This element of Zach Wilson’s game plays a huge role in determining how well he plays overall
Sometimes, Wilson would receive fairly good support from his teammates but still hang them out to dry. His Week 5 game against the Falcons was an example of this. Receivers were getting themselves open, but Wilson missed one wide-open target after another as he failed to capitalize on the opportunity to win a close game.
Other times, Wilson was thrown into hellish situations and performed well in spite of the circumstances. His strong late-season performances against the Jaguars and Buccaneers came at a time when he was surrounded by backups due to an onslaught of injuries.
The moral of the story is that Wilson was incredibly unpredictable in 2021. There aren’t many identifiable patterns in which you can say, “Wilson tended to struggle when he did this,” or “Wilson tended to play well when he did this.”
That is, except for this one particular factor.
After digging deep through Wilson’s numbers, I finally found a statistic that tended to correlate fairly closely with his overall level of play: his average time to throw.
Zach Wilson’s average time to throw might be the most important factor in his success
We’ll abbreviate Wilson’s average time to throw as “TTT” for short. It simply measures the average amount of time that elapses from the point that the ball is snapped to the point that the quarterback releases it from his hands.
Speedy releases were the key to Wilson’s success. Wilson tended to play his best when he got the ball out quicker. When he held onto the ball longer, he tended to have a rough time.
On the year, Wilson registered a TTT of 3.05 seconds. That’s very high. It ranked fifth-highest out of 38 qualified quarterbacks in 2021.
The 3.0-second mark represented a crucial barometer for Wilson. In six games where he had a TTT under 3.0, Wilson registered an average game grade of 61.7 in my personal 0-to-100 grading system (which is based on my grading of every snap he played by rewatching each of them on film – learn more about that grading system here).
A grade of 50 represents an average-level performance, so Wilson’s 61.7 grade in those six games is pretty good. This six-game sample of sub-3.0 TTT outings includes Wilson’s games against the Jaguars (2.93 TTT), Eagles (2.66), and Buccaneers (2.65) – which were my three highest-graded games of the season for him.
Disaster often struck when Wilson had a TTT above 3.0. In seven games where he held the ball for longer than three seconds on average, Wilson had an average game grade of 38.3 in my grading system, which is brutal. This sample includes four games that many would agree were among his ugliest of the season: his contests against the Bills (3.73 TTT), Falcons (3.33), Patriots in Week 2 (3.29), and Saints (3.16).
Overall, when we include all 13 of Wilson’s games, the correlation coefficient between his TTT and his game grade was -0.584, which is decently strong (for reference, 0.000 would equal no correlation while -1.000 would equal a perfect negative correlation). This tells us that as Wilson’s TTT increased, there was a fairly strong tendency for his game grade to decrease.
What correlated even more closely with Wilson’s TTT than his overall game grade was his consistency.
In my weekly grading system for the Jets quarterbacks, I also track their ratio between positively-graded plays and negatively-graded plays. This gives us an estimate of their overall consistency, showcasing how often they beat the expectations of the given situation compared to how often they fail to meet the expectations of the given situation.
The correlation coefficient between Wilson’s TTT and his positive-negative ratio was a whopping -0.740.
In his six games with a sub-3.0 TTT, Wilson had a 2.27-to-1 ratio of positively-graded plays to negatively-graded plays, representing solid consistency (I consider 1.8-to-1 to be approximately league-average). In seven games with a TTT above 3.0, Wilson’s positive-negative ratio was a ghastly 1.11-to-1.
Six of Wilson’s seven most consistent performances came in games where he had a TTT below 3.0. Each of his six least consistent performances came in games where he had a TTT above 3.0.
Wilson’s worst enemies in 2021 were overthinking and overaggression. When he tried to do too much on a play, he usually paid the price. Think back to his Week 2 nightmare against New England. Wilson’s forced throws – like the ones he made in that Patriots game – were the ones that pushed his TTT to high levels.
But when Wilson played with a confident rhythm and took what the defense gave him, he usually did a nice job. Just look at his Tampa Bay tape. That Bucs game is a perfect model of the mentality that Wilson needs to play with in 2022 and beyond.
As things stand, getting the ball out quicker is the key to Zach Wilson’s success. Perhaps he will one day develop the ability to thrive on long-developing plays. But until then, Mike LaFleur would be wise to focus on constructing the passing game around fast-developing concepts in which Zach can make quick decisions. These concepts will help him build consistency, which in turn will lead to a steady accumulation of confidence.
None of this is to say that the Jets offense should have no aggressive passing concepts and that Wilson should be getting the ball out quickly on every play. The Jets will definitely integrate plenty of deep routes into their passing concepts this year, and Wilson must be ready to take them when they’re open.
And that right there is the key – Wilson needs to master the ability to take the best option available on each snap, whether that be the aggressive play or the safe one.
This is what Wilson did in his successful, lower-TTT games. What’s important to note about Wilson’s TTT splits is that, even in his lower-TTT games, he wasn’t necessarily getting the ball out at a lightning fast speed. In his six games with a sub-3.0-second TTT, his average TTT was still 2.78 seconds, which would have ranked 16th-highest out of 38 qualified quarterbacks last year.
That’s a middle-of-the pack rate, exemplifying the healthy balance that Wilson struck in those successful games. For the most part, he was consistently willing to take the quick and easy play if the defense handed it to him. But he wasn’t just dropping back and checking the ball down immediately like a game-managing QB. Wilson did occasionally hold the ball for a while and search for the big play, although he typically only did so when it was the right call.
Far more so than how fast Wilson was getting the ball out in his quicker-release games, the main takeaway from the TTT numbers in this article is how long Wilson was holding the ball in his slower-release games.
In his high-TTT games, Wilson’s TTT was really high; to a severely problematic degree. In his seven games with a TTT above 3.0, his average TTT was 3.28 seconds, which would have been the highest mark in the NFL last season. Jalen Hurts led the league at 3.18 seconds. Wilson matched or beat Hurts’s mark in over one third of his rookie-year games (5/13).
The moral of the story is not that Wilson should turn into Checkdown Charlie. It’s simply that he needs to avoid games in which he constantly tries to be the hero.
Wilson held the ball for an eternity in his bad games. In his good games, he held the ball for an approximately league-average amount of time, striking a productive balance between taking the easy play and searching for the big play.
I think the Jets’ offensive scheme is the perfect environment for Wilson to fulfill his potential. Wilson is a naturally aggressive quarterback who must tone things down to the point where he can smoothly combine the two sides of himself: the precise pocket QB who keeps the chains moving and protects the ball, and the gunslinger he was born to be. He’ll be able to learn how to get the best of both worlds in LaFleur’s offense.
In this scheme, Wilson will get the chance to primarily focus on keeping the offense moving in a methodical fashion with quick, high-percentage throws, relying on the YAC and short route-running skills of guys like Elijah Moore, Garrett Wilson, and Braxton Berrios. It will allow him to settle into games and generate momentum. All the while, his aggressive mentality will still be there, and LaFleur will give Wilson chances to allow his explosiveness to shine when the time is right.
If he were in a vertical, dropback-passing offense, Wilson’s aggressive mentality might be left to fester, turning him into a loose cannon who fires off some highlight bombs but also racks up plenty of turnovers and struggles with consistency.
But under LaFleur, Wilson is learning to harness his gunslinger style and turn it into a weapon that he can control rather than a ticking timebomb that can implode at any moment.
Balance. That’s the key for Zach Wilson. Backyard football isn’t going to cut it. Neither is game-managing. Mixing in both playstyles in each game – pulling out whichever one is best for the given situation on each play – is Wilson’s recipe for success.
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