Zach Wilson has a chance to erase – and build upon – what happened against Tampa Bay
The penultimate game of the New York Jets‘ 2021 season somehow should’ve satisfied almost every green football fan in the tri-state area.
Those who cherish each loss as a token to move up the 2022 draft board exhaled when Tom Brady found Cyril Grayson for a 33-yard score with 15 seconds remaining, the finishing touch of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 28-24 victory. The other half that pulls for the Jets each and every Sunday no matter how dire the circumstance could at least take solace in the fact that Zach Wilson put in another consistent effort, this one coming against not only the metropolitan demon that is Brady but also the fearsome defense of the defending Super Bowl champions.
Yet, true to their New York form, the Jets somehow managed to satisfy yet simultaneously anger their loyal fanbase.
Painful as it is, losing a two-touchdown lead to Brady and Co. is understandable. But, as always appears to be the case for the star-crossed Jets, the way they did provides endless discussion.
Though Wilson and his offensive comrades still struggle to put together a full 60-minute effort, they mustered enough consistency to engineer an 11-play, 68-yard drive whose final play was situated seven yards from the end zone. A field goal would’ve probably sufficed – had it been anyone but Brady in the Tampa backfield, a triple would’ve outright assured victory – but the Jets went for the killing strike, opting to send Wilson back out for fourth down.
If you didn’t know the result by now, hopefully this extended lede solved that issue.
To be precise, a Wilson sneak was stuffed, leading to Brady’s 53rd career game-winning drive as judged by Pro Football Reference. Thus, in a game where (now former) Buccaneers receiver Antonio Brown made a shirtless exit, somehow it was the Jets’ offense responsible for the game’s most questionable move.
In the ensuing aftermath, blame for the call has been passed around more fervently than Michael Scott’s iPod during Yankee Swap.
First, Robert Saleh accepted the blame on behalf of the entire staff, lamenting the supposedly poor communication that led to Wilson’s doomed sneak rather than what could’ve/should’ve been a reverse to Braxton Berrios (who had already scored on such a play earlier in the afternoon).
Hosts on the Jets’ flagship cable network SNY tried to get Wilson to shoulder it, with Bart Scott going as far as to call the incident a “character flaw”.
Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur perhaps put the matter to bed on Thursday.
“It’s one-hundred percent on me…I pride myself on communication and our unit on execution, you’ve heard me talk about execution a lot…I failed at both of those,” LaFleur said, per notes from the Jets. “Our quarterback did exactly what he was supposed to do in that moment…I know what our intent was, whether people want to believe that one or not, but that’s what happened, and I failed.”
There’s no use in arguing over whether it was the right move to eschew a field goal and go for more yardage. No one’s mind is going to be changed at this point and the Jets (4-12) have already moved on to their season finale in Buffalo (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS). Either side should certainly see its merits: the Brady factor paired with the Jets’ sense of having absolutely nothing to lose is a dangerous, if not exciting combination. Alas, the decision masked Wilson’s most positive developments yet.
It’s hard to allow numbers to fully define Wilson’s rookie campaign. At first glance, it’s easy to see how his 234-yard, single-score game could get lost in the fold, especially with the anointed Mac Jones set to begin a playoff trek in a week. But holding his own and displaying confidence against the vaunted Tampa Bay defense, one that’s nearly a full calendar year removed from a historic stifling of Patrick Mahomes is perhaps the clearest sign yet that the Jets have a plan to make all of this right.
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The most promising metric may be one that wasn’t there at all: for the fourth straight game, Wilson threw no interceptions. All of it came without his rising top blocker and rusher, as George Fant and Michael Carter respectively left the game with early injuries.
An inspiring sign, a step in the right direction – all erased and marred by what many agree isn’t Wilson’s fault.
“It probably was his best game of the year. I thought Zach did a good job, he went out there and he’s been getting better and better every single week,” LaFleur said. “Stats tell a story, but it also doesn’t always tell a story. I think the eye test and how comfortable somebody is, particularly a young quarterback, and I think even people that don’t know the game as much as you guys and us as coaches, I think everyone can kind of see how much more comfortable and how much more free he’s playing.
“Free doesn’t mean just going around playing street ball, it means just running the offense and when it’s not there, making the best decision for the unit in that moment.”
Wilson himself completely tossed aside the fact he went toe-to-toe with the arguable “GOAT”. Totally eschewing the idea that the Tampa game was one defined by “character issues”, he was more pleased that the team put in a respectable effort against the once and potentially future champions.
“The fact that we were able to do something against the Super Bowl contending team that they could be this year and then Super Bowl champions from last year. I think it was just really good for us as a team to see that we can play with those guys,” Wilson said this week, per notes from the team.
“No matter who is on the field, no matter who has to step up within a week, we can give them our best shot. We’re going to go out there and play ball. So, I think that was just a good confidence booster that we’re heading in the right direction. It was a good learning experience for us that we got to finish and put the game away when we had multiple chances there.”
It’s admirable to see so many parties accept responsibility for the mistake that cost them the team’s biggest win since Eric Decker’s overtime leap sent MetLife Stadium into hysterics against New England in December 2015, cheered on by an audience blissfully unaware of its heartbreaking fate in Buffalo the week after. But the proverbial game of hot potato has taken the focus on the positive New York developments gleaned from the Tampa game.
Fortunately, there’s one final opportunity to end the 2021-22 ledger on the right note.
It won’t be easy to do: Berrios, the breakout star of the final stages of the season where stats can actually be trusted, is listed as doubtful for the visit to Orchard Park. Carter should be a full participant but Fant has already been placed on injured reserve and won’t partake. Also absent are Mekhi Becton and Elijah Moore, as the cornerstone lineman and receiver won’t end their long-term medical sabbaticals.
But all the departures mean is that Sunday is Wilson’s show. It presents a perfect opportunity to end his rookie season on the right note, to build on what happened against Tampa Bay…while exorcising the demons that stepped in at the end.
Even with the NFL’s mandated final week schedule that ensures universal divisional matchups, it seems almost poetic that a major Wilson opportunity comes against the Buffalo Bills (10-6). The spirits in charge of the NFL’s fate seemed determined to turn Jets-Bills into a true rivalry, situating each team with a young, talented quarterback (Western New York blessed with the talents of Josh Allen) and having Buffalo play up its “only team that actually plays in New York” status.
So far, only the Bills have lived up to their end of the bargain in the post-Brady AFC East. They’ve followed up a 17-year playoff drought with clinches in four of the last five seasons. They’ll likewise partake in the coming edition, though it remains to be seen whether Highmark Stadium will play host again.
Sunday will mark the first of what Gang Green hopes is the first of many matchups against Buffalo for Wilson (he was injured for the first meeting at MetLife Stadium). The Jets won’t be able to avenge that loss at the end of the 2015-16 season that kept Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, etc. out of the postseason, but they can at least throw a wrench in the Bills plans’ for divisional dominance.
It’d be the perfect throat-clearing gesture from Wilson, a subtle reminder that the Jets have the potential to be a problem on the road ahead. Some have compared the final stages of Wilson’s rookie season to that of Allen’s, when he gave a hint of what was to come through both aerial and ground showcases.
In other words, the faction of fans that’s begging for the Jets to lose so as to bolster their pick are better off pulling for Arizona to top the Seattle Seahawks.
“We’re both going to give it our all, so it’s going to be a good game for us. Who can finish, who can give it everything they have and just to end on a high note and especially for us young guys, it’s been an up and down season but the best thing we can do is to finish strong,” Wilson said of Sunday’s game. He was reluctant to place an entire year’s worth of judgment on a single game, he knows how valuable ending the year on the right note can be for the franchise timeline.
“This is another game, another opportunity to go up there and just try and be better and to try and down our best,” he said. “(It’s a chance to) do our job, play comfortable and just be efficient all the way around and execute it and that’s really all it comes down to.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags