Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence took control of their depleted squads’ destiny on Sunday
Some classics come before their time. John Carpenter’s “The Thing” was ignored by audiences who preferred a happier alien visitation affair in “E.T.”. Repeated airings on cable, not box office receipts, built “The Shawshank Redemption”‘s success.
Even Christmas classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” received mixed reviews and a tepid box office reception before obtaining holiday immortality in the public domain.
In due time, Sunday’s game between the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars could one day go down as a “cult classic” amongst NFL film connoisseurs.
At first glance, the Week 16 tilt between Gang Green and Duval County is one to be quickly forgotten, a hardly-cherished Christmas gift tossed aside with the likes of socks and keychains.
The matchup between two squads with a combined five wins coming into the game would have absolutely zero effect on the NFL playoff picture, expanded as it may be. Its result – a 26-21 win for the Jets – was likely forgotten by the time most of the 67,120 souls in desperate need of another hobby who dared venture out to MetLife Stadium returned home.
Against all odds, it went on to become one of the most enthralling games of the league’s Week 16 slate. It was a game where the campy atmosphere was embraced by each side, a contest rife with trickery, gambling, and hope that could prove to be false. In other words, not so far removed from a weekend spent two hours away in Atlantic City.
It’s the lattermost emotion that will leave the closest thing to a long-term, eternal effect.
Like many cult classics, Sunday’s game featured a mostly unknown cast (at least at the time of release). Part of that is in part to the downtrodden nature of each franchise that makes it difficult to lure blockbuster talents into their realm. Sheer dumb luck and relentlessness brought about by injuries and the ongoing health crisis also took their tolls on the teams.
But one thing never changed: young headliners Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.
Zach Wilson (52-yd scramble run TD)
🔹 Expected Rush Yards: 14
🔹 Yards Over Expected: +38
🔹 Wilson's Top Speed: 19.19 mph
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 26, 2021
In another cinematic comparison, Sunday’s game was like the 1997 action thriller “Face/Off”: viewers were to marvel at two rigorous forces of on-screen mastery while taking its outlandish concept seriously. That movie saw Nicolas Cage and John Travolta swap faces in a cat-and-mouse action thriller while gameday forced Lawrence and Wilson into fighting for a win that many, namely the frequent visitors to Tankathon (a site likely visited more than Amazon in the metropolitan area this holiday season), don’t see as the best outcome in the grand scheme of things.
Yet, Lawrence and Wilson embraced the opportunity and resembled the franchise saviors their respective organizations have made them out to be.
Fate dictated that the rookies play major roles in the affair. The Jets had 21 representatives on the COVID-19 reserve list including eight starters and head coach Robert Saleh. Jacksonville was likewise depleted through several medical absences that wiped out several defensive starters as well as one of Lawrence’s favorite targets (Laviska Shenault Jr.). Kickoff failed to bring mercy as four-digit rusher James Robinson was lost to a torn Achillies that will likely end his season.
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Accompanying each freshman was a sense of optimism, subtle ingredients of hope that could thrust their franchise in the right direction. Wilson generated on-field momentum through strong first-half showings. Results for Lawrence would require a bit more patience, though management’s cancellation of the Urban Meyer horror show was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
The stage was set for either further football comedy or a chance for each touted first-year to reclaim the narrative on his NFL career. Fortunately for East Rutherford and Upstate Florida, both of them embraced the latter opportunity.
Numbers, as has often been the case in 2021, won’t tell the full story: Wilson’s 193-yard tally probably wasn’t going to win anyone their fantasy playoff matchup over the weekend. Lawrence reached the 250-yard plateau for only the fourth time this season (netting 280 on Sunday against the Jets).
It was their leadership efforts and in-game composure that can’t be measured by any box score metric (even if Wilson’s set New York history).
Wilson earned the most prolific rushing day for a Jets quarterback (91 yards on a quarter of carries), opening the metropolitan scoring with a jaw-dropping 52-yard run to daylight on a five-yard third down that gave New York a 6-3 lead. It was the longest rush for a quarterback in the history of the Jets, one earned through three broken tackles, a stretch that began by making the most of a collapsed pocket brought about by an offensive line missing several regulars.
ZACH WILSON ARE YOU SERIOUS
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 26, 2021
“They brought man pressure right there, I had a couple options, I thought the pocket was kind of closing, (so I) tried to step up, just kind of found a lane,” Wilson said of his memorable run in the postgame aftermath, per notes from the Jets.
“Once I got to the sideline I was planning on just stepping out of bounds and he didn’t hit me or push me or whatever, so I kind of just held onto the sideline and kept going right there and then by that point I knew there was really no one left so I just tried to cut back and tried to make a play. Fortunately we got one out of it so it was good.”
Alas, so star-crossed are the Jets that even show-stopping, potentially career-altering touchdowns end in disaster and heartbreak for the Jets. Eddy Pineiro’s extra point was blocked before Jacksonville embarked on a six-minute touchdown drive.
Further pushing the idea of the Jets’ star-crossed nature, somehow taking the ensuing kickoff back for six could’ve served as another momentum-stifler for hapless Gang Green: another five-minute scoring drive for the Jaguars (earning only a field goal, though it completed a stretch where Lawrence led the cats to three consecutive scoring treks for the first time this season) kept Wilson off the playing surface for nearly a half-hour.
A 65-second three-and-out predictably followed – but he didn’t let another opportunity go to waste after the Jets’ defense got him the ball back.
The lack of points notwithstanding, the Jets couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the first half. Wilson picked up three first downs on third and fourth, earning the necessary yardge both on the ground and in the air (teaming up with the kickoff scorer Braxton Berrios on the former). Though things ended in a turnover-on-downs, it allowed him to set the stage for something that had eluded him since returning from a sprained PCL on Nov. 28: a consistent second half headlined by what became a sealing touchdown pass that landed in the arms of offensive lineman Connor McDermott.
— Zachary Wilson (@ZachWilson) December 27, 2021
Wilson also kept his nose clean in a vital area of the stat ledger as well: for the third straight game, none of his passes landed in the arms of the opponent.
Dealt a cruel hand all season, the BYU alum acknowledged that his rookie campaign has been beset by drama. Granted a rare occasion to reclaim both his immediate and long-term destiny, he wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass.
“The message all week was (to) take advantage of your opportunity. Guys that maybe weren’t starting or playing all year, guys getting brought in last second,” Wilson said. “But it’s an opportunity to show what you’ve got, to put what you’ve got on film. I thought the guys overall did a good job of having that mindset that, ‘I’ve got to handle my own. I’ve got to do the best I can for the team and for myself to show I can play ball.’ Guys were just hungry to come out here and try to get a win.”
It was an inspiring show the Jets have been looking for all season, one that Wilson’s teammates were more than happy to play witness to. Linebacker C.J. Mosley expounded on the confidence that Wilson’s performance bestowed to the rest of the team and eliminated any thought toward the goofy notion of tanking.
“You want to see him comfortable, playing his type of game and when things break down, him making plays. That’s exactly what he did,” Mosley said of Wilson’s outing. “You think about the pass that he threw to McDermott, moving (out of the pocket), that was an amazing play and, obviously, a better play by McDermott, I’m going to say. A big guy like him, just reaching over and catching the ball off his back foot, that was awesome.
“It was just really fun to see the offense click and seeing the run game clicking, seeing Zach out there being comfortable, making plays with his feet. Hopefully that continues these next two games.”
Lawrence likewise impressed in his belated debut in the Garden State. At this time last year, Lawrence seemed destined for the College Football Playoff National Championship and the New York Jets. Neither came to fruition – Clemson fell to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and the Jets earned two late wins to tumble down Cleveland’s draft board – and things haven’t been quite the same for him since.
But Lawrence found a comforting sense of inner gridiron peace on the turf that nearly became his own. No touchdowns passes awaited – he hasn’t thrown any since Nov. 28 – but he generated a sense of sustainable momentum, aided perhaps by Jacksonville’s embracing of the consequence-free settings. They kept their first drive (a Matthew Wright field goal) alive through a fake punt and allowed Lawrence to throw deep all afternoon.
The Jaguars’ trust and dedication to Lawrence was most apparent when they sought a game-winning on their final drive of the afternoon. Less than 24 hours after the Cleveland Browns did all they could to deny their tenured top pick Baker Mayfield a chance to lead a game-winning drive in Green Bay on Christmas, the Jaguars put the ball in Lawrence’s hands. He was more than happy to add his feet to the equation on a 26-yard rush that put the Jaguars five yards away from the end zone mere moments after he lost primary tight end and top target James O’Shaughnessy to another injury.
Those final tallies proved to be elusive. Even if his would-be winning score to Marvin Jones on fourth-and-goal wasn’t well-defended by Javelin Guidry, an illegal shift penalty would’ve denied them the points. But in a year of so much Upstate Florida football ugliness, it was hard not to raise at least half a smile.
The first stage of Jacksonville football healing has perhaps begun. Though possibly expected, at least a loss is genuinely disappointing again, a threshold the equally distanced-from-the-postseason Jets possibly crossed weeks ago after they were unable to build on Wilson’s aforementioned first half prowess against Philadelphia and Miami.
It was a productive loss – those have been few and far between for the beleaguered Jaguars – but one that the traditional wearers of teal and black desperately wanted, even if the loss kept them withing striking distance of another top overall selection to join Lawrence.
“I’m proud of these guys who kept fighting and gave us a chance to win. We’ve got to get better. Good teams win those games, so we have to get better,” Lawrence said of the narrow defeat, per team reporter Brian Sexton. “I felt like we really clicking on all cylinders today on offense…For us to keep our head in the game, really execute and put ourselves in the situation and get down there…that’s all you could really ask for.”
“I can honestly say this game has been different,” Jaguars cornerback Shaquill Griffin said in a report from Dennis Waszak of the Associated Press. “I was telling them watching Trevor and the offense drive down that field, I’m looking around at those faces, that faith, that belief and hope that ‘We really can do this.’ That’s the part that I felt was missing for so long. Going to the game really knowing we can really win this. Knowing that this W can come to us. I saw that on everybody’s face. I can play with a team like that any day.”
— Jacksonville Jaguars (@Jaguars) December 26, 2021
Their football fates forever linked by 20 minutes in Cleveland, Lawrence and Wilson met at midfield, as the protagonists of any drama tend to before the closing credits roll. No catchphrase, no long-winded, lip-read, scrutinized conversation awaited, only a short exchange, a shared realization and commitment as a crucial calendar year commences in mere days.
“(We said), ‘Keep going’,” Wilson said of his conversation with Lawrence. “He did a great job. He’s going through the same thing I’m going through. We’re both learning. He put together a great drive right there. He’s improving every single week just like I’m trying to. I told him we’ll stay in touch and I just hope the best for him.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags
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