Wilson was shaky yet somehow effective in Houston
New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson posted a disappointing 58.5 passer rating on Sunday afternoon in Houston. He threw for 145 yards, failed to launch an aerial score, and was responsible for one of the most dumbfounding turnovers of the 2021 NFL season.
In other words … he got the job done.
Wilson’s return to NFL endeavors was triumphant in a literal sense, as the Jets earned a 21-14 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. The visit to Houston accounted for Wilson’s first professional action since he left Oct. 24’s dreary loss in New England with what was later determined to be a sprained PCL that kept him out of the Jets’ last three games entirely.
Even if the Jets (3-8) managed to reinsert themselves into the NFL’s postseason conversation, a spot amongst the AFC’s seven was never going to be the metric by which their season was judged. The 2021 season instead centers entirely on Wilson’s progress, generating forward momentum that hasn’t been sprinkled upon New York since the pre-Adam Gase era.
That’s probably not fair – several of Wilson’s 2021 draft classmates are establishing themselves as essential pieces of the metropolitan puzzle – but that’s the reality of living in an NFL world that worships a fantasy football deity whose decrees are bestowed by passing prophets.
Wilson’s early returns are leaving much to be desired. That’s probably been par for the course of every rookie passer not named Mac Jones, but Wilson, of course, has to pay the dreaded “Jets tax”, where every mistake is magnified fortyfold for the sake of gridiron comedy.
Flashes of brilliance have broken through – young visitors will likely imitate Wilson’s clinching deep ball to Corey Davis from the Oct. 3 win over Tennessee in the MetLife Stadium parking lots for years to come – but nothing to suggest that Wilson could be the Jets’ present and future under center.
Wilson’s injury was thus a blessing in disguise of sorts. He earned a taste of NFL action, saw what wasn’t working, and endured a medically induced chance to sit back for a few weeks and see what he was doing wrong and what the offense could be.
It might’ve been easier to do that had Wilson been granted the services of a veteran backup – the well-traveled Josh Johnson didn’t show up until August – but Wilson resolved to do what he could with the time afforded to him.
Even as a few fanatical Mike White supporters hinted that the relative NFL virgin could usurp Wilson from the Jets’ franchise throne, he enjoyed and relished an opportunity to channel New York legend Yogi Berra and “observe a lot by watching.”
“I would say (this time) is almost just as beneficial as playing. Maybe you don’t feel it as much as far as just actually going through it, but we all think and see the same things,” Wilson said back on Nov. 11. “I understand why Mike made a certain decision on something that he did in a game or didn’t. It’s cool to see because, I would say really only the quarterback room knows what our reads are, what we’re going through and all that other stuff.
“So, I feel it’s very beneficial,” Wilson continued, believing that White’s success could’ve come from watching starters in both New York and Dallas. “I’m sure if you ask Mike White, this is his (fourth) year in the league, how much he’s learned because it was a big thing that this was the first time he’s ever played, but he’s learned a lot just by watching, whether it was Dak Prescott or Sam (Darnold) last year or whatever the growth comes and being able to learn from the guys taking those reps too.”
Sunday was a culmination of those observational efforts.
The first half was a far too familiar excursion for both Wilson and Jets fans. Granted a prime opportunity to start things off on the right note (John Franklin-Myers’ interception runback to the Houston 37), Wilson completed his first pass to Keelan Cole before misfiring on each of his next five throws (the Jets settled for a field goal on that opening drive).
The last has already made the rounds on the national blooper reels, as a pressured Wilson tried a shovel pass to Ty Johnson with the latter’s back turned. It instead landed in the arms of Tavierre Thomas and led to the Texans’ first touchdown of the afternoon.
By the time the game approached its middle stages, the Jets were down 14-3 and struggling to generate offensive momentum. Wilson was 1-of-6 with the 11-yard completion to Cole and his passer rating matched that of anyone watching the dire Jets-Texans contest: 0.0.
But the momentum seemed to shift through Wilson’s capitalization upon a Houston penalty.
Granted a 15-yard head start to midfield after a facemask penalty, Wilson found Elijah Moore on a gain of 11 toward the right sideline that put the Jets in Houston territory. A healthy combination of manageable checkdowns and a rushing attack headlined by Tevin Coleman and Austin Walter allowed the Jets to score their first touchdown of the afternoon toward the end of the first half, one that began to shift the game’s destiny.
A common criticism in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s game was that Wilson struggled to create chemistry with Moore, who has catapulted toward the top of the rookie receiving statistical towers under the watch of backups like White, Johnson, and Joe Flacco.
Wilson, however, did what he could to debunk such a claim by saying that Sunday’s momentum-shifting toss to Moore was the first culmination of efforts he’s made with his fellow rookie both on and off the practice field.
The play in question had been a popular pick amongst the Jets’ offensive decisionmakers but one where Wilson was unable to capitalize. He insisted, however, that the Jets continue to use it, seeking to create consistency after he was armed with the newfound confidence developed during his medical leave of absence.
“Those big plays, I told the coaches on the sideline, I’m like, ‘Even though things are rough, keep calling it. We’re going to be good, I’m going to get into that rhythm, into that flow,'” Wilson recalled. “You’ve got to be able to just hit that reset button and just say, ‘On to the next play.’ That was a challenge for tonight, is how can I keep going and keep pushing through.”
Pausing or altering the offensive game plan wasn’t an option for Wilson. He urged play-callers to press forward so as not to kill the momentum his teammates generated without him.
“These guys have shown they can do it, and so it’s me,” Wilson said. “I’ve got to hold myself accountable for the way I start and get those guys going from the beginning.”
Visible progress, namely the most commonly sought form in the box score, could be seen in the second half. Wilson completed 13 of his final 18 passes for 134 yards, accumulating a 93.3 passer rating the rest of the way. He showed increased confidence in his pocket mobility and he even went on to earn his first professional rushing score, one that put the Jets ahead for good.
Wilson would finish the afternoon with a 14-of-24 mark for 145 yards to earn the first road victory of his career.
Grading this final stretch of the 2021 season – one whose importance goes beyond this season – is a tad confusing, especially when you’re playing an equally doomed opponent like the Texans. But the young quarterback has earned a taste of NFL success, capitalized on both short (halftime) and long (the injury absence) rest periods, and earned a hard-fought road victory.
Even when besieged with Texans goggles, it’s hard to deny the Jets this kind of progress.
“We get that turnover to start the game, offense gets down there, we’re able to get a field goal out of it, and then we kind of hit a lull where there were a lot of three-and-outs and defense battling, gave up a couple of touchdowns. But that drive before the half was huge. I thought they did a great job,” head coach Robert Saleh said of the offensive showing.
“They worked all the way down the field, scored that touchdown, we get a chance to lap them, which we did, which was big. But in that second half, he made the plays he needed to make and the offensive line did a great job opening up seams for our running backs. I think we were averaging over four and a half a clip, so it was a really good day offensively.”
Saleh said that Wilson’s Sunday struggles weren’t beyond the void of typical rookie struggles. That made his victorious adjustments all the more commendable.
“The objective in this game was to try to get him as comfortable as possible early,” he said.” He’s shown that when he comes out of the locker room in the second half, he’s comfortable, he sees the field, he’s basically gotten a chance to see what the defense is giving him. So, the objective was to try to get him comfortable earlier. I felt like we were finally able to do that midway through the second quarter on that first touchdown drive that we had.
“That’s just going to be growing pains in terms of being able to recognize things, trust your week’s worth of preparation, but as he sees the game and he is starting to see coverages and player demeanor and all that stuff, he gets more comfortable, and obviously, he becomes more decisive. It’s just going to be one of those deals that as he gets older and as he gets more reps, he’ll get a lot better at it.”
Like his head coach and fellow freshman, Wilson has said pretty much all the right things during his brief New York tenure. That trend continued on Sunday as there was no braggadocious claim that he’s turned the corner nor hints that the game has slowed down for him.
Instead, Wilson hated his Sunday performance. He likely won’t do much with the game ball and it won’t be part of the highlight reel if/when he makes his MetLife Stadium return as a retiree or a member of another team.
His favorite part of Sunday’s game? It didn’t lie on the scoreboard; he’s just glad to have a learning opportunity that’s pleasant to watch and one that has a happy ending.
“I wasn’t happy with how I performed, just the ups and downs of it all. I’ve got to just keep going. It’s all part of the process,” he said. “We’re going to keep getting better, but it feels really good to go home having a win. Ultimately, that’s the goal, is to win the game, and so I’m really happy we were able to pull it out. I thought the guys battled.”
“The defense played awesome, held them to not doing much on offense. I thought they did an awesome job. I thought the guys up front battled all the way to the very end. It’s awesome to be able to learn from a win.”
The next chance to generate long-term momentum comes on Sunday at home, as the Jets return to East Rutherford to battle the Philadelphia Eagles (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags
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