FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — This was always going to be a very weird year for Zach Wilson. As much as it’s lived up to that wildness about halfway through the schedule, it now feels headed toward an even stranger finish.
His initial assignment was to sit, watch and learn from a Hall of Famer. Not the usual career arc for a second overall draft pick in his third NFL season, but these were unique circumstances. Fair enough.
Then, four snaps into the Jets' season, that job description changed. All of a sudden he was tasked with the thankless and nearly impossible spot of having to replace said Hall of Famer, but with a secondary challenge of playing well enough to avoid the organization’s having to sign experienced veterans to take over from him.
Wilson certainly hasn’t lived up to the potential that this team had with Aaron Rodgers on the field. Anyone who has seen the majority of the Jets’ games this season knows how vastly different, how remarkably more offensively efficient and complex and compelling this team could have been. But despite some bumpiness, Wilson has managed to lift himself from a quarterback with one foot out of the league to a player who has shown he can at least function in competitive games.
Now, just when things have seemingly started to stabilize for the Jets’ quarterback situation, Wilson’s chore is once again about to shift.
November is here. Which means December is close. January not far behind that. And Rodgers is looming.
We’re heading into the vortex of this unique quarterback dynamic the Jets are concocting on the fly.
As Rodgers’ return to action after tearing his Achilles on Sept. 11 has morphed from a kooky pipe dream to a medical possibility to where it currently stands as something close to realistic, Wilson’s job has become to guide the Jets toward the most important games of their season and then, ideally, stand up from his seat-warmer role and let someone else close it out.
Rodgers isn’t going to play again this season unless it’s for a chance to win a championship (at least he shouldn’t given the risks that would be involved). That means the better Wilson plays, the more he helps the Jets win and the further into the season he carries their relevance and playoff aspirations, the more urgent his demotion to the bench becomes. Conversely, if the Jets’ season tanks, Wilson may wind up being the starter right up until the end.
So very, very odd.
Wilson said he hadn’t even thought about the scenarios until they were brought up to him during his weekly media scrum on Wednesday, making him perhaps the only person in the Jets universe oblivious to the most direct change the much anticipated and ballyhooed return of Rodgers would bring.
“You literally don’t focus on it at all,” he said. “It doesn’t affect anything that I am doing day to day. It’s not up to me.”
Now that the seal on that jar of thought has been popped, how might he feel about bringing this team to the precipice of the postseason and then watching Rodgers trot in from the bullpen?
“I don’t know,” Wilson said. “We’ll see. Of course my goal is to focus on winning every single day first and foremost and see how many games can we win. We’ll worry about that down the road.”
Oh, and get this wrinkle Robert Saleh threw into the ol’ narrative blender on Wednesday when he name-dropped someone who has nothing to do with football and, until now, had nothing remotely close to a bearing on this situation: Wally Pipp.
Yes, just when you think there is no conceivable scenario in which Wilson remains on the field with a healthy, able-to-participate Rodgers who has spent the last few months undergoing a grueling surgical and rehab process just for the opportunity to take a fifth snap for the team this season, the head coach suggested that’s exactly what could happen.
“You have an opportunity, you attack your opportunity,” Saleh said of what Wilson’s approach for these coming weeks should be. “Make it so he makes the decision for everybody. That’s always the mindset. The old Wally Pipp.”
That’s just talk, of course. It’s to keep Wilson motivated and, perhaps most important, confident, if Rodgers is unable to fulfill his comeback. Wilson is not Lou Gehrig-ing anyone. If anything is going to keep Rodgers off the field, it’s going to be his injury or a prevalence of caution with an eye toward next season, not the way Wilson is playing.
The fact that there are two elements on this apparent collision course both of which at one point not long ago seemed eye-rollingly unlikely — the Jets staying afloat with Wilson as their quarterback and Rodgers returning to play months after tearing his Achilles — only amplifies the absurdity of it all. The former may be the most surprising.
What Wilson has so far managed to do this season is commendable. Few New York athletes have taken the public beatdowns and floggings he’s withstood, not to mention the internal strife of having a locker room turn on him, and kept coming back. In fact it’s hard to think of any who came close. And now, with a 4-3 record and three straight wins, we are talking about the Jets being playoff contenders with him on the field? That in itself is a bigger win for him than any particular game he’s played and emerged from victorious.
Wilson’s statistics are far from prodigious, but he does lead the NFL in fourth-quarter comebacks with three this season, including a stunning one on Sunday against the Giants in overtime. As long as the Jets’ defense can play the way it has been performing, as long as Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall are good for one or two home run plays a game, and as long as the special teams units keep humming along, Wilson seems capable of continuing to do his job.
Whatever that job happens to be now, anyway.
Sit tight. It’s almost certain to become something very different very soon.