Burying Zach Wilson at this early point is a foolish proposition
Traditions stemming from the anti-holiday holiday of Festivus, popularized by a December 1997 episode of “Seinfeld”, is almost tailor-made for New York Jets supporters. Watching the team’s Sunday endeavors over the past decade-plus could account for one of Frank Costanza’s “feats of strength”. Those who have stuck around have no doubt engaged in countless “airing(s) of grievances”.
Much like Frank’s hapless son George, Zach Wilson has found himself the target of such slights during the latest chapters of the Jets’ endless follies.
Wilson is the latest supposed savior cursed with the duties of overseeing the Jets’ meandering offense. It would’ve been foolhardy for even the most optimistic Jets fan to believe that Wilson would wholly avoid first-year struggles. Expecting Wilson to end the Jets’ decade-long playoff drought upon his arrival was equally, if not more, reckless.
But there are rookie growing pains and then there’s what Wilson has had to go through during his infantile term in the Jets’ passing throne. His current numbers rank toward the bottom of the pack of not only his fellow freshmen but the league as a whole: his passer rating (66.4) is dead-last amongst the 32 qualified throwers and only six of his throws have produced points.
Wilson’s statistical peers this season include fellow rookies Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields along with his predecessor Sam Darnold, whose NFL career is teetering on the brink of annihilation in Carolina.
Even with the chaos conjured by the since-cancelled Urban Meyer experiment, top pick and Sunday opponent (1 p.m. ET, CBS) Trevor Lawrence has been allowed to struggle in relative obscurity within the gridiron purgatory that is Jacksonville.
Wilson, however, is already being subjected to the “bust” label. That was probably inevitable considering that the football-loving public relies on the simplest Jets mistake for comedy like how Adam Sandler leans on Rob Schneider cameos.
Some have started to decipher the dire writing on MetLife Stadium’s walls, theorizing that yet another false passing prophet has taken to its turf. The fact that the Jets’ four most prolific offensive outings (in terms of yardage) came without the services of Wilson (who missed those showings with a sprained PCL) hasn’t helped create a long-term case for the BYU alum.
The question of moving on has certainly snuck into Jets’ fans minds, even inadvertently. To be abundantly clear, Wilson will more than likely be the green starting quarterback come September 2022, barring a miracle trade.
The Jets could possibly bring in someone with just enough big-game experience and future potential to raise the heat on Wilson (Baltimore’s Tyler Huntley would fill that role perfectly via trade), but there’s no denying that franchise quarterbacks get the vaudeville hook quicker than ever in the modern NFL.
Darnold, for example, is one of two quarterbacks from the 2018 draft’s opening round already on another team. His fellow SoCal collegiate hero Josh Rosen was usurped after a painful single year at the Arizona helm and has embarked on a nomadic NFL career that has currently situated him in Atlanta.
Patience has worn especially thin in New York. The playoff drought that’s more than halfway to its first legal drink is troubling enough but New York has only improved by one win from last year’s two-triumph campaign, a disastrous season by even the Jets’ star-crossed standards.
What Wilson has done in his limited time at the New York helm, however… might be just what they need.
Put aside the projections, the forecasts, the analyzing of Wilson’s every move from the moment he enters the Meadowlands Sports Complex to the instant he hits Route 3’s concrete, for the moment. The circumstances surrounding his New York minute of an NFL career have been extraordinary. Even some of the unluckier names lost to the passage of time haven’t had to work through the calamities Wilson has faced.
As the Jets have been ravaged by the dreaded trio of I’s – injuries, illness, and good old-fashioned inconsistency – Wilson has had to navigate the macabre blessing of increasingly risk-free opportunities to experiment and let loose without the services of a reliable defense (a year-long issue that has missed Carl Lawson), his rising rookie receiver and rusher (Elijah Moore and Michael Carter respectively), his big-play veteran arrival (Corey Davis), or a reliable kicking game (though Eddy Pineiro has come through on recent short attempts).
Tom Brady himself – the Jets’ first opponent of the new calendar year – would have trouble making the most of those surroundings. Yet, Wilson has managed to muster respectable showings that hint he can be something more in the proper environment.
Consistent full-game efforts have been hard to come by but Wilson’s first halves in December – a month that has seen circumstances beyond the Jets’ control eat away at their season – are a step in the right direction.
Over the past three games, Wilson has put in a 94.4 passer rating over the first 30 minutes of games. Perhaps a side effect of an offensive line in flux, Wilson has also displayed an interesting ability to create an impact in the rushing attack. He has scored rushing touchdowns in three of the last four games, including the game-winner against Houston on Nov. 28.
No one is trying to claim that Wilson, nor the Jets’ plan and operation in the new decade, has been perfect. Wilson has made some attempts at forcing momentum that shouldn’t be made by any quarterback, even one with only a handful of starts to his name.
Yet, there’s reason to be inspired by the subtle progress he’s made. It’s not the green showcase Darnold embarked upon during the last stages of his green rookie year, but it’s a rise to consistency in a muted, if not sustainable, way.
Anyone with at least a passing knowledge of the game knew that the playoffs were likely way too much to ask for in New York this season. But this season has been proof and a reminder of the obvious: the Jets are far, far, far removed from being a “quarterback away” from contention, which makes this offseason, one set to feature two prominent draft picks, more vital than ever.
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“Everyone is always going to look to the quarterback. Call me old school, but it’s a collective effort. The receivers have got to get open and Zach has got to deliver the ball in a timely manner. It’s not all on Zach,” head coach Robert Saleh said after the Jets’ 31-24 loss in Miami on Sunday, per notes from the team.
The Jets’ boss didn’t fully exonerate Wilson, noting that he struggled to maintain a rhythm and momentum in the early stage of the second half against the Dolphins.
“As far as it concerns Zach, it is a rhythm thing,” Saleh remarked. “They changed the picture and you have to adjust. You have to get rid of the ball.”
Three consequence-free opportunities await, beginning with the aforementioned tilt against Lawrence’s Jaguars.
Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, praised for his prescience in the booth over the past few weekends, accepted his share of the blame earlier this week. He nonetheless has been inspired by what Wilson has had to offer over recent weeks.
“(He was) by no means perfect, obviously, but he played a good game. He got better in a number of areas. His tempo, his eyes, his ball placement was better because of, kind of what I just said with the temp and eyes,” LaFleur said, highlighting Wilson’s improvement beyond the box score. He further elaborated that Wilson’s primary issues continue to linger from a mental and belief-based standpoint, issues that should at least partially resolve themselves through in-game experience.
“I certainly didn’t call a good enough game, we didn’t play good enough around him, but in terms of him competing, which is what you expect from him, because that’s who he is, he’s an ultimate competitor, but it’s hard to do that when you’re a little bit locked up and you’re not playing as free as he wanted to,” LaFleur elaborated.
“I thought that’s what you saw from him, he was playing free and he was competing his butt off and he made a number of plays that there was too many breakdowns and he made a number of plays to keep us in a situation where it wasn’t catastrophic.
“I was pleased from that, still a lot to learn from, but I think probably because he played so free, probably the game he’s learned the most from because he can almost take all that in.”
Time will tell if Wilson is indeed the long-sought aerial answer for the woebegone Jets. But judging him by this season alone is foolhardy and not constructive in any sense. The progress he’s made in this unusual, off-the-rails season is like getting a pair of pants for Christmas when you wanted a PlayStation: sometimes you just have to be thankful for what you’ve got.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags
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