Zach Wilson, NY Jets, Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins, Stats, Draft
Zach Wilson, New York Jets, Getty Images

There is a comparison to be made to younger QBs that can work for Zach Wilson

Zach Wilson is at a critical point in his career with the New York Jets.

As predicted, I’ve been accused of being a Zach hater for pointing out the facts. Although numbers can be used to lie, in this case, they’re merely confirming what we see with our eyes: Wilson is struggling immensely with the bare fundamentals of playing the position.

That being said, as Michael Nania pointed out, there is one aspect of Wilson’s game that he is actually succeeding in: being a game manager.

When Wilson stays in the tackle box and releases the ball in under 2.5 seconds, here are his numbers:

  • 40/52 for 365 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
  • 6th in yards per attempt (7.0)
  • 8th in completion percentage (76.9)
  • 10th in EPA per play (0.20)
  • 13th in success rate (51.9%)*- a successful play is considered any play that yields a positive EPA; i.e. a play that keeps the offense “on-schedule”

On all throws made in under 2.5 seconds (regardless of whether he stays in the pocket), Wilson has a 71.9% completion rate (18th), 7.0 yards per attempt (7th), and a 1.4% turnover-worthy play rate (10th). He’s not doing anything flashy, but he’s not turning the ball over, either.

It’s easy to think that Wilson is not a good game manager, as his short-field accuracy has not been great this season, either. He’s ranked 32nd out of 36 qualified QBs with a 70.7% completion percentage on throws from 0-9 yards. However, when he’s making quick decisions, he’s generally on point.

Nania’s article explains that Wilson can succeed in a reduced offense that includes fewer rollouts, shorter drops, staying in the pocket, and letting the skill position players do the work. He points out that this approach comes with a cost, which is taking away the high-upside traits that the Jets drafted Wilson for. Turning a guy with Patrick Mahomes-level ability into Jimmy Garoppolo just isn’t very appealing and certainly is not a good return on investment.

I would argue, though, that this is precisely what Wilson needs at this stage in his development.

Jets fans have been frustrated all season with the Jets’ play-calling, which has not given Wilson those quick and easy reads that help a QB get into a rhythm. I think that’s a philosophical choice: the Jets do not want to turn Wilson into a game manager. Despite the number of screen passes they’ve thrown in recent weeks, they haven’t done a ton of the three-step drop, one-read throws that other coaches have used to help their QBs in the past.

As much as I’ve criticized Wilson for bailing the pocket, we don’t usually see that on three-step drop plays (unless there’s pressure right in his face immediately, at which point you can’t blame him). The Miami game this year was the best example of Zach playing comfortably in a game manager role.

In this case, there are highly drafted QBs who thrived in a game manager role with the game simplified. Obviously, that is not meant to be the case forever, and I think most coaches recognize that. But allowing a young QB to gain confidence lets them get comfortable with what they’re seeing before taking it to the next level.

This is especially critical in the current NFL landscape when first-round draft picks often play from Day 1 and nearly always see meaningful starts in their rookie season. They are not coming into the league ready to play, and they’re often thrown into a trial by fire. Simplifying the game for them allows them to flow with their natural talent while also working out the kinks in practice and through film study.

Patrick Mahomes is actually a perfect example of coming into the NFL needing some time to develop. Scouts were afraid of his tendency to throw off his back foot, run around in circles, and throw bad interceptions. (Sounds familiar?) However, Mahomes sat for a year. He worked on his mechanics, day in and day out, in practice, on his own, with his coaches, and with Alex Smith. That’s part of the reason that we saw the dominant Patrick Mahomes in 2018, not just the Super Bowl-caliber talent that he had around him and his own prodigious physical traits.

The Chiefs never really put training wheels on Mahomes largely because of the development they saw in the year in which he sat. Most teams do need to make things easier for their young quarterbacks, though. Let’s look at some other examples.

Andy Dalton (2011-present)

From Day 1, Andy Dalton made his way in the league by getting the ball out quickly. In his rookie season, Dalton released the ball in under 2.5 seconds 60.9% of the time, which led all quarterbacks. He wasn’t necessarily particularly successful on such throws: 63.2% completion rate (24th out of 35), 6.4 YPA (19th), 10:7 TD:INT ratio, 3.4% TWP rate (25th), and 82.8 passer rating (22nd). However, what he lacked (and lacks) in arm strength, he makes up by getting the ball into his playmakers’ hands.

In 2012, Dalton once again got the ball out quickly, ranking 2nd at 56.4% of the time. His completion rate rose to 70.5% (13th) at 7.1 YPA (6th), and he had a 20:9 TD:INT ratio. His TWP rate remained high at 2.6% (26th), but his passer rating increased to 99.3 (13th).

The next few years of Dalton’s career followed in a similar vein. Dalton is pretty much a good backup/marginal starter at this point, and he certainly never had the high-end potential that Zach Wilson does. But if Wilson could mimic Dalton’s play from the beginning of his career, the Jets would have a chance to make a serious run.

Ryan Tannehill (2014)

In his rookie season, Ryan Tannehill was 24th out of 38 QBs in getting the ball out quickly 44% of the time. In his second year, that number increased all the way to 55.6% (6th out of 40). In 2014, his third year, he settled in between at 50.9% (16th) and put up the best numbers of his career. Not coincidentally, he also put up his best numbers when getting the ball out quickly.

Tannehill had a 74.5% completion percentage (5th), 2,139 yards (9th), 6.7 YPA (21st), 16 TDs (9th), a 2.3% TWP rate (14th), and a 102.0 passer rating (18th) on such throws in 2014. He threw 27 TDs and appeared ready to take the next step as a quarterback. Unfortunately, the Adam Gase era caught up to him, and it took a career rejuvenation in Tennessee for Tannehill to become an above-average quarterback.

Kirk Cousins (2014)

Kirk Cousins only played in six games in 2014, but Washington eased him into the lineup. Cousins released the ball in under 2.5 seconds 54.5% of the time (8th out of 42 QBs). He completed 71.3% of them (17th) at 8.3 YPA (1st) despite a 5.3 ADOT (29th), 2.5% TWP rate (17th), and a 102.7 passer rating (16th). Cousins did not continue to release the ball that quickly in subsequent seasons, but his team allowed him to ease in that first year.

Despite how maligned Cousins’s play has become over the years, the Jets would take his level of play any day of the week considering the current talent of the rest of the team.

Mitchell Trubisky (2018)

In Mitch Trubisky’s second season, he started to flash some of the talent that made the Bears trade up to select him at No. 2 overall. A big part of that was his work in getting the ball out quickly. Trubisky released the ball in under 2.5 seconds 52% of the time (13th out of 33 qualifiers, min. 200 dropbacks). He completed 76.8% of such passes, including 14 TDs (11th) and a 1.8% turnover-worthy play (TWP) rate (15th). His passer rating on such throws was 103.3 (13th).

Now, Trubisky never did develop beyond that three-step drop QB. Perhaps Zach won’t, either. But he’s certainly not doing well in this role right now.

Joe Burrow (2020-22)

The perception that Joe Burrow runs around a lot in the pocket might be somewhat accurate. However, Burrow has offset those longer-developing plays by releasing the majority of his throws in under 2.5 seconds. You may not call him a game manager, but that’s largely what he was in his rookie season.

In 2020, Burrow released the ball quickly 56.9% of the time (8th out of 36 QBs). He completed 74.2% of those passes (14th) at 7.1 YPA (9th). His TWP rate was rather high at 2.6% (25th) and put up an average passer rating of 99.0 (19th). Still, the Bengals wanted him to get it out. That largely had to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of his offensive line, but nonetheless, he released it quickly.

In 2021 and 2022, Burrow has continued to get it out quickly, ranking 4th and 2nd, respectively, in the percentage of dropbacks with throws released in under 2.5 seconds. You wouldn’t call him a game manager at this point—far from it—but from watching his game against the Jets this year, it’s clear that Burrow can beat you with a death by a thousand paper cuts punctuated by some longer-developing throws.

Tua Tagovailoa (2020-22)

In Tua’s rookie year, he got the ball out in under 2.5 seconds 57.9% of the time (6th out of 36 QBs). His 6.8 yards per attempt on such throws ranked 17th, and he threw nine touchdowns vs. just three picks.

In 2021, Tua continued to get the ball out quickly, ranking 3rd out of 35 QBs by with a release time of under 2.5 seconds 56.4% of the time. His numbers improved on such throws, with a 74.2% completion rate (12th), 6.4 YPA (14th), 10:2 TD:INT ratio, and 101.2 passer rating (13th).

In 2022, Tua is still releasing the ball quickly, even with his two explosive receivers on the outside. He gets the ball out in under 2.5 seconds 54.5% of the time, 7th out of 35 QBs. The primary difference is his receivers: Tua leads all quarterbacks with 8.5 YPA on such throws with a 7.9 ADOT (also 1st). He’s thrown six TDs and no picks with a 1.8% TWP rate (18th). His 114.9 passer rating is 2nd-best behind only Andy Dalton (of all people).

Tua Tagovailoa is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season. A big reason for his increase in success seems to be the receivers he’s playing with. The Jets don’t have Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle on their roster, but Garrett Wilson, Elijah Moore, Braxton Berrios, Corey Davis, and Denzel Mims are five receivers who can beat up opponents with YAC. Get the ball out of your hands and into your playmakers’. Generally, good things will happen.

Mac Jones (2021)

It’s well-known that Mac Jones had (and has) a much lower ceiling than the rest of the 2021 QB class (except perhaps Davis Mills). However, the Patriots maximized his talent last season.

Although Jones got the ball out quickly an average amount (47.9% of the time, 17th out of 35 QBs), he thrived when doing so. He completed 76.6% of his passes (4th) at 7.1 YPA (5th) and threw 13 TDs (11th) with a 1.4% TWP rate (10th). His 102.4 passer rating on such throws ranked 11th.

This season, the Patriots have completely gotten away from that. Mac is releasing the ball in under 2.5 seconds just 37.2% of the time, ranked 33rd out of 35 QBs. You can trace his struggles to many different things, but this is definitely someplace to start. His TWP rate is high (3.1%, 30th) on such throws, but he only has 59 of them. There’s a good chance those numbers would even out if he had more quick pass attempts.

Jalen Hurts (2022)

In his first two years in the league, Jalen Hurts did not get the ball out quickly that often. This season, he’s changed that up.

In his rookie year, Hurts ranked 42nd out of 42 QBs (min. 125 attempts) in releasing the ball quickly only 33.2% of the time. That number climbed to 38.4% in 2021, but he was still 32nd out of 35 qualifiers.

This year, though, Hurts is up all the way to 51.2%, 13th out of 35 quarterbacks. He has a 75.6% completion rate (5th), 7.3 YPA (5th), a 5:1 TD:INT ratio, 0.8% TWP rate (4th), and a 105.3 passer rating (10th). Interestingly, his 3.6 ADOT on such throws is 31st out of 35 qualifiers; clearly, he’s trusting his receivers to make plays – and it works with guys like A.J. Brown, Devonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert.

The Eagles have surrounded Hurts with talent and quickened his time to throw – and good things have happened.

Another point to ponder

The best quarterbacks in the NFL get the ball out quickly the majority of the time. One of the reasons that completion percentages have increased while ADOT and interceptions have decreased over the last 10-15 years is the general explosion of short, quick passes.

The perception that the NFL is a deep-passing league is actually inaccurate: teams have discovered the value of YAC and getting the ball out vs. trying to take longer-developing shots. That’s not to say teams don’t throw it deep, but if you look at the best quarterbacks, even those who are perceived to be great deep passers, they usually get the ball out the quickest, on average.

Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers have almost always littered the NFL leaderboard in both quickest average time to throw and rate of passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds. Even veterans such as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Matthew Stafford, and the like saw their average time to throw decrease as they became more experienced. Finding the right read and letting it rip is a combination of scheme and coverage reads.

A young quarterback often won’t be able to make the same coverage diagnoses and presnap reads as the veterans. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon the coach to put them in a situation in which the ball is out quickly. This is particularly pivotal for a guy like Zach Wilson, for whom things begin to crumble the longer he holds on to the ball.

Mike LaFleur has shown his ability to scheme guys open this season. You saw it all over the film against the Patriots and even the Broncos. In my opinion, it would be wise to turn his attention to scheming them open in such a way that lets Zach Wilson free-flow without having to think. The idea that turning him into a game manager will hurt his development could be accurate, but we haven’t exactly seen development the other way.

Great offensive coordinators and coaches design gameplans to highlight their players’ strengths and cover up their weaknesses. It appears that Zach Wilson’s strength right now is getting the ball out quickly from within the tackle box.

If the Jets want to succeed with Wilson, for right now at least, the right thing to do is to turn him into—to paraphrase Robert Saleh—Boring Zach.

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Rivka Boord has followed the Jets since the age of five. She is known locally for her in-depth knowledge of football. She hopes to empower young women to follow their dreams and join the sports conversation. Boord's background in analytics infuses her articles with unique insights into the state of the Jets' franchise and the NFL as a whole.
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Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
1 year ago

This was a good analysis, but you left out the key statistic. What is Zach’s % of throws under 2.5 seconds?

I think there are lots of plays where Zach could make a quick throw, but he wants to make a big play so he ignores the slant or screen.

Nevada Buck
1 year ago

A great analysis Rivka! Thank you so much. I just hope that the coaches at the Jets get a chance to read this.

1 year ago

I wasn’t very interested in the Monday Night game between the Bengals and Bills, so I watched the Peyton Bros broadcast so as to be entertained.
These two HOF QB’s (I know Eli is questionable) must have mentioned how quickly Burrow gets the ball out of his hand a dozen times, no exaggeration.
As you said, statistics can be used to manipulate, but the correlation between getting the ball out quickly and success is undeniable.
As I said after one of Nania’s articles, we win the NE game w/ a Jimmy G type performance at QB. Give me Jimmy G for now, and let Patty Mahomes develop later.
I just hope that for all the hair-pulling we are doing as fans and writers, the Jets’ staff is seeing and concluding similar things.

Last edited 1 year ago by mlesko73
Mike Palazzo
1 year ago

A total rethinking of the offensive situation is exactly what needs to be done right now. Injuries Have changed the Landscape. The O-line is not built for the longer developmental plays because of Injuries and because Tomlinson is having a horrible year. I would like to see a change in the offensive scheme for the better. If a game Manager is what Zach and the offensive line needs to be successful then its on Lafleur to do so. The WR situation needs to be evaluated as well. Moore needs time in the slot and Mims is better suited on the outside. I Don’t like Mims blocking on the inside I think Davis’s & Uzomah’s blocking is far better. Mims is purely an outside guy IMO. Lafleur has to scheme towards his players strengths and stop putting them in roles where it don’t suit them even if that means re writing the playbook.

1 year ago

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Last edited 1 year ago by DannyGordon
1 year ago

I agree but I fear Lafleur is very stubborn when it comes to running his system. He’s young but he does not seem to adapt to his personnel quickly. He made adjustments last year half way through the year. Hopefully he can do it again.

Matt Galemmo
Matt Galemmo
1 year ago

Did Saleh actually say, “Boring Zach?”

65% completions and lots of YAC are not boring. First downs, touchdowns and points are not boring.

You know what’s boring? Punts.