The quiet yet effective preseason debut of Zach Wilson brought a much-needed aura of peace to the New York Jets.
Welcome back to the NFL preseason: where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.
After a year off, the NFL restored nirvana for the hot take artists of social media last week through the resumption of the summer exhibition slate. Last Saturday was particularly blissful for the premature prognosticators, as the four of the five quarterbacks chosen in the first round of last spring’s draft donned their game jerseys for the first time. The outlier, New England’s Mac Jones, was perhaps too busy penning his Hall of Fame speech after social media put him in Canton after his own debut on Thursday against Washington.
Burdened with a history that has made them the butt of many a gridiron joke, the 2021 New York Jets have been dealing with preseason fortune tellers even before the annual MetLife Stadium civil war against the Giants. Any other locale would be bestowed enthusiasm about Wilson being thrust into a situation that brought in offensive reinforcement, bolstered its pass rush on defense, and hired one of the most coveted assistant coaches in football, Robert Saleh, to oversee the whole operation.
Instead, Wilson (among others) has paid the “Jets tax”, where everyday football struggles are instead hysterical comedy fuel. A brief rookie contract holdout felt like a hostage situation before a tough public intrasquad scrimmage (Wilson completed less than half of his attempts and lost two interceptions) at MetLife Stadium was straight-up apocalyptic.
Wilson continues to navigate a situation where not only the simplest mistake, even factors beyond his control, can become the next viral sensation, but also one where he’s playing in a market that doesn’t take the concept of a rebuild too well. Even the gargantuan task of merely appearing in a Super Bowl isn’t enough…how often have you heard Giants fans speak fondly about the 2000-01 season after the Eli Manning pair? With the Jets holding the NFL’s longest active playoff drought (10 years), their long-suffering fans aren’t interested in witnessing another chapter in the endless saga of rebuilding.
Fans know that the phrase “trust the process” has become such a tired trope. The Philadelphia 76ers’ coining of such a phrase (which has yet to yield a result better than seven games in the conference semifinals) was a gift to front offices everywhere: losing streaks and supposed attempts at tanking could be excused as being part of a greater plan to make things right. But when it came to the state of the modern Jets, it’d be hard to deny that some kind of process…and a massive amount of patience…will be necessary moving forward. The Jets are coming off one of the most, if not the most, cursed seasons in franchise history, sinking to depths that even Rich Kotite’s doomed bunch managed to avoid.
Wilson knew what he was dealing with upon entering camp in late July.
“I’m just trying to learn every single day, how I can improve and just knowing my plays better, and just the different looks our defense is throwing at us. It’s going to be a process,” Wilson said, per notes from the Jets. “I would say there’s no pressure behind it, it’s just that the game is fast and you just have to be able to get used to it and catch up to it, and how quickly can I process through things.”
Wilson made his professional debut on Saturday in the Garden State’s late summer tradition informally referred to as the Snoopy Bowl. For some, it’s a mock Super Bowl, an excuse for metropolitan football fans to get together for one last summer hurrah. Others…remember Victor Cruz?…take the opportunity to leave not-so-subtle warnings to the rest of the league. Other times, the game leaves fans feeling wary about the future, presumably leading to the cancellation of some Super Bowl travel packages.
Somehow, someway, Wilson took on the best of both worlds: he left a calming aura amongst Jets while acknowledging that the battle back toward relevancy isn’t going to be an overnight conquest.
Wilson ended the day with a 6-of-9 mark for 63 yards, good for an 86.8 rating. He wasn’t sacked despite decent pressure from the Giants’ reserves. The Jets got into Giants territory on each of his two possessions, including one that began inside their own 10. They might’ve gotten further if not for an offensive pass interference penalty that wiped out a third-down conversion strike to Jamison Crowder. Wilson did convert two other third downs, including a 16-yard strike to Keelan Cole on third-and-nine while the Jets were still trapped at their own 20.
— NFL (@NFL) August 15, 2021
Despite a decent box score, there was room for improvement. He tried to force a third connection with Corey Davis on a third-down in the red zone. The first toss to Davis picked up eight yards on a mini-rollout, but Wilson looked somewhat stagnant in the pocket, often keeping to the safety of inside the hashes.
But no major mistakes, nothing that will appear on SportsCenter‘s Not Top 10, no fodder for the cackling hyenas of Twitter to pounce on, all on a major metropolitan stage against a notorious opponent and moving the ball effectively…what more could the Jets ask for?
Instead of debating Wilson’s Canton case or dooming him to the unholy brotherhood of busts, the Jets can further cherish some of the positive storylines that emerged from Saturday’s proceedings, like an improved pass rush that took down Giants quarterbacks five times and Denzel Mims reclaiming the narrative on his summer.
Obviously, anyone wearing even the slightest shade of green would’ve loved to see Wilson create multiple touchdowns as Justin Fields did in Chicago. They would’ve love to see him thread the needle on a deep ball, Trevor Lawrence-style. But even a perfect performance wouldn’t have solved anything for the Jets. Now, they know what they need to work on moving toward the next Saturday preseason contest in Green Bay (4:25 p.m. ET, WLNY/NFL Network).
“I thought it was good, still things to clean up, but it was a great experience,” Wilson said in a report from D.J. Bien-Aime of the New York Daily News. In that same report, head coach Robert Saleh was more cautious but equally excited.
“There’s still a lot of things that he’s going to learn from. There’s a lot of opportunities for him to grow,” Saleh said. “Even here in this game, despite the fact that he looked comfortable, there’s still going to be things he can learn from.”
Things have rarely panned out for the Jets since a certain Sunday in South Beach in January 1969. Perhaps it’s a cruel reality that the best-case summer scenario, at least in the opening week of exhibitions, is a sub-100-yard performance and only three points. But part one of the Wilson era produces clarity and groundedness…something that’s ironically been missing from a franchise named the Jets, one that’s so desperate to stick the landing…the Jets will happily get on board.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags