Jets quarterback Zach Wilson sits on the bench during the...

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson sits on the bench during the second half against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday. Credit: AP / Michael Ainsworth


The best part about having a Hall of Fame quarterback on your side is that no one else has to necessarily play at a Hall of Fame level. Those guys are so rare and invaluable not simply because they make everyone around them better, but because not everyone has to be. They can cover up for the flaws that most teams have at most positions. That star centerpiece becomes a giant rug under which the rest of the team can sweep their inevitable miscues.

Take the rug away, though, and all those unsightly dust bunnies are just left lying there for all to see.

Consider that Lesson No. 1 for the Jets as they embark on navigating what has necessarily become the rest of this season without Aaron Rodgers. Every week their strategies will change a bit based on the opponent and personnel, sure, but the overarching game plan for Games 2 through 17 is supposed to entail running the ball and defending with might.

Those two elements were unable to hold up their lofty roles in Sunday’s 30-10 loss to the Cowboys.

Zach Wilson, who has replaced Rodgers and was called on to make the first start of his — what are we up to now, his third or fourth incarnation as the team’s starter? — completed only 12 of his 27 throws for 170 yards and had three of them intercepted. But while that stat line would seem to indicate otherwise, he was not the reason the Jets lost.

That’s the good news.

The bad news? The Cowboys made the things the Jets were supposed to do well no matter who is calling the signals and throwing the passes look suddenly suspect.

That running game gave them next to nothing. Breece Hall, Dalvin Cook and Michael Carter totaled nine carries and 24 yards, none of them gaining even double-digits on the day. And the defense that purportedly is championship-caliber — and we hate to bring this up right now while they are down but supposed to be ’85 Bears-level dominant — couldn’t even get off the field on most drives. The Cowboys converted a whopping nine of 18 third downs, which led to them running 83 offensive snaps.

It was clear early on that the running game was going nowhere. The Cowboys were stacking the box and playing with one high safety, committing schematically to stopping that part of the Jets’ offense. On the first play, it became obvious that the Jets would not be able to muster much from those handoffs; Hall was tackled for a loss of 4 by DeMarcus Lawrence.

The defense, though, had several legitimate chances to affect the narrative of the contest. None were more clear than in the second quarter after the Jets cut Dallas’ lead to 10-7. The Cowboys wound up going ahead 18-7 on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that could have been stopped short of the end zone at three different points. Instead, a dropped interception by Sauce Gardner that probably would have been a pick-6 and third-down penalties against John Franklin-Myers and Brandin Echols kept it alive.

There was even a penalty on the touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to Luke Schoonmaker that opened the door for the Cowboys to go for a two-point conversion, which they converted on a run by Tony Pollard.

“Really disappointing,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said of the defense.

Wilson, meanwhile, was left to try to bring the Jets back. That’s not where the Jets want him playing from.

He threw an interception to Jayron Kearse with 11:36 left in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal that made it 30-10. He chucked another deep pass for Garrett Wilson that was caught by safety Malik Hooker with 6:02 remaining, but by then, the Jets were in roll-the-dice mode and trying to come back from their hole. Trevon Diggs notched the third pick off Wilson with 3:00 left.

“Up until we had to force it, he did a really nice job,” Saleh said.

The third-year quarterback’s obviously fragile confidence, the one that seemed to be pumped back to an NFL-level swagger by having Rodgers in his ear, certainly is something the Jets will have to monitor this coming week. That could become the most costly issue of the contest for the Jets if those three interceptions linger inside his helmet.

In the immediacy of the postgame deposition, they didn’t seem as if they would be an issue.

“I feel like I’m seeing it well,” Wilson said of the game.

The Wilson who was scrambling around (he gained 36 yards on five carries) to carry the Jets to a field goal late in the second quarter, who probably would have hit Garrett Wilson for a touchdown had his hand not been hit as he delivered a pass toward the front pylon (“So frustrated,” Wilson said), and who managed to hit Wilson for a 68-yard touchdown earlier in that period? More of him, please.

But more important is that everyone else ups their game around him.

This is a team that now has to win by overcoming the limitations of its quarterback. It simply cannot win if the quarterback is asked to overcome the limitations of everyone else.

This was always going to be a feeling-out process for the Jets as they attempt to regroup and redefine themselves without Rodgers. And the Cowboys aren’t going to be the only opponent to quickly realize that if they can stop the Jets from running and force Wilson to throw the ball more, their chances of beating the Jets will skyrocket.

Logically, at some point, Wilson will have to shoulder the responsibility of making defenses pay for that disrespect toward him. Ideally, though, others will do that for him.

Would Rodgers have been able to overcome the kind of effort they put forth otherwise on Sunday? Would he have made a difference in the result?

It’ll go down as the first big “what If?” in a season that is bound to be full of them.

The better team won this game, that’s for certain. The best offensive player for either team certainly would have impacted that balance, though.


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