The New York Jets’ backup quarterback conundrum was thrust back into the spotlight when Zach Wilson struggled in Sunday’s home opener.
Two games into the Zach Wilson era, the New York Jets are once again embroiled in a quarterback controversy.
Rest assured, this isn’t a call to usurp Wilson from the Jets’ passing throne, even if many Gang Green supporters potentially did so (even facetiously) after being granted entry to MetLife Stadium for a regular season game for the first time since December 2019 on Sunday. Sam Darnold’s strong early returns in Charlotte have done nothing to quell the storm surrounding Wilson, whose 56.1 passer rating ranks dead last amongst 33 qualified NFL passers.
A four-interception outing during the Jets’ 2021 home opener, a 25-6 defeat at the hands of the Patriots, caused the statistical sinking. The road gets no easier with a visit to the Rocky Mountains to battle the undefeated Denver Broncos and their third-ranked defense (251.5 yards allowed) per game looming this coming Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).
Even the most naive and optimistic Jets fans had to know that Wilson’s rookie season was going to feature some growing pains. But it’d help if Wilson had some form of on-field assistance and guidance to work through them. Yes, the Jets prepared for Wilson’s arrival by replenishing their offensive cabinet (Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Alijah Vera-Tucker, etc.)…but they need a veteran backup thrower.
As Wilson’s Sunday passer rating continued to numerically resemble the bullpen ERA of New York’s woebegone baseball squads, some began to ponder if leaving him in to clean up the mess his turnovers created was the right move. It was prudent to keep Wilson in the game as the score worsened, as it presented a rare chance for him to build confidence in a consequence-free situation. But Wilson probably could’ve used a veteran voice in his ear to help him work through his tumultuous first taste of NFL regular season action.
Even if the Jets wanted to remove Wilson from Sunday’s carnage, it’s hard to say their current contingency plan would’ve beautified the situation. Mike White appears to be stuck in some sort of gridiron limbo, a quarterback whose first professional passes (in the regular season, anyway) are more likely destined for the third iteration of the XFL than Sundays in the fall. Even if the Jets were to mount an unlikely playoff push, White isn’t exactly the best option in case of a Wilson medical emergency. The South Florida/Western Kentucky alum’s NFL experience has been exclusively limited to preseason work and even that (71.5 passer rating over three summers with New York and Dallas) hasn’t been inspiring.
One of the more unfortunate parts of the affair is that the Jets are actively employing a quarterback who has been there and done this before, a veteran with a multitude of professional experience under his belt. Alas, Josh Johnson has been stashed on the practice squad, his services open to any team in need of an emergency veteran option.
What’s even more puzzling about this situation is that the Jets know just how valuable a veteran backup quarterback can be. Head coach Robert Saleh has repeatedly declared his reluctance to add a veteran backup for tradition’s sake. But recent history should’ve pushed the Jets in that direction.
Darnold’s finest New York hours, for example, came in the shadow of another well-traveled veteran: Josh McCown. Brought in as an emergency starter in 2017, McCown took Darnold under his wing during the latter’s rookie season and put him on a path to success. Darnold credited a sterling stretch at the end of year one (99.1 passer rating, 6 touchdowns, 1 interception, a comeback win over Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills over his final four freshman games) to observing and working with McCown.
“(I watched) the way he went about studying the plays that are in the game plan, it’s literally everything, walkthrough, practice, how he treated everything,” Darnold told reporters of McCown’s impact in December 2018. “I think it was just awesome to be able to learn (from) and watch him.”
A similar situation served as a subplot in the Jets’ most recent glory days: in helping the Jets reach the latter of consecutive AFC title game appearances, Mark Sanchez had the therapeutic services of Mark Brunell, the architect of Jacksonville’s conference championship game visits toward the turn of the century. Under Brunell’s watch, Sanchez posted the finest numbers of his career. In the five years after Brunell’s retirement, the rest of his career was anchored down by 31 touchdowns and 38 interceptions over 32 games in New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Washington. With Brunell behind him, he had 43 touchdowns and 31 interceptions over 32 starts, posting a 19-13 record as a starter in that span.
Sanchez would later fulfill a similar role with the Cowboys during the 2016 season, helping oversee Dak Prescott’s breakout freshman season in the absence of the injured Tony Romo.
Even in the fickle, hard-to-please world of NFL quarterbacking, Sanchez was happy to embrace the role of a mentor. The pair partook in a 13-win season for the Cowboys, matching their best victory tally in the new century.
“I don’t want to cloud (his) head, but from my experience, I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what happened to me,” Sanchez said at the time, per Kate Hairopoulos of The Dallas Morning News. The former Jet went on to recall a humorous incident during Dallas’ October visit to Green Bay, in which he heard that a “crazed fan” attacked Prescott after leading a 97-yard, 33-second scoring drive just before the half. That lunatic turned out to be Sanchez, the afternoon’s backup and the first person to greet Prescott following the game-changing drive, which ended on a 20-yard scoring pass to Brice Butler.
Shortly before that possession, Dallas was reeling from a pair of Prescott fumbles (one lost, one forcing America’s Team to resign itself to a field goal) that allowed Green Bay to linger in a crucial NFC showdown. Cameras caught Prescott in constant contact with Sanchez after the miscues, which accounted for some of the first blemishes on his NFL ledger. Prescott had entered that anticipated matchup with just a single lost fumble to his name.
Not only did that drive of recovery permanently shift momentum into Dallas’ corner (taking a 17-6 lead into the halftime break en route to a 30-16 triumph) but it arguably sealed Prescott’s destiny as the Cowboys’ franchise quarterback.
“I jumped on him because I was so just happy for him, because you talk about coming back from adversity and he hadn’t really faced it yet,” Sanchez said in Hairopoulos’ report. “On the road, they’re trying to call timeouts to get the ball back and he takes it (97) yards. That was awesome.”
That’s quite an impact for a guy with 18 passes with a star on his helmet to leave on an organization.
Barring injury or an absolute meltdown…say, consecutive games with an imperfect 0.0 passer rating…it would be foolhardy to bench Wilson at any point this season. The Jets’ current situation enured that the playoffs were a long-shot right from the get-go. but this season still offers a bittersweet gift in the sense that he (and the rest of the fledgling Jets) gets 17 consequence-free opportunities to find himself and crack open the dangerous yet euphoric puzzle box that is passing success in the NFL.
Unless the Jets miraculously convince the Kansas City Chiefs to send Patrick Mahomes their way, no one wants to see anyone other than Wilson under center for the Jets this year. This is his time to work things out, to build confidence for the road ahead.
The Jets has spent the last five decades search for the long-sought successor to Joe Namath. Their failure to add a veteran, on-field quarterback in these vital hours of development only eliminates more clues and landmarks toward ending that hunt.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags