There were two players who were giddy with anticipation after Robert Saleh delivered the “let ’er rip” mandate to Zach Wilson while returning him to the role of starting quarterback for Sunday’s game against the Texans.
The quarterback himself was the first, obviously, and even though he reportedly had some initial hesitancy about being back on the field after a two-game benching, he used that newfound freedom to post one of the best games of his career — if not the best — throwing for two touchdowns and 301 yards in the Jets’ 30-6 win.
The other was Garrett Wilson.
You may remember him. He was the offensive rookie of the year last season, but instead of catching footballs, he’s spent most of this year waving his arms at passers like a marooned shipwreck victim while trying to show them he is open.
He’s been jumping in frustration when he beats defensive backs, only to have the ball go elsewhere, and, in the last few weeks especially, gamely but unsuccessfully trying to develop a chemistry with a quarterback he’d barely worked with.
On Sunday, he was back to being the focus of the passing game, getting targeted 14 times and catching nine of those opportunities for a season-high 108 yards. About half of those catches came on throws in which he either was mostly or totally covered, plays in which a risk-averse quarterback would have looked elsewhere. But Wilson is the kind of receiver who is open even when he isn’t, who can contort his body and use his acrobat-like skills to snag passes in midtown traffic.
He just needs a quarterback who trusts that. One who can feed into that. In this game, he finally had one.
“At the end of the day, I know he has that confidence in me, and when it comes together, that’s how it’ll look,” Wilson the receiver said of his newly enhanced, upgraded connection with Wilson the quarterback.
Even after this big step forward, it’s hard to see Zach Wilson having a place in the long-term future of the franchise. Saleh has said he will stick with him for the final four games of this season — assuming Aaron Rodgers doesn’t return — and that may very well be it for his tenure as a Jet.
Garrett Wilson, though, is very much part of all plans now and in the future. It’s important that the Jets found a way to make him happy, eased his frustrations, allowed him to do what he does best and make a contribution, even if it was for just one day.
The “let ’er rip” game plan was aimed at Zach Wilson specifically, but Garrett Wilson was the biggest reason it worked, and his psyche was the biggest beneficiary of the philosophical change.
One play in particular stood out as an illustration of that newfound offensive freedom.
The Jets, still stuck in a scoreless tie with the Texans early in the third quarter, faced a third-and-12 from the Houston 40. Zach Wilson was flushed from the pocket, spun and began sprinting to his left toward the sideline.
A sack might have cost them a field-goal opportunity, but then the quarterback did something he absolutely should not have done. He threw the ball across his body, back toward the middle of the field, with a high loft that made it seem as if the pass was up for grabs.
For a moment, as the football hovered in the air, it seemed destined to be the gaffe that would ruin the game for the Jets the way so many other Wilson mistakes have during the last three years.
This time, though, it wasn’t intercepted. Garrett Wilson was there to leap up in traffic and catch it for a 25-yard reception. On the next play, Zach Wilson hit Randall Cobb for a 15-yard touchdown, and the rest of the day belonged to the Jets.
“The coach is always like ‘Don’t throw those!’ and sometimes they go the other way,” Zach Wilson conceded. “But for me it’s like, throw it when you know it’s there. Trust in it.”
In other words, trust in his fellow Wilson.
“He can make that throw nine or 10 times out of 10, which you can’t say about a lot of dudes in this league, a lot of people in the world,” Garrett Wilson said. “It’s all about confidence, and he’s got that now. I’m excited to keep working so I can be open for him. I know the rest of the receiver group feels the same. We believe in him. And he believes in us.”
That two-way street is the biggest change for this Jets offense that has made non-believers of some of the most zealous and ardent supporters throughout this season. It wasn’t different or particularly great passes that allowed Zach the Ripper to excel on Sunday. It was a willingness to throw the somewhat risky ones and give those talented targets — Wilson, Breece Hall, Tyler Conklin — a chance to finally help him out.
“How many of those throws did I just put it up and guys make plays?” Zach Wilson asked rhetorically.
A lot. And no one minded.
“It was great to see him go out there today and just hoop,” Garrett Wilson said. “He has all the faith in the world in us.”
Zach Wilson played like that on Sunday. Everyone was better for it. And, for the first time in a long while, Garrett Wilson walked out of the stadium with a smile on his face.