How NY Jets QB Zach Wilson compares to NFL icons in rookie season

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Zach Wilson looks to release a throw in white uniform vs. Pats
Zach Wilson looks to release a throw in white uniform vs. Pats

Maybe everyone should have listened when Robert Saleh told us what to expect from Zach Wilson this season. He was telling the truth. He tried to warn us.

“It's going to get worse before it gets better,” the Jets head coach said back on Aug. 9. “It’s not easy to play quarterback in this league as a rookie.”

No it’s not, not even for the best of the best. So no matter how much everyone hoped Wilson would be in the “Mahomes stratosphere” from Day 1, it was always more likely his rookie season would be filled with games like the one he played on Sunday – that four-interception disaster where he threw his way into a 25-6 loss in his home debut. And never mind how steady and “boring” New England’s Mac Jones looked on the other side.

Almost all rookie quarterbacks bounce up and down off rock bottom during their rookie year.

Even the great ones, like John Elway, who went 1-for-8 for 14 yards with an interception and a lost fumble in his first game. When it was over, he would say later, “I wanted to click my heels together and say, 'Auntie Em, bring me home.” Or Troy Aikman, who threw two interceptions in each of his first three games and completed just 6-of-21 passes for 83 yards in his third.

“It was unlike anything,” he said years later. “I couldn’t have prepared myself.”

Joe Montana was 5-of-12 for 36 yards and got benched in his first NFL start as a rookie. Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in three of his first four starts, all losses, on his way to throwing 28 as a rookie. Even Dan Marino, who had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever for a quarterback, had 14-for-37, 141-yard, one-interception stinker six starts into his career.

And who could forget Eli Manning’s rock bottom in his fourth start and third in a string of three disasters. He went 4-for-18 for 27 yards and threw two interceptions in Baltimore before the Giants mercifully pulled him in a 37-14 loss. His passer rating that day was 0.0 and he was as rattled as he ever was in his career. He admitted to looking at his teammates that day wondering, 'Are they going to quit on you? What are they saying?' One anonymous teammate called him “shell-shocked.”

“I hate saying it,” Manning would say later, “but I was just kind of lost.”

Tom Coughlin called experiences like that “painful but priceless”. He was right, of course. And it’s worth remembering that in the wake of Wilson’s very, very painful Sunday.

That’s another thing Saleh has been saying all summer: That every bad throw, every misread, every ugly play is an experience a young quarterback needs – an opportunity for Wilson to learn.

And in the long run, the more learning he can do now, the better off he’ll be.

The key is for Saleh or someone to make sure Wilson doesn’t end up in a deep spiral, where he becomes so dazed and confused that for a time even the learning stops. There’s no easy way to do that, either. Maybe it’s to simplify the offense. Maybe it’s to teach Wilson to play “boring” as Saleh suggested on Sunday. Some quarterbacks have needed to sit for a few weeks just to catch their breath.

For Wilson, at least for now, Saleh believes the solution will be in his preparation. That part of his game has been so impressive, that when Saleh was asked if he feared this game turning into a dangerous snowball, the coach quickly answered, “I don’t think it will.”

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson who threw three interceptions in the first half as the New England Patriots played the NY Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on September 19, 2021.
Jets quarterback Zach Wilson who threw three interceptions in the first half as the New England Patriots played the NY Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on September 19, 2021.

“He is a young man full of confidence, especially when he goes and watches the tape and has a chance to hit the rewind button and learn from everything that just happened,” Saleh said. “He’s a young man full of resolve. I know when he sees the tape, I just know he’s going to learn a ton from this experience.”

That learning started on Monday morning, because in the aftermath of the game on Sunday, Wilson was clearly swimming in his own head. He was professional as he took tough questions, but clearly had no answers. His explanations of what happened and thoughts on what’s to come were bouncing all over the map.

That will change. His focus will narrow. And things will get easier.

For rookie quarterbacks – the good ones – they always do.

“It is what it is,” Saleh said back in August. “There’s just a lot of things that happen. There was a Hall of Famer that was inducted (in August) that had a 71 quarterback rating his rookie year.”

He was talking about Peyton Manning. Elway’s passer rating as a rookie was 54.9. Aikman’s was 55.7. Eli Manning’s was 55.4.

Yes, those are the great ones, and who knows how great Wilson will be? But even the good ones usually bounce back up off the rock.

So when Saleh says, “It is going to get worse before it gets better,” everyone should listen.

History proves that’s true.