Zach Wilson (2) of the New York Jets scrambles with...

Zach Wilson (2) of the New York Jets scrambles with the ball in the fourth quarter of the game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on November 28, 2021, in Houston, Texas. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images/TNS) Credit: TNS/Carmen Mandato


Mike LaFleur didn’t pull any punches about what he thought of Zach Wilson’s performance in Sunday’s 21-14 win over the Texans.

"Like a 22-year-old who hasn’t played in a month," LaFleur deadpanned about the Jets’ rookie quarterback.

Oh, LaFleur threw Wilson a few bouquets, mentioning his improved play over the course of the game and some worthy throws and smart pre-snap reads and adjustments. But even though LaFleur himself is a rookie play-caller, he knows the journey for Wilson is a long and painstaking one that will take time. Maybe more time than Jets fans who have been impatient for a reliable long-term quarterback would like.

For Wilson, the solution rests not with his lively arm or the use of his legs to scramble away from danger. The answer lies in his eyes.

And his head.

Like most rookie quarterbacks, Wilson is still adapting to the much faster, much more complicated world of the NFL, in which defensive coordinators spend their time figuring out ways to confuse even the most experienced quarterbacks. For a first-year player, it’s a matter of needing to process things more quickly than he ever has and make decisions about where he’s going to throw the ball at warp speed.

It doesn’t happen overnight, especially with a quarterback coming off a knee injury that kept him out of the previous four-plus games.

"He was off for a month, and you’re trying to replicate NFL speed on a Sunday in practice," LaFleur said. "It’s just the experience of, can I get my eyes in that spot a little quicker?"

Reading defenses is part-and-parcel for every quarterback at any age, and it is one of the most difficult tasks of all. The preferred term these days is that word "processing" — how a quarterback looks at how a defense is lined up and then how it is deployed as the play unfolds. The more you understand that operation, the easier it is to make the right read and thus make the right throw.

Sounds simple. As Wilson now knows, it’s like learning calculus after doing multiplication tables.

"I’ve got to be able to go through my reads quickly," Wilson said after Thursday’s practice. "Even if things aren’t going right, you have to hit that reset button after every play. You just ask yourself, ‘What’s my read? What are you looking for?’ The rest will take care of itself."

Wilson figures he’ll always need to sharpen his skills when it comes to attacking defenses, even when he is a more fully formed player.

"It can always improve," he said. "Once I play 10 years, it will need to improve — if something is a good look or a bad look, how soon I can tell if [the play] has a chance to win or not."

These are snap decisions made in an instant, and what happens inside Wilson’s mind as he backpedals after taking the snap is crucial to executing plays properly. Right now, things often are a blur, and the slightest hesitation might result in a sack. Or, worse yet, a turnover. Making the right decision is always the goal, but it’s not always easy.

"The last thing you want to do is pass something up and something is open," he said. "You’ve got to be able to make up your mind and move on, making sure that process is being decisive. That’s been a big focus this week in practice, Now it’s how can I apply it during the game."

Wilson was pedestrian against the lowly Texans, going 14-for-24 for 145 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He’ll step up in class on Sunday as the Jets face an Eagles defense whose hallmark is a sustained pass rush from its defensive line, which leaves the secondary with more tools to confuse opposing quarterbacks. Especially young ones.

"They trust their big guys up front," Wilson said. "If you can get pressure playing normal coverage, that’s what a good defense is made of. If I feel that rush, I still need to be able to get the ball out."

It’s another important test for the quarterback the Jets hope will be theirs for a decade or more. LaFleur hopes Wilson’s eyes will tell him what he needs to know so his baby-faced passer can start to figure this thing out and look more like the seasoned veteran the Jets need him to be.


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