The Jets were just starting to regain their composure in the locker room following a fiery, hard-fought and ultimately frustrating 23-20 loss to Kansas City at MetLife Stadium on Sunday night. Robert Saleh, who drew a rare unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty from the sideline in the final minute for arguing with what he and most viewers perceived as a string of critically wrong and missed calls against his team, had just said his piece to the players and broken them down.
But Zach Wilson wasn’t about to let anyone go anywhere.
He had something he wanted to say.
“He tried to take the blame for everything,” wide receiver Allen Lazard said.
Afterward, when Wilson addressed a media that has been pounding on him with merciless vigor for most of the past week, he took the same stance. He said the loss was his fault. He insisted it was his fumble with 7:24 remaining and the Jets trailing by a field goal that cost them their chance to upend the defending Super Bowl champs.
“It’s on me,” he said. “I need to be better for them.”
What a topsy-turvy night this one turned out to be.
It began with the unique attention that comes when Taylor Swift stops by to watch her boyfriend, Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, play in a nationally televised game. It moved on to Kansas City taking what felt like an insurmountable 17-0 lead. Then it felt as if Patrick Mahomes and Wilson somehow switched bodies, with Kansas City’s MVP chucking off-balance interceptions and underthrowing deep passes while Wilson was scrambling, improvising, making things happen and completing more passes in a game than he had in his career.
In the end, though, Wilson did commit the mistake that soured his night, Mahomes regained his composure and led a game-sealing drive to nowhere that prevented the Jets from getting the ball back, and Kansas City left with the victory.
But just when you thought things were back to normal, along came the reactions to Wilson.
It was a 180-degree turn from the norm.
For most of his career, it has gone the other way, with the outside world putting all the weight of Jets losses on the quarterback and the quarterback trying to brush them away with sassy excuses while pointing out the things he did well.
Here, though, everyone wanted to applaud Wilson, talk about what a great game he’d just had, how this performance felt as if it could be the start of something that might make the next few months of this season bearable — enjoyable, even — in lieu of having Aaron Rodgers on the field.
It should have been Wilson’s triumphant moment.
“I was really happy for him to go out and show that he does belong, that he can play in this league,” Robert Saleh said of Wilson after his faith in the third-year player finally was rewarded with production. “If he plays that way, we’re going to win a lot of football games.”
And there Wilson was, shaking his head in disgust, kicking himself while he was up.
He had a performance on the field that very well might lead to a breakthrough and enable him to become a functional quarterback. Once that was over, it seemed as if he took an even larger stride in his growth as a leader.
“He’s coming along,” Saleh said of that aspect of Wilson’s game, which often has been more disappointing than his play. “Playing quarterback in this league is hard, with everything that comes with it.”
His teammates were having none of that self-blame, by the way. One by one after his postgame apology, they approached him and consoled him.
“That’s just the competitor that he is,” Lazard said. “Hey, we all made mistakes today. Obviously, that one is highlighted more because it was later in the game, a crucial time and everything, but he played amazing today. He did a great job. Led us down the field multiple times, made big-time throws, and he made some plays with his feet too. Very proud of Zach.”
“That’s just the competitor that he is,” Lazard said. “Hey, we all made mistakes today. Obviously that one is highlighted more because it was later in the game, a crucial time and everything, but he played amazing today. He did a great job. Led us down the field multiple times, made big time throws, and he made some plays with his feet too. Very proud of Zach.”
“Hell of a game,” tight end C.J. Uzomeh said of Wilson. “He was locked for sure. He was letting it rip. He was putting the receivers and tight ends and everyone in position to make plays, and that’s what you want.”
Even Kansas City’s defense, which had participated in the belittling of Wilson this past week, came away impressed.
“People tend to forget he is a first-round quarterback,” defensive lineman Chris Jones said. “The kid is special. You give him a little time, he can dot you up. He’s been playing relentless. That team continues to play like that, they’re going to go far.”
There certainly were other non-quarterbacking elements that factored into this decision. The defense that looked overwhelmed for the first quarter. The missed field goal that doinked off the right upright at the end of the half. A few dropped passes, a few dropped interceptions.
And, of course, the defensive holding call against Sauce Gardner that negated what would have been Mahomes’ third interception of the game.
What would have happened if that penalty hadn’t been called? If the Jets got the ball deep in their own territory down by three with 4:19 left after Michael Carter II’s interception?
“I would have loved to see him take us down and score a touchdown,” Saleh said. “I feel like he would have.”
On that, Wilson agreed.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We were going to score.”
He never got that chance, but his actions after the game certainly earned him some points.