If Zach Wilson is out, the show must go on for the remaining Jets
Of all the cringe-inducing, if not time-tested, tropes that the American situational comedy has bestowed upon We the People, one of the universally loathed has to be the fourth-wall transcending cliche of carrying on business as usual when the main star has left. Sure, no genre or medium is immune to casting departures (i.e. the Bourne-less “Bourne Legacy”) but the sitcom is among the phenomenon’s most constant victims.
The result almost never tops its predecessor and the episodes sans said star are often skipped by viewers in syndication or streaming. Even shows with historically stellar supporting casts that got to take center stage upon the retooling (i.e. “The Office”, “That ’70s Show”) haven’t been immune.
The second-year quarterback is the undisputed face of the star-crossed franchise’s modern fortunes as its starting quarterback, a role so toxic, so career-poisoning that even Joey Tribbiani might have second thoughts. Health issues could be the culprit behind this departure, as Wilson left Friday’s preseason contest against the Philadelphia Eagles with a noticeable limp after fighting for scramble yardage that would cast a damper upon the team’s summer slate opener no matter what.
For the time being, it appears that Wilson has avoided a major injury (it appears he will miss 2-4 weeks), but that didn’t stop things like “torn ACL” and “Dak Prescott” from trending. The former was the diagnosis bestowed by Twitter’s amateur doctors while the Prescott reference was meant to invoke his unintentional coup of the Dallas Cowboys’ franchise quarterback role after a preseason injury fell upon incumbent Tony Romo, the Jets version being meant for Halloween hero Mike White.
Many amateur general managers began conjuring trades for Jimmy Garoppolo, who has several San Francisco advisors working with in Florham Park. Jets fans are also used to being misled by medical reports: look no further than Mekhi Becton’s cursed metropolitan saga.
The team’s social media spaces were thus disaster zones, with virtual musicians playing “Nearer My God to Thee” as a season that hadn’t even started took on a dreary tone. The message was more or less the same: all is lost.
Is it, though?
There’s no denying that, by the conventions of modern NFL observing, any form of progress the Jets want to make this season begins and ends with Wilson. The team’s unspoken offseason goal of eliminating any excuse Wilson or his supporters could think of came to fruition, thus giving a meandering franchise a much-needed sense of clarity and direction.
But as a team, the Jets have far more to play for than the mere quarterback spot. True, the franchise’s future could benefit from knowing whether Wilson, a high-risk, high-capital pick by even the Jets’ pass-thirsty standards (the first green quarterback chosen in the top two since Joe Namath) but there are bigger concerns to worry about in the immediate future.
Wilson is one of several young players that perfectly define the state of the Jets entering the 2022-23 season: “potential” is the name of the game in New York and it was gained through wise spending and draft maneuvering by general manager Joe Douglas. This isn’t, say, the 2020 group, where a growing quarterback’s development was made the responsibility of a first-round washout (Breshad Perriman), used capital from New England’s bag of tricks (Chris Hogan), and legends of the game past their prime (Le’Veon Bell/Frank Gore).
Youth in revolt now dominates the Jets’ ledgers, accomplished collegiate talents who have the statlines, skillsets, and intangibles that help win ball games. It’s what gave Douglas the confidence to make a bold move like disregarding the problematic areas of the roster to draft the top freshman running back in Breece Hall, even with the effective Michael Carter already in tow.
It may be a small sample size, Elijah Moore is perhaps the Jets’ most potent big-play threat since Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker’s dueling four-digit yardage seasons. He’s now joined by the unrelated Garrett Wilson, the middle of the Jets’ three-pick first round, where he was sandwiched by a pair of defenders.
Tight ends Tyler Conkin and Jeremy Ruckert (the latter being a rookie) hinted at a much-needed red zone/necessary yardage prowess throughout the game, while an offensive line packed to the brim with young potential, even sans Becton (i.e. Alijah Vera-Tucker, Max Mitchell) earned Pro Bowl-worthy veteran guidance in Laken Tomlinson and now Duane Brown.
So let’s say typical Jets malarkey befalls Wilson, where a two-to-four-week timeline gets longer because someone in this organization angered the football gods a long time ago. Instead of making up a satirical hashtag referencing a desire for a 2023 draft prospect (#PlayLikeDungForBryceYoung?), why not use the potentially Wilson-free settings to nurture this potential-laden pack, especially with capable backups waiting in the wings?
The hype around White’s holiday showcase was ridiculously overblown, but he, at the very least, has proven he’s capable of filling in a serviceable backup. Elsewhere, the undressed Joe Flacco knows what it’s like to build a team from the ground up. His rookie season efforts took what was previously a five-win Baltimore team one game short of the Super Bowl and later helped oversee the development of the Ravens’ finest homegrown receivers, including Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta, who played major roles in the eventual Super Bowl win at the end of the 2012 season.
The notion of tanking is ludicrous for any team … why should players sow a reward they’ll never get to reap? … and it’s especially goofy in the NFL, where none of the 17 games should ever be wasted. Why would the Jets, even if cursed with the loss of a franchise quarterback, throw away yet another year? Instead of focusing solely on Wilson, the team has plenty of potential to nurture and force out. It just so happens there are two effective options to handle the possibly lost quarterback’s duties.
Finally, let’s confront an ugly truth: with or without Wilson, asking the Jets to conjure up a playoff berth in the modern AFC is still a tall, tall, tall ask.
Sure, confidence has flowed from Florham Park like the Bud Light and Pepsi taps on a MetLife Stadium game day. But that doesn’t stop the fact that the modern AFC, whose East division is overseen by Western New York until further notice. This is a conference where the developed Los Angeles Chargers missed the playoffs last season. If they want to make it this year, a team quarterbacked by Russell Wilson might have to miss out.
That’s not even the fault of any quarterback on the roster. The Jets were a four-win team last season and they might’ve been lucky to make it that far. There were so many holes in the roster that the one guarantee of the offseason was that at least one area of the roster would be unaddressed or at least not to the level desired.
Last night, it was clear that the premier defense is going to cause some issues, particularly a linebacker group that has little, if any, proven talent behind C.J. Mosley. Limited action saw the Eagles’ starters march down the field for an easy score … and that was without any A.J. Brown contributions to the box score and DeVonta Smith not dressing.
But, confident as the Jets have been, the postseason never should’ve been the ultimate endgame for this season. It was meant to be one of development, one where the Jets at least put their franchise back on the right track. Progress was the name of the game, even if the playoffs remain a bit of a pipe dream. Win more than a handful of games, break the ridiculously long losing streak in the division, and maybe take down another true contender or two.
Either way, give the viewers something they’re comfortable investing in. Wilson was only one part of that multi-faceted goal and journey. Development and nuturing was the name of the game for almost every starter on the Jets’ roster this year.
That shouldn’t change with the loss of one man, no matter how long.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags