FLORHAM PARK, N.J – Before the afternoon turned into gloom, and the misery crept in as another miserable loss unfolded, there was this:
Zach Wilson taking the Jets on a short touchdown drive to follow up Braxton Berrios’ 79-yard kickoff return. And then Wilson with a 68-yard scoring drive, capped off with his 1-yard touchdown run. And then a third touchdown in the first half, a nine-play, 75-yard thing of beauty that ended with Wilson’s 1-yard scoring throw to tight end Ryan Griffin.
The Jets were going toe-to-toe with an Eagles’ team that had been one of the hottest in football, and the Jets’ young quarterback was making decisions and delivering throws that made him look more like the No. 2 overall pick should, and not the hopelessly overmatched rookie he’d too often looked like earlier in the season.
Of course, it all unraveled after that, as the Jets’ 18-14 lead devolved into a 33-18 loss, punctuated by a dismal defensive effort but also an offense that didn’t score a point the rest of the afternoon.
Now the issue becomes: Was that first-half performance – some of the best football Wilson played all season – a sign that the first-year passer has shown legitimate improvement and that better things are ahead for the former BYU star? Or was Wilson’s inability to recapture his first-half efficiency in the team’s second-half meltdown an indication that there are more struggles ahead?
Ever the optimist, coach Robert Saleh believes Wilson is on the road to recovery from his early-season issues.
"In the first half, you saw [the improvement]," Saleh said Wednesday as the Jets returned to practice for Sunday’s game against the Saints at MetLife Stadium. "The ball was coming out – 2.6 [seconds] – the fastest he’s released it all year. He was, for the most part, accurate. He’s still got to control his fastball [on shorter passes], but he was ripping the ball with confidence."
What Saleh was most impressed about was Wilson’s ability to transfer his work on the practice field to the game, something that hadn’t been there earlier in the season. The fact that he had a month off to rehab a knee injury helped the rookie realize that he simply had to make his reads quicker and get the ball out of his hands faster.
"His eyes were in the right spot, his feet were very settled in pointing toward where he needed to throw, and we marched up and down the field those first three drives," Saleh said.
"The rhythm got away in the second half because of a lack of possessions," Saleh said.
The Eagles did a terrific job of ball control in the third quarter with backup quarterback Gardner Minshew replacing the injured Jalen Hurts, and in Wilson’s only drive in the third quarter, he went three-and-out. By the time he got his next chance in the fourth quarter, the game was effectively out of reach.
"Which is another learning experience for him in that he’s got to be able to step on the field [after] long droughts and still be able to perform," Saleh said of Wilson’s anemic second-half performance.
Overall, however, Saleh chooses to believe that this was a positive for Wilson.
"His game was a really good step forward," he said, "and now he’s got to stack it up and do it again. Obviously, it starts with practice, but he still has to go do it and trust, because I thought last week was one of his better weeks [in practice] and it translated to the game. Now, he’s got to do it again."
At 3-9 and with no realistic shot at the playoffs, Wilson’s development is central to what happens the next five weeks. If he shows legitimate and sustained improvement, then the Jets can take comfort in what lies ahead. If he reverts to his turnover-prone ways from before he got hurt, well, there’s a problem.
To those around Wilson, the arrow is pointing up.
"I know you guys have seen the growth," left tackle George Fant said. "I think it’s good he got a chance to watch Mike White, [Joe] Flacco and [Josh Johnson] and see how they got the ball out. On top of that, he got to look back and watch every one of his games and learn from those. You see the growth."
But unless he demonstrates that growth in the weeks ahead, then the work in progress that the Jets are right now will have a gigantic question mark hovering throughout the offseason. These games may not matter in the standings, but for Wilson’s immediate future, they’re all that matters.