Robert Saleh said he has “all the faith in the world” in Zach Wilson.
He’d better be absolutely certain of that.
Sunday’s performance against the Patriots was the biggest clunker of the season for the second-year quarterback and it came in the type of game that could wind up swinging the season. Wilson threw three awful interceptions in the Jets’ 22-17 loss to New England, his first multi-turnover game in just about a month. He had avoided any giveaways in Weeks 5 through 7, and the Jets won those games by an average of nearly 12 points apiece even though he didn’t throw a single touchdown pass.
This is a league that makes even the best quarterbacks look lost and inept from time to time. The younger they are, the bigger the moment, the more likely it is for that all-too-familiar skittishness to show itself. So yes, Wilson is allowed to have a poor performance.
But that has to be the limit. One poor performance.
The Jets are a team that in almost every other area is ready to win now. Waiting for a quarterback to develop in such a situation can tear apart the fabric of a roster, increase frustrations and lead to resentments that can’t be healed.
“We have faith in Z,” Saleh reiterated. “He’s played good football. He’s taken care of the football since he’s gotten back and he’s shown flashes of good football. Everyone in the locker room has his back.”
Again, he’d best be absolutely certain of that, because as promising as the start of this campaign has been, it can go poof very quickly. Like in a matter of the next three weekends.
The Jets host the Bills on Sunday, have a bye week, then face the Patriots again in Foxborough. That’s a stretch that likely will define their season. They’re good enough to win those contests, but they need a quarterback to match that level of competence.
Saleh already has started tinkering with the depth chart behind Wilson, perhaps anticipating an upcoming move at quarterback. He promoted Mike White from third-stringer to backup Sunday, moving him ahead of Joe Flacco, who had been the No. 2. Saleh said it was because he wanted White to play if Wilson got injured.
There also could be as-yet-unspoken other reasons why a backup would have to come into a game. So far it hasn’t gotten to that point.
The rest of the team said all the right things after Sunday’s loss, stressing that they have to try to do better to help Wilson. The reality is that Sunday, it was Wilson who needed to do better to help the team.
At some point, we have to start seeing what players do in these types of games and not listen to what logic or hope or hubris or any other human foible may try to whisper into our ears. That goes for coaches as well.
Wilson’s three interceptions weren’t cases of Bill Belichick outwitting him, as he has Jets quarterbacks for the past two decades, nor were they instances of Patriots players making dazzlingly athletic grabs. They came because Wilson was careless with the ball and made sloppy decisions. Even the quarterback himself said he had wondered: “Why did I just do that?”
He floated a short pass for Ty Johnson late in the second quarter when the Jets still had a 10-3 lead and were poised to make it a two-score game at halftime. That lazily lofted toss was picked off.
It was a moment of grief dwarfed shortly afterward by the Sick Six from cornerback Michael Carter II that was negated by a suspect roughing-the-passer penalty, but it was the Wilson turnover that counted — it set up a Patriots field goal to make it 10-6 — not the Mac Jones turnover that didn’t count.
Late in the third quarter, Wilson failed to throw a pass out of bounds while being pressured and instead threw it sidearm down the sideline and into the arms of safety Devin McCourty. Even he was amazed by that display of hideousness, throwing both hands against his helmet in disgust.
And finally, early in the fourth quarter, he was pushed left by pressure, stopped, planted his feet and zipped a pass right to McCourty again.
Couple those gaffes with another that didn’t show up as glaringly on the stat sheet: the fourth-and-5 from the New England 30 midway through the fourth quarter, when it seemed he could have run for a first down but instead threw off his front foot and over Tyler Conklin in the end zone.
It was hard to pin this loss on anyone but Wilson.
He has become the team’s weakest link, and his terse, snippy answers to questions after the game seemed to indicate he knows it. He gets credit for facing the questions and coming out quickly, still fully uniformed, for his postgame conference. His attempts at bravado and defiance, though, need to be backed up on the field or they will become as eye roll-inducing as his play.
The Jets had an opportunity on Sunday to answer the two questions that still nag at them regarding their rise in status and potential this season.
Could they finally beat a Patriots team that has long been their tormentors? And do they have the quarterback to bring them where they want to go?
To the first they became triskadekalosers, suffering a nearly impossible 13th straight loss to their northern nemesis. At some point, though, that will change. It may take a while, and it may not happen until Belichick is out of the picture, but Woody Johnson can bet the deed to the franchise that someday the Jets will get a W against the NEP.
As for the second part, Sunday showcased an unreadiness for big games by the player the Jets were hoping would be able to lead them over a decade-high hump. Unlike waiting patiently for the laws of probability to fall in their favor and eventually beat the Patriots, there isn’t a ton of time to see if Wilson can grow into the player the Jets need.
“The coaches need to figure out how to make it not necessarily simpler but just help him continue to progress and evolve,” Saleh said. “He is still a young man, and playing quarterback in this league is not easy. He has to be able to do what he did the past four weeks and do the simple stuff, not put too much pressure on yourself to do more than you need to.”
Saleh is staking this season on Wilson’s ability to do that.