If Jets QB Zach Wilson struggles vs. Giants, don’t hit the panic button just yet

Zach Wilson on field no helmet Jets OTAs June 2021

Zach Wilson has not had a good training camp, at least not judging by the outcomes on the practice field most days. He also had a poor performance at the Jets’ intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday night.

It’s a pretty good bet that he’s going to struggle this Saturday night against the Giants, in his first preseason game, too.

And if he does … well, it’s understandable why some Jets fans are worried. They came into this skittish and scarred from a decades-long quarterback search. They still have fresh memories of their last franchise quarterback, who lasted just three years before he was traded away in April. And while they know, somewhere deep down, that’s it’s just too early, that Wilson has had just 11 training camp practices and that he’s yet to face a live defense with unfamiliar players and schemes, their angst still rises exponentially anyway.

But they better get used to it. Life with a rookie quarterback isn’t easy. And this season is going to be a very bumpy ride.

Robert Saleh, the Jets’ refreshingly honest new head coach, said it best on Monday when he promised “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” He was talking about the Jets’ offensive rookies in general, but it sure applies to the 22-year-old Wilson more than most.

That’s because what you see – in practice, at the scrimmage, and even in the preseason games – isn’t really what you think you’re seeing. An interception isn’t just a poorly thrown ball, it might be a throw he was told to purposely force. An overthrow or underthrow might just be a case of Wilson trying to place the ball in a perfect spot.

It’s not all bad. In fact, even the bad plays are valuable learning experiences. Sometimes he’s just trying to see what he can do.

“I can’t be afraid to make mistakes, especially in practice,” Wilson said. “This isn’t a game. This is where I’m learning what I can get away with and what I can’t. There are times where, maybe in a real game I probably wouldn’t throw that, but it’s time where I’m like, “Well, let me try right here and see what I can get away with.’”

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Saleh gave an example from practice on Wednesday where a Wilson pass was broken up by linebacker C.J. Mosley. It was a pass he probably shouldn’t have thrown if it were a game. There was no way to get it past Mosley and to his receiver. But since it was only practice …

Jul 31, 2021; Florham Park, NJ, USA; New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) throws the ball during training camp at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.

“He wanted to see if he could get that throw in behind C.J. Mosley’s right ear,” Saleh said. “Couldn’t do it. He said, ‘I’ll go to the check down.’ He knows. He goes, ‘I saw the check down.’ So, he knows.”

“Next time in that situation and that same look, I’m going to check the ball down,” Wilson said. “That’s what we practice for is to play situations out like that.”

That’s what the preseason games are for, too. They’re learning experiences – a chance for everyone to try new things, to see what they can do in the real heat of a battle. And as impatient as Jets fans will understandably be, that’s what a quarterback’s rookie season is for, too. Wilson will see things that he’s never seen before, at a speed he’s never experienced. He will try to make plays that he will learn he can’t make.

They are all learning experiences. The key for Wilson is to try to never make the same mistake twice.

So if you’re looking for greatness from Wilson, don’t bother looking right now. There may be flashes, but they’re unlikely to be frequent or consistent. And that doesn’t matter, because the goal of any rookie quarterback is, and should be, to be ascending by the end of the season, so he can return for a better year, more comfortable in the offense, in Year 2.

And yes, it really is likely to get worse before it gets better. That has been the case for almost every quarterback who ever played in the NFL.

It’s all just going to take time.

“It is what it is,” Saleh said. “There’s just a lot of things that happen. I mean, there’s a reason why being a rookie is hard in this league. It’s not easy to play quarterback in this league as a rookie — especially quarterback.”

So don’t panic if Wilson struggles on Saturday night … or next week in Green Bay … or in the preseason finale against the Eagles. Chances are he probably will. And try to avoid being distraught if Wilson is out-played by Sam Darnold, the former Jets savior and his predecessor, in Carolina in Week 1. Because that’s likely to happen, too.

The “worse” is going to happen. There will be some “better” along the way. Maybe Wilson will look as good as Patriots rookie Mac Jones did in his debut on Thursday night, when he went 13 for 19 for 87 yards and left to a standing ovation (despite averaging less than seven yards per completion). That would be great. But remember, the ups and downs of a rookie quarterback almost always make for a nauseating ride.

So close your eyes, if you have to, and brace yourself for what’s coming. Nobody said it was going to be easy, so don’t panic.



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