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Injured Zach Wilson remains optimistic despite Jets' history of failure at QB

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is escorted from the

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is escorted from the field following an injury in the first half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on Oct. 24, 2021. Credit: CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Zach Wilson barely looks old enough to be a high school senior, and his NFL career remains in its infancy with just six starts. But the Jets’ rookie quarterback has a bit of an old soul to him, and it showed in the minutes after he limped to the postgame podium after one of the most humiliating losses in franchise history.

Wilson was felled by a knee injury in the second quarter of his second game against Bill Belichick’s Patriots, a 54-13 loss on Sunday. He hoped not to miss any time, but he’ll be out up to a month with an injury to the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

He even tried to convince the team’s medical staff to let him back in the game.

"I just sat there asking, ‘Can I go back in?’ or ‘What can I do?’ " Wilson said, recalling the aftermath of the injury. "Once they said the best thing to do is probably obviously not to play and make sure we find out what’s wrong first, I just kind of sat in the [locker room] on my phone and watched the game and just tried to see everything that was going on."

It was a nightmare from start to finish, and Wilson would have been powerless to change the outcome much. The Patriots are simply that much better, and the Jets (1-5) are still in the throes of a rebuilding project that is proving just as painful as had been expected, perhaps even more so. Yet the baby-faced quarterback believes that the net result from this torturous exercise in starting from the ground up will be worth it.

"You move on," he said. "We’re not going to let this beat us up, because we’re in this for the long run, and it’s a process. Don’t try and do too much, all the way across the board, including us in the quarterback room. As long as we just keep trying to get better every single game and we keep going to work and guys just taking what they give us, we’ll eventually get there."

From his lips to every Jets fan’s ears.

They have heard this kind of talk before. They have seen plenty of quarterbacks try — and fail — to break the curse of the post-Joe Namath era. Some have done better than others.

Chad Pennington was a resilient quarterback who willed his teams to the playoffs with a gritty determination that carried him through his own injury problems. Mark Sanchez rode a great defense and running game to two AFC Championship Games before his career spiraled downward. Geno Smith once vowed to be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever — not just in Jets history, but NFL history — and you know how that worked out. Christian Hackenberg was another hoped-for savior in the second round, but he never played a down before the Jets gave up on him.

Sam Darnold tried his best and was gone after three years. The Giants forced him to the bench Sunday for the first time in his run with Carolina.

And now comes Wilson, a uniquely gifted thrower with an unmistakable charisma and athletic moxie the Jets desperately hope will transform this team into a winner.

It is a long, long way from here to there, and Wilson knows it.

Yet he truly believes the process will work out in the end.

"Every good team that I’ve been on in my life, looking back to when I was playing pee wee football, it always sucked before it got better," he said. "No one ever really just walks into situations and it’s the greatest thing from the beginning, and I think guys understand that.

"That it’s a process, and we’ve just got to keep getting better, and we’ve just all got to be accountable [for] our mistakes and what things we could have done better. As long as we just keep getting better, I think it’ll take care of itself."

Yet as generations of Jets fans have learned the hard way, getting better doesn’t often take care of itself. This franchise has not gotten to a Super Bowl since Namath led the only championship run in franchise history more than a half-century ago. And no matter how admirable Wilson’s optimism may be, he is fighting history as he attempts to get them back to the top.

And now another setback, albeit a temporary one. Wilson will be back before long.

For those of you who argue that the Jets should have had a better backup plan than just Mike White, have at it. Yes, it would have been better to have Nick Foles, now a third-stringer with the Bears. Or Gardner Minshew, now an Eagles backup after being traded from Jacksonville. But this season was never going to be about having a capable backup. It was always going to be about Wilson, period.

Besides, general manager Joe Douglas reacted quickly and wisely to Wilson’s injury with a trade for Joe Flacco, who played for the Jets last year. He now can be at least a serviceable quarterback in Wilson’s absence and a capable mentor once he returns.

Flacco won’t make this team much better than it is, and that means the Jets will remain a long way from being a playoff contender. Wilson also is a long way from being an elite NFL quarterback. But make no mistake: This is his team, and his alone.

Whatever happens to him from here on out, whether his vision of eventual success pans out or devolves into another Jets quarterback who tried and failed, this is Wilson’s show.

End of story.

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