid?

Evaluating Wilson’s collegiate-live traits should still compare without a handicap against a Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence if done properly. Not everything is wildly determined by the competition.

For instance, the way Wilson rapidly moved through progressions against Green Bay’s second-team defense means very little by way of competition. Sure, it makes somewhat of an impact, but his elite-level quickness in so many areas—progressions, release, feet, eyes—holds up against even the best defenses on the other side.

Wilson has thus far answered the questions that challenged him at BYU, some of the leadership questions while entering the league, and the worthiness of his No. 2 pick status—at least to the degree that’s possible.

Hedging bets against him by way of second-team preseason competition seems like a risky proposition at this point.

Sam Darnold’s Adam Gase-free world adds immense pressure

For the opponent, Sam Darnold, the narrative’s been flipped on its head.

Jets fans cursed the days Adam Gase led his 0-13 squad to two-straight inexplicable victories, thus ending those maniacally hopeful Trevor Lawrence dreams. In a way, Gase is a hero—albeit one that deserves no physical statue.

Joe Douglas may have squeezed more value than warranted out of the Panthers in last April’s Darnold deal, and Gase could have been the man who generated such boundaries.

Unlike Mike LaFleur’s east-west offense that allows for baby-step growth out of a young quarterback, Gase’s system called for intense pre- and post-snap mind games. Peyton Manning’s former offensive running buddy is not a complete offensive idiot. He understands professional football offense—much more than any of us (typing or reading this page that exists on the World Wide Web).

The problem arose in matching the offense to the quarterback.

Although it could be argued that Gase’s offense yields a much higher production ceiling than LaFleur’s, it’s incredibly difficult to reach such a level. The quarterback would need Hall of Fame-type IQ in order to get that accomplished.

It obviously never happened with Darnold.

Now, No. 14 finds himself with an offensive mind whose tendencies match up with the way the NFL is currently playing out in the year 2021. Matt Rhule—the very same man who tried blowing the lid on the idea New York pushed Gregg Williams onto the next head coach in January 2019—schemes up an offense that mirrors what collegiate fans understand all too well.

Similar to the Shanahan system in a lot of ways, Darnold’s in charge of an offense that seeks to place pressure on the defense’s edge points and second level. Force the edge players to commit to something and get the second-level backers to flow one way or the other, in order to take chunks downfield.

(Rumor has it group hypnotherapy sessions are up 750 percent in Northern New Jersey since the Jets-Giants game, as patients continually utter the words “what is this pre-snap motion?” while hypnotized.)

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Zach Wilson and Sam Darnold are fighting different narratives

In any event, Darnold looks to get his career on stable ground while Wilson looks to shock the world from the jump. For Darnold, free passes have been entirely too frequent. It’s understandable as to why: When Rich Kotite reincarnates, attaching culpability vanishes.

Darnold’s 162-yard, two-touchdown performance on 19 of 25-passing against the Pittsburgh Steelers Friday night did something to calm some Panther-fan nerves. Still, a lot of the fundamental issues remain, when the tape is viewed. Sloppy footwork and daredevil chance-taking highlight much of the film, although this throw to Robby Anderson was a beauty.

And while the absence of Gase presents a clearer path towards success, the pressure ramps up in his fourth season.

For Wilson, it’s just another day with another point of contention to overcome. “Oh, I didn’t face competent competition at BYU? I’m not big enough? I am too spoiled and bratty to lead my fellow man on and off the field? And now my encouraging preseason film isn’t worth a damn thanks to second-team competition?”

OK.

In a true competitor’s mind, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Wilson’s attitude from a day in, day out perspective has been one to proudly share. The kid never gets ahead of himself and rarely overthinks any situation.

“It doesn’t even matter; it’s like what you said, it doesn’t even matter,” Wilson told the media Wednesday afternoon in response to his status as the potential Week 1 starter. “I’m just doing what I can do, every single day. ‘How can I come out here and just keep getting better, just keep helping this team get better, just keep executing. How can I just keep learning from the mistakes I made the day before?’”

Despite obvious on-field differences between the two, Wilson’s predecessor also handled his public duties incredibly well. It’s just that same production never materialized on the field.

The beautiful thing about 2021 NFL Week 1 is that it doesn’t matter.

Sure, the past created the storyline for what’ll transpire over the next 15 days, but what happens on the field in an instinctive manner is what’ll put a bow on this made-for-TV script.

The too-young-looking-for-primetime kid with the 2021 quarterback traits who’s never taken on the big boys against the California golden child whose career has been unfairly ruined.

Although the narratives are plenty for both Zach Wilson and Sam Darnold, the similarities lie with one NFL franchise: the New York Jets. And although narratives get us to incredibly important checkpoints, they suddenly and appropriately vanish in between the lines and on the field.

The time has arrived to settle this thing—Sunday, Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. ET at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC.

The countdown begins now.

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Robby Sabo is a co-founder, CEO and credentialed New York Jets content creator for Jets X-Factor - Jet X, which includes Sabo's Sessions (in-depth film breakdowns) and Sabo with the Jets. Host: Sabo Radio. Member: Pro Football Writers of America. Host: Underdog Jets Podcast with Wayne Chrebet. Coach: Port Jervis (NY) High School. Washed up strong safety and 400M runner. SEO: XL Media. Founder/Consultant: Elite Sports NY - ESNY. Email: robby.sabo@jetsxfactor.com

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