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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The fans ran out of patience early in the fourth quarter, after Zach Wilson badly overthrew a wide-open running back just a few yards away. By then he was already four interceptions into his nightmare.
And no one in the stands cared that it was just his second NFL game.
It’s understandable that Jets fans are angry … or distraught … or whatever they were feeling on Sunday. They’re tired of the constant rebuilding, the carousel of quarterbacks, and an endless string of losses. Nothing in the last five decades of history suggests that this time, they got it right at quarterback. History is not on Wilson’s side.
But time is, and that’s what’s important to remember after his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad debut in front of the home fans. Wilson isn’t the first rookie quarterback to throw an absolute stinker.
There is no doubt that there will be much better days ahead.
“This is what we signed up for, right?” Wilson said after the Jets were humiliated by the Patriots, 25-6. “There’s going to be games like this. We just keep getting reminded how long the season is, and how we can get back and keep getting better.”
That’s what this season is all about, after all: getting better. As much as everyone wants to win, and everyone wants perfection right from the start, that’s not the goal. The Jets spent a lot of time this summer explaining to anyone who would listen that starting a rookie quarterback is a roller coaster ride. There will be fast climbs and nauseating drops like this one.
What’s important is that at the end of the season, Wilson and the Jets are on a steady climb up.
Given that, there is a bit of good news in this disaster: Wilson can’t get much worse. He was picked off on his first two passes on Sunday, which almost ended any honeymoon he might have gotten from Jets fans right there. He’d add a third in the second quarter and another on the first drive of the second half. His final numbers were 19 of 33 for 210 yards and those four interceptions, though those stats don’t accurately tell the story of how bad he was.
He was also more than just “off a little bit,” as head coach Robert Saleh said. Wilson looked rattled, especially late in the game where he was overthrowing everyone. And though he refused to admit it, he looked like he spent most of the game trying to make up for that first interception by trying to do too much.
That was clear on the second interception, where he ignored a wide-open Elijah Moore down low to throw a more dangerous pass to Corey Davis (who admittedly let it go right through his hands). It was clear on the third interception when he tried to force a ball to Moore near the end zone, even though the receiver was well-covered. And it was clear on the fourth – another towards Moore, this time down the sidelines -- that looked like a Hail Mary attempt.
It was forced throw after forced throw – not uncommon for a rookie, especially one who is rattled by an early pick. And worse for Wilson, it was in stark comparison to Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who went 22 of 30 for 186 yards – a stat line that would’ve made a game manager blush, but at least was interception-free.
And that, Saleh indicated, might be Wilson’s path forward. The kid can throw the ball as well as anyone, from anywhere, at any arm angle. Though the hyperbole was nauseating, there’s a reason a guy like Tony Romo would even think to compare him to Patrick Mahomes. But Wilson can’t actually be Mahomes just yet. He needs to be more like Jones until he gets his feet solidly on NFL ground.
“When you have a rookie quarterback, it's just having confidence that it's OK to play a boring game of football,” Saleh said. “That’s really it. He is an electric dude, he’s competitive as crap and he wants to win so bad. But sometimes it’s OK to be boring. That’s probably the biggest lesson we can take out of this one.”
That means taking the dump-off instead of the dangerous throw downfield, or throwing the ball away if the receiver near the end zone is well-covered. Wilson seemed like he was trying to make the big play to ignite the crowd and redeem himself for his early sins. Yes, the crowd would’ve loved it. But they would’ve loved it if Wilson had a line like Jones did, too, if they had walked away with a win.
The wins will come, though, and there will be reasons to cheer eventually. Wilson is much too talented for this to be indicative of anything other than a false start. He’s right, there were always going to be games like this. There will be a few games that shock everyone in a good way, too.
That is simply the Rookie Quarterback Experience. It always has been, and it’s rarely ever changed.
“I just have to remember the situation I’m in,” Wilson said. “I’m an important piece in this whole thing. How can I just keep learning and getting better?”
It’s just like Saleh told him after the game, “Just to believe in himself, to shake this one off.”
“I promise you,” Saleh added, “it’s not going to be the hardest game he’s ever played.”
That sounded like an ominous warning, but it’s just the truth. There will be more days like this. Just try and remember there will be better days, too.