FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Benched twice last season, stripped of his starting job in the offseason, quarterback Zach Wilson now has to save the New York Jets’ once-promising season from ruin. It truly is back to the future.
For months, the Jets have been talking about how much Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in 2021, has learned from Aaron Rodgers. On Tuesday, coach Robert Saleh doubled down, saying Wilson is “[light]-years ahead of where he was last year.”
So can a quarterback with an 8-14 career record, with more interceptions (19) than touchdown passes (16), get the Jets where they want to go? Rodgers’ season-ending injury to his left Achilles, suffered in Monday night’s win over the Buffalo Bills, changes the entire dynamic.
“If you ride with him, you ride the run game, play-action and play good defense,” one AFC personnel director said of Wilson. “And just let him manage and facilitate.”
Another personnel executive said, “If any team is built to handle this — to [scheme] around the quarterback position — it’s the Jets. But they have to manage him right.”
A closer look at how it might unfold:
Strong supporting cast: People forget that Wilson won five of his first six starts last season, playing the role of game manager, but his performance — and that of the entire offense — took a dramatic decline when running back Breece Hall and guard Alijah Vera-Tucker suffered season-ending injuries in Week 7 against the Denver Broncos. The Jets were 5-2 with Hall and Vera-Tucker, 2-8 without them.
Hall and Vera-Tucker are back in the lineup. Only 10 months removed from ACL surgery to his left knee, Hall had a smashing debut. He rushed for 127 yards, the second-highest total of Week 1. Hall’s breakaway speed makes the Jets dangerous on offense and should relieve pressure on Wilson.
A moving pocket: Wilson is more effective when throwing outside the pocket, according to the personnel executive, who suggested that offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett incorporate more rollouts and bootlegs to maximize Wilson’s mobility. Wilson was 1-of-3 on passes outside the pocket Monday night.
“Get him the hell out of the pocket,” the executive said. “He’s not comfortable there. He doesn’t see the field well and he doesn’t read well. That interception [Monday night] was a terrible play from the pocket, but there are things you can do for him. It’s on Hackett now.”
Rodgers, in his mentor-pupil sessions with Wilson in training camp, encouraged him to run more. Wilson showed off his wheels in a preseason game, ripping off a highlight-film run for 35 yards.
Ground-and-pound: When Rodgers went out, the Jets started using two- and three-tight end packages. In fact, they ran 10 times for 115 yards out of “13” personnel — one running back and three tight ends. That includes Hall’s 83-yard run, which doubled their total output from the entire 2022 season (36 yards) out of 13 personnel. Tight ends C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Conklin and Jeremy Ruckert blocked well against the Bills.
This might be a nice change of pace, but an offense certainly can’t live in 13 personnel.
Play to the defense: In case you haven’t noticed, the Jets have an outstanding defense. Just ask Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who had four turnovers. This, too, should reduce the stress on Wilson. Of course, the defense was outstanding last season, too, and it wasn’t enough to overcome subpar quarterback play in terms of getting to the playoffs. The Jets finished 7-10, failing to score 21 points — the league average — in six of his nine starts.
Inevitably, the quarterback has to make a few plays in clutch situations. The Jets won’t snap their 12-year playoff drought if Wilson reverts to last season, when — in his worst games — he struggled to complete gimme throws.
“I’ve just got to keep getting better,” he said Monday night. “Trust my feet, trust my coaches, trust the guys around me, rely on this defense that we have and progressively just rely on everything I feel like I’ve done throughout training camp and preseason.”
Better leader? There will be a leadership vacuum without Rodgers, who had galvanized the locker room since arriving in April. It’s a tough spot for Wilson, whose leadership came under scrutiny last season when he was benched only days after refusing to take accountability in a postgame news conference for a poor performance against the New England Patriots. If he tries to emulate Rodgers’ style, he might come off as a phony. He needs to find his own way, and he will have to do it in the crucible of a win-now season.
“I think he’s been able to rebuild a rapport with his teammates,” Saleh said, later correcting himself: “Let me fix that word ‘rapport.’ I should say confidence. … Teammates want to see each other make plays and have confidence that you can do your job to the best of your ability.”