It is the nightmare scenario every Jets fan fears, a perfect storm of disappointment that is entirely in keeping with this seemingly unending run of failure:
What if it turns out that Zach Wilson simply isn’t as good as the Jets had envisioned when they looked to him as the answer at quarterback? And what if Sam Darnold thrives now that he has left the team and joined a more stable situation with the Panthers?
Welcome to Sunday afternoon, when that very possibility surfaced just about the time Wilson had flung his fourth and final interception in a dreary 25-6 loss to the Patriots in his first regular-season home game at MetLife Stadium. While Wilson was being buried by Bill Belichick’s defense, Darnold was in the midst of a second straight solid effort in Carolina’s 26-7 thumping of a Saints team that had demolished the Packers, 38-3, the week before. He threw for 305 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Is this really happening?
A word to the wise: Be patient.
For starters, this is not the first time Belichick’s team has dominated a rookie quarterback. In fact, it’s news when he doesn't get the best of him. Last year, for instance, Justin Herbert of the Chargers had a mostly terrific rookie season, throwing for 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Against the Patriots, he had no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 43.7 rating in a 45-0 loss. At home.
Belichick is the smartest defensive coach in NFL history, so coming up small is the rule, not the exception for a young quarterback. Especially a young quarterback in just the second start of his career.
Wilson had a more encouraging performance the week before in his head-to-head matchup with Darnold, rallying the Jets after a shaky first half in a 19-14 loss in which he was sacked six times.
It’s certainly understandable that Jets fans would fear this scenario of Wilson struggling and Darnold flourishing. But it’s simply too soon to draw any definitive conclusions that this will continue to be the case. Darnold went to a much more stable situation than the one he’d experienced with the Jets. Matt Rhule is in his second season as the Panthers’ coach, his offensive line is much further along than the Jets', the Panthers have the most dependable all-around running back in Christian McCaffrey, and Darnold has a solid group of receivers to target. Plus, the Panthers’ defense is much more of a finished product than the Jets'.
Good for Darnold, who did everything the right way in his three seasons with the Jets and was caught up in coaching and front-office changes and never had a chance. He showed encouraging signs in his one season under Todd Bowles but regressed badly under Adam Gase. To the point where general manager Joe Douglas, who inherited Darnold from the Mike Maccagnan regime, decided to move on.
Which makes you wonder whether Darnold can develop into Ryan Tannehill 2.0 and solidify the Panthers enough to make them a contender in the NFC South. Tannehill had his own issues under Gase during their time together in Miami, and after what appeared to be a minor trade from the Dolphins to Tennessee, he has flourished with the Titans.
Tennessee remains a run-heavy team with All-Pro Derrick Henry, but Tannehill is more than capable with the benefit of an upgrade in coaching and the players surrounding him.
Wilson is now in a from-the-ground-up rebuilding project with the Jets, and he doesn’t have the luxury of patience from a fan base understandably frustrated from all the restarts over the past 20 years or so. That may have contributed to the boos Wilson heard early in the fourth quarter against the Patriots, because it’s far too early to even think about giving up on the kid.
He has the arm talent, he has the intelligence, the mobility and the moxie. Now he simply needs the experience to transform that skill set into a successful career. Sorry, two weeks simply isn’t enough time to know how this will turn out. Those boos were both premature and ill-advised.
This thing is going to take some time, and this season is going to be a long and difficult one. Just as it is for many young quarterbacks trying to find their way, especially on a team that needs to surround him with enough talent to win.
Best to let Wilson have the benefit of patience, because the Jets’ turnaround will be neither easy nor swift.