Zach Wilson finally gets the ball back on Sunday, and the better news is that there are no good reasons for him to fail. The chosen one just watched three different quarterbacks with three different football journeys run the Jets’ offense with three different degrees of success.
But they all did have success. One of them, Mike White, was the league’s best player on a memorable Sunday afternoon in MetLife Stadium … with this offense. The Jets looked like a relatively legitimate NFL team with White, Josh Johnson and Joe Flacco directing traffic from one end of the field to the other. Mike LaFleur, previously overmatched coordinator, suddenly got smarter when he left Wilson’s side, headed upstairs to the booth and watched other quarterbacks perform Wilson’s assigned tasks.
The Jets have been careful to say that they didn’t necessarily improve at the sport’s most important position once Wilson went down with his knee injury in the blowout loss to the Patriots.
“The surrounding talent around him has gotten a lot better over the last four weeks,” Jets coach Robert Saleh maintained Wednesday.
No, the 2021 Jets will never remind anyone of the 2007 Patriots. But if the receivers are playing faster and the backs are running better and the offensive linemen are blocking with more purpose, as Saleh said, then it’s time for Wilson to prove he is the special player his bosses have sworn he is since the night they drafted him second overall.
Wilson said he is no longer worried about his knee. He told his coaches, “I feel 100 percent confident in my ability to go out there and play football how I need to play football.”
Good to hear. So was Wilson’s declaration that he did indeed gather a ton of intel from watching White, Johnson and Flacco move the team that Wilson was hired to move.
“I feel like every rep that they went through, I was able to learn from and apply it to my game,” he said.
Back in September, his BYU coach Kilani Sitake told The Post this about his former star’s ability to channel information into improved performance: “He’s a learning machine. He got better every day since I’ve known him.”
Toward that end, perhaps Wilson also spent more hours in the film room watching Mac Jones, a player drafted 13 spots later than he was, run Bill Belichick’s offense as if he’s been running it for 15 years. Jones is expected to be his AFC East rival for a long, long time, and he’s already figured out how to lead a first-place team.
The 2-8 Jets might be in the same division as the Patriots, but they are not in the same league. Wilson needs to begin cutting into the canyonesque divide between the two franchises and the two quarterbacks. The upcoming schedule looks about as soft as BYU’s schedule last year, when Wilson was good for 33 touchdowns against three interceptions and enough athletic plays on the run to persuade the Jets that he (not Jones) would develop into the first franchise player to lead them to the Super Bowl in more than half a century.
The Jets start with the 2-8 Texans, still a lousy team despite their upset of the Titans. Then it’s Philly, New Orleans, Miami and Jacksonville. Those are five winnable games against opponents with non-winning records, and after sitting and watching and learning, Wilson should be good enough now to win a few of them before facing Tom Brady’s Buccaneers at home and the Bills on the road.
While he was missing his four starts, the Jets did everything but lock Wilson inside a hermetically sealed chamber. Saleh didn’t just wait for his quarterback’s knee to fully recover to throw him back out there; he waited for the rookie’s “confidence” in his knee to fully recover, too. It’s hard to recall the last time a coach talked so much about a player’s confidence in a healing body part. Wednesday, Saleh said the decision to start Wilson against Houston included the judgment that the quarterback “was good mentally.”
So be it. After going 1-5 and throwing nine interceptions and only four touchdown passes, Wilson now must show that he made the most of his time in the classroom studying his older, more efficient peers. Saleh said he thought there was tremendous value in Wilson’s time observing from the sideline, but conceded, “How he’s able to interpret it all, I really think only he can answer that.”
Wilson starts answering on Sunday. He said he won’t feel any pressure to elevate his game to match the other Jets quarterbacks, but human nature being what it is, that’s a hard claim to buy.
The kid was drafted to be a special player. It’s time for Wilson to begin rising toward that expectation.