He struggles when tasked with coming off his first read. He’s unable to adjust protections or identify rushes at the line. He processes what he sees slowly. His inaccuracies make each throw inconsistent. His decision-making puts his team in danger. He’s struggled to connect with teammates.
This is clear after 31 starts over the course of three years, the final a 32-6 thumping by the Bills. The Jets benched Wilson for good on Monday, demoting him to third string for the remainder of the year.
But Wilson’s demise is to no fault of his own. He was unqualified for the job. That’s not on him. The real failure was the Jets deciding to select him.
“I still believe he’s going to have a good career,” coach Robert Saleh said.
The parallels between Wilson and Sam Darnold are inevitable. Making them is lazy. Mike Maccagnan selected the USC passer third overall in 2018. Douglas inherited him after the 2019 draft. The first time he met Darnold’s parents he promised both he would do everything in his power to surround their son with “protection and playmakers.”
Darnold started his final game for the Jets on Jan. 3, 2021. The Jets lost to the Patriots, 28-14. His starting receivers were Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims. His running back Ty Johnson. His tight end Chris Herndon. His offensive brain trust Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains.
The Jets traded Darnold that offseason to the Panthers. They then selected Wilson second overall. Douglas vowed he would not make those same mistakes again. He would do for Wilson what he couldn’t do for Darnold.
In 2022, Douglas drafted the Offensive Rookie of the Year (Garrett Wilson) and would-be Rookie of the Year had he not been injured (Breece Hall). He used first-round picks on offensive linemen in Mekhi Becton (2020) and Alijah Vera-Tucker (2021), and a second on Joe Tippmann (2023). He selected receiver Elijah Moore in the second round (2021).
Douglas signed big-money free agents to fortify his offense with guard Laken Tomlinson and receivers Corey Davis and Allen Lazard. They went out and got Wilson a young, bright-minded offensive coordinator in Mike LaFleur. They then replaced LaFleur with a veteran signal-caller (Nathaniel Hackett) when Wilson didn’t like him.
Douglas then built a defense where all Wilson’s offenses had to do was average 20 points per game (something 20-plus teams have done this year), and they’d be in the postseason.
None of it was enough.
“It’s not all on him,” Saleh said. “But there are things he needs to be better at.”
Wilson is 11-20 as a starter over his career. He has a completion percentage of 56.6 and a quarterback rating of 71.9. Most alarming are his touchdown numbers — just 21. This season Wilson is 3-6 as a starter with a 59.2 completion percentage, 1,944 passing yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
With Wilson under center, this Jets offense has one touchdown in its last 15 quarters. They have one touchdown on their last 46 offensive possessions. They’re averaging 13.2 offensive points per game, which is not only lower than last year (17.5), but worse than Darnold’s final season (15.4).
Saleh is right — it’s hard to put everything on one player. But this scheme, with these players, has operated at a higher level with every other quarterback not named Zach Wilson. Tim Boyle, who will start against the Dolphins on Sunday, now gets his chance to do the same.
The plays work. The players play. The common denominator holding them back was obvious.
Monday, the Jets reached that realization.
“I wouldn’t look at it as a failure,” said Saleh, who was the only member of the Jets brain trust to talk on Monday. “I look at it more as a series of unfortunate events.”
There were conflicting opinions on what the Jets should do before they selected Wilson. While the building was united in their belief that he was the second-best quarterback in the draft behind Trevor Lawrence, there were some who preferred New York not select a passer.
The 49ers and Eagles were both interested in trading up. San Francisco did, giving the Dolphins the No. 12 pick, a 2021 third-round pick, and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 for the No. 3 selection. There, the 49ers selected Trey Lance. A boosted deal was on the table for the Jets, too, to get to No. 2.
That was the better option, some believed internally. They could use that bounty to round out their roster with additional talent —starting with Alabama wideout Devonta Smith, a target at No. 12. They’d then run it back with Darnold and an improved supporting cast. If Darnold floundered, then they’d trade for a quarterback the ensuing year.
Douglas decided to go a different route. He evaluated all the quarterbacks in a vacuum, looping Darnold in. He then asked himself: Who would I select? The answer was Wilson over Darnold. So Douglas dealt Darnold. He drafted Wilson.
“I’ve got my thoughts,” Saleh said of the Jets pre-draft process that led to them drafting Wilson. “I’ve shared them with Joe, but I’m not going to get into it here with you guys.”
It’s rare for a general manager/head coach pairing to whiff like this on a high draft pick, especially a quarterback, and remain with the team. You can blame the COVID-19 pandemic for ridding the Jets of valuable scouting time. That’s valid. But that wouldn’t be enough to save anything. Woody Johnson is sticking with both clearly because of their successes outside of that position.
The Jets have a championship-level defense. They have playmakers on offense. They created an environment that future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers picked to spend the final years of his career in. This team is likely in the Super Bowl conversation had Rodgers not ruptured his Achilles four plays into the season.
That’s why they’re not going anywhere this offseason. They’ll be back, with Rodgers, looking to accomplish in 2024 what they hoped to in 2023.
But that doesn’t make what happened on Monday any less jarring. Saleh said Wilson’s future with the Jets is a conversation “for the offseason,” but his tenure in green-and-white is over. He’ll be cut after the year. Considering his on-field struggles, it’s tough to imagine he finds a home on another 53-man roster.
It wasn’t surrounding talent or coaching that ruined Wilson. It was a flawed system that can’t afford to miss again.