Go ahead, Jets fans. It’s OK to feel good about your young quarterback.
I know, I know. You’ve been disappointed so often before, and it’s understandable that there would be some skepticism. But it really is OK to be encouraged by what you’ve seen from Zach Wilson since the rookie returned from a knee injury midway through the season.
The improvement is real, and it is sustained. At least for now. And in this case, the numbers really do tell the story: Since Wilson returned from a knee injury he suffered against the Patriots, he has eight total touchdowns – including four rushing scores – and just two interceptions. Before he was injured, he had four touchdowns (no rushing TDs) and nine picks.
And when he went up against the best of all time in Sunday’s game against Tom Brady’s Bucs, Wilson was at his best. You just saw it. You felt it. The reads were quick and decisive. The passes were mostly on target, especially in the tight-window throws that the NFL requires.
Case in point: On an 11-yard touchdown pass in the first half, Wilson fed Braxton Berrios an absolutely perfect pass that allowed the receiver to catch the ball and then quickly turn toward the end zone. He tiptoed just inside the pylon for the score.
"This is the talent that made him the No. 2 pick in the draft," NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said in one of his always informative "Baldy Breakdowns" video sessions. As Baldinger, a former NFL offensive lineman who grew up in Massapequa, went through a slow-motion replay of the pass, he was effusive in his praise of Wilson. "This throw is just … feet set … torque … and just a laser right there to drop that ball in front of [Bucs safety Jordan] Whitehead for the touchdown. You can smell the talent from that throw."
Strong praise from one of the sharpest analysts in the business.
But it’s a reflection of just how much better and how much more comfortable Wilson has been in recent weeks. Is it enough to anoint him as a can’t-miss star who can be the Jets’ quarterback for the next decade or longer? Of course not. As Jets fans have learned the hard way, it’s not wise for the psyche to look too far ahead for anything. There has simply been far too much disappointment in the post-Namath era to think that they have a championship-caliber quarterback.
But Wilson has certainly done his part to win over cynics who suggested that his problems during his pre-injury performance were enough to suggest that he might simply become the latest in a long line of failures at the team’s most important position. And Wilson himself takes nothing for granted as he prepares for the season finale in Buffalo before he begins an offseason that will be far more settled than the pre-draft commotion and adjustment to the NFL game that challenges all rookies. Especially rookie quarterbacks who are asked to learn on the fly against the best defensive players on the planet.
And for anyone who had any misgivings about Wilson’s ill-fated quarterback sneak late in Sunday’s 28-24 loss to the Bucs, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said Thursday in no uncertain terms the miscommunication was his fault and his alone. LaFleur failed to make Wilson realize that he was supposed to hand the ball off to Berrios on an end-around and not attempt the sneak on fourth-and-2 from the Bucs’ 7 with 2:12 left in the fourth quarter.
"It’s 100 percent on me," LaFleur said. "I pride myself on communication and … execution, and I failed at both of those … Our quarterback did exactly what he was supposed to do in that moment."
A teachable moment for the first-year quarterback and the first-year play-caller. But all part of the process as Wilson and LaFleur build trust in one another. And all part of Wilson’s plan to stick around for years and make good on the faith the Jets have shown in him from the start.
"That’s what I’m here [for], working to play that long," Wilson said Thursday.
He faces another worthy defense in Buffalo, similar to the ones that fellow divisional opponents New England and Miami run. And he’s well on the way to understanding the nuances and taking the next steps in his development.
"The defenses that we play against in our division, they all are pretty similar as far as causing chaos, the man pressures and doing different things," he said. "It really is gonna be exciting, and hopefully I can take that challenge on and just be here as long as I can."
That is the hope that Jets fans have had for decades, going back to Namath’s first successor, Richard Todd, up to and including Sam Darnold. It simply hasn’t worked out the way they’d envisioned; making it especially difficult is the fact that the Giants have rolled up four Super Bowl titles during that time.
It is far too soon to think of Wilson in those terms, and only sustained improvement will convince fans that the baby-faced quarterback has what it takes. But at least the arrow is pointing up.