FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — There are going to be bad days. Days when patience and endurance will still matter. Even with the lowered stakes at the backup quarterback spot, there are no magic potions or wizardly spells to suddenly turn Zach Wilson into the franchise resurrector the New York Jets were hoping for when selecting him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
That expectation is defunct. It’s time to let it go. There’s no use complaining about yesterday’s forecast.
So let’s get it all out now when it comes to Wilson. Here we go: He’s going to throw another awful pick-six in practice, like the one during Wednesday’s joint practices with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; he’s going to have another run of bad practices, like he did against the Carolina Panthers earlier this month; he’s going to crank out plenty of worm-burners, throwing too low and hard and into the dirt; and he is going to air mail some others out of reach, or bury them into the hands or belly of a defender, looking as if he was actually throwing a pass to his opponent.
These are facts about the NFL future of Zach Wilson, not predictions.
If you’re an analyst, fan or even someone residing inside the Jets family, and you feel the need to see Wilson snap into a perfect trajectory tomorrow (or next week, month or offseason) you can go ahead and find the exit now. This isn’t going to be a ride offering instant gratification. And there’s a possibility that when it’s all over, the destination may never be what was once hoped. Zach Wilson may learn from new teammate Aaron Rodgers and still fail miserably. He might experience a rebuild from the ground up and never ascend to towering quarterback stature. And along the way, he might provide nothing but ample ammunition to those who would harangue him through every single mistake.
But that ending is not written yet. And despite some wincing moments in this preseason — or maybe because of those moments — there is reason to believe it might never be. Because in between some of his preseason lowlights, there have been some early signs of encouragement for the Jets and Wilson. Put an emphasis on the word "early," because we’re much closer to the beginning of this reclamation than the end. And it’s going to be a while before anyone truly knows what is sinking in for Wilson, or which parts will ultimately be translatable to a regular-season NFL game.
But some signs are there. We see them externally, but not nearly with the same clarity as people inside the Jets building. People who share anecdotes showcasing measured encouragement, about how Wilson has been spongy and resilient in his demotion — not only opening his ears to Rodgers, but even showing self-awareness about the odd-but-advantageous position he’s now in. After all, nobody likes to be pushed down a depth chart. But Wilson is sliding behind a player in Rodgers who has been graceful and almost brotherly about taking the young QB under his wing. That’s a remarkable development out of a bad situation. And Wilson need only look outward at a player like Trey Lance with the San Francisco 49ers to realize how much worse this could have unfolded. While we can argue about whether or not Wilson will get a second chance someday with the Jets, what we can’t argue is that the next two years of tutelage and refining in his game will likely provide some kind of chance … in New York or somewhere else.
Perhaps that opportunity at a resurrection speaks to Wilson’s current demeanor as Rodgers’ understudy, a posture that has featured him often appearing in the hip pocket of the future first-ballot Hall of Famer and four-time NFL MVP. Learning. Absorbing. Listening. Sometimes jabbing — “[L]ike he’s pecking at his older brother,” as one team source described it. And along the way, showcasing an attitude that is far more loose than in the past two seasons. It's one that isn’t living inside football mistakes or dreading the next media availability.
None of that means Wilson has done a 180-degree turn from the depths of 2022. But it’s not meaningless, either. For someone who seemed to the outside world as tone deaf or lacking self awareness about his words last season, Wilson now cuts a figure that seems to have an adept understanding about what Rodgers’ arrival could mean to him in the short and long term. Not to mention a willingness to lean into it, which is not something the Jets could have guaranteed when the idea of chasing Rodgers was first hatched inside the franchise.
Given an opportunity to embrace a fresh start in the wake of Rodgers’ arrival, Wilson has opened eyes in the franchise the past few months by doing exactly that. Such a willingness is not something anyone in the Jets organization could have known until it happened — this whole scenario of Wilson actually handling his demotion with aplomb. While most would say it’s precisely what he should do given his struggles in the league, it is certainly not something that was guaranteed. After all, NFL history is thick with young and talented players who spitefully ran headlong into defiant failure rather than falling in line behind a veteran who had plenty to offer.
Right now, that’s not Wilson. And when you combine that with some of the strides you can see him making — even through some frustrating mistakes — it’s not hard to see why the franchise’s decision makers are pleased. Not because he’s been perfect, but because he’s reacted to imperfection far differently than in the past two seasons. One team source put a fine point on it: There hasn’t been a snowball effect. In the past, Wilson would make a mistake and let it bleed into the rest of a practice. Or he would have one bad practice and it would leave the rest of the week going sideways. And in games, the downward momentum would often be worse.
Now? The Jets are seeing a more buoyant player. Wilson had bad practices against the Panthers. Then he went out and had a very good preseason game against Carolina, showcasing rhythm, decision-making and command. Not only that, but also replicating some of the in-practice lessons from Rodgers. He checked down when the Panthers teased him with easy opportunity at yardage. He looked off a deep ball that would have been trouble. And on a touchdown pass, he appeared to almost perfectly replicate a play-action fake and sidearm that is also Rodgers’ specialty.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) August 12, 2023
Of course, it was preseason. And coming out of the game, Wilson had a tough day of practice against the Buccaneers on Wednesday, including the ugly pick-six that earned him a familiar chorus of groans from the Jets crowd, not to mention a predictable scathing on social media that happily delighted in the usual “Zach Wilson sucks” anthem. But then came Thursday, and you could see some of the bounce-back from Wilson that has earned him praise inside the organization.
On one play, wideout receiver Mecole Hardman appeared to miss a hot read, leaving Wilson to skip a ball to an empty space on the field, followed by the quarterback holding up his arms as if to ask “What happened?” While that wasn’t the greatest body language or outward sign of frustration, the next play featured Wilson lasering an absurd (and perfect) no-look pass to crossing wideout Xavier Gipson, who caught the ball in a tight space before going out of bounds. Two plays later, Wilson took a snap and looked deep off play-action, only to find his streaking options blanketed. In this particular situation, it was common to see Wilson load up with his arm and force a bad decision downfield. Instead, he looked into the right flat and side-armed a solidly conservative (but yardage-eating) pass to tight end Zack Kuntz.
He patiently took what the defense gave him, rather than forcing a likely bad play downfield. If you’re familiar with Wilson’s history, the moment was a quintessential example of taking a different path than the past two seasons. And the people around Wilson are noticing.
“His growth has been phenomenal,” head coach Robert Saleh said Thursday. “And the confidence with which he’s letting the ball rip. He’s playing without fear, he’s letting the bad plays go, he’s always had really good command of the huddle and getting plays out of his mouth and making sure everyone’s on the same page. The nuances, the ball-handling, all the little details of his game have just kind of elevated. Credit to him — he’s just absorbing all this information and learning so freaking much. I give him so much credit. Because it’s already hard enough to be asked to do what he’s doing [stepping behind Rodgers]. And to do it with the openness he’s been doing it and the way he’s attacked it, he’s going to be in this league for a long time and he’s going to start for a long time.”
Saleh knocked on the podium when he said that part about Wilson starting a long time — an ode to knocking on wood. It was understandable in the moment. It’s been a long two years in this organization, and reclaiming Wilson’s career is just a small part of a much bigger picture. But there’s progress being made here. Nobody who is willing to be patient with it wants to jinx it.
Least of all the Jets.