Adversity can be one of life’s greatest teachers.
The last two weeks have been challenging for Jets quarterback Zach Wilson. He was benched and demoted to emergency quarterback and many didn’t expect the 24-year-old to start — or even play in — another game for the Jets.
But when his number was called during Sunday’s 30-6 victory against the Texans, Wilson put on his finest performance in a Jets uniform. He completed 27 of 36 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. He also finished with a quarterback rating of 117.9 in the pouring rain.
Sunday was the third time Wilson has thrown for at least 300 yards since he was drafted in 2021.
Jets coach Robert Saleh called Wilson’s performance, the best game of his career.
“I think the word that I gave you guys was being aggressively smart is the key,” Wilson said about his performance. “It’s about taking shots when you feel like it’s an opportunity there. When it’s not, it’s about protecting the ball and checking it down and having a mixture of both.”
Wilson has had a turbulent time during his three seasons with the Jets. After being selected No. 2 overall during the 2021 draft, Wilson has faced much criticism from fans, local media and even former players.
Many Jets fans have booed Wilson during his three seasons with the club. Even former Chargers and Patriots safety and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison called Wilson “garbage” after the Chiefs 23-20 victory against the Jets on Oct. 1.
Wilson has been benched three times within the last year after poor play. That led the Jets to trade for Aaron Rodgers last April, hoping he could ignite their offense after finishing toward the bottom of the league in yards and points scored in 2022.
But after Rodgers went down with an Achilles injury four plays into their Week 1 game against the Bills on Sept. 11, the Jets again turned to Wilson, hoping his play had improved enough to help them make a run at the playoffs. However, that didn’t prove to be the case.
Wilson showed the same passing inconsistencies during his first nine starts this year that he showed during his first two seasons in the league. Also, the Jets offense was towards the bottom in yards, points per game, third-down conversions and red zone touchdowns.
Gang Green was losing because of their inability to score touchdowns. That ultimately led to Saleh benching Wilson for then-backup Tim Boyle during the Jets’ 32-6 loss to the Bills in Week 11.
Boyle started the next two games against the Dolphins and Falcons but was ineffective. That’s when Saleh decided to turn back to Wilson after a conversation in which the quarterback said he “wanted the ball.”
But The Athletic reported on Monday that Wilson was hesitant to return under center after being benched multiple times. Both Saleh and Wilson denied those claims.
“Everything that’s he has been through, all the ups and downs of being benched and not being benched,” Jets tight end Tyler Conklin said. “The media, just everything he has had to deal with, it has been a lot.
“He’s a young man and to handle everything that he has handled and to do what he did today, I couldn’t be happier for him.”
What made Wilson’s performance special against the Texans was not just the numbers that he put up and the way that the Jets won, it was his decisiveness and throws in tight windows. After his rookie season, in which he passed for 2,334 yards, nine touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, Jets coach Robert Saleh said he wanted Wilson to play “boring football.”
Wilson did that during the last couple of seasons, leading him to overthinking inside the pocket and making terrible decisions. This week, he told reporters he wanted to go out there and “let it rip” and “have fun” and that’s precisely what he did.
After holding onto the ball too long in several losses, Wilson evaded the pass rush better than he has in his career against Houston. He also looked confident throwing passes with tight coverage to Garrett Wilson, Breece Hall, and Conklin.
The Jets did not explore getting another quarterback right after Rodgers went down partly because they believed Wilson was good enough to win with. Finally, after 13 weeks, Wilson showed why.
“He balled man,” Garrett Wilson said. “He put it all out there, throwing dots in the rain and those things mess with what they were trying to do on offense. With what we were trying to do, Zach handled it.
“That’s always our goal. Handled it better than them and we did. Zach went crazy today and he has all the faith in us in the world and it is great to see him out there and just hoop.”
Now where the Jets and Wilson go from here, remains a mystery. Gang Green has four games left at Miami, home against Washington and on the road against Cleveland and New England.
The playoffs are likely out of the cards, although the Jets aren’t technically eliminated at 5-8. Wilson may not be with the Jets after 2023, but he can potentially put his resume on tape for his next team.
It is possible the Jets would like to have another quarterback option should Rodgers, 40, succumb to injury once again. The Jets will have until early May to decide if they want to pick up Wilson’s fifth-year option, worth $23 million.
It is unlikely the Jets would pick up Wilson’s option, especially with Rodgers on the roster. That would mean the team could try to trade him and potentially draft his replacement during the 2024 NFL Draft.
Meanwhile, Wilson is just focusing on one game at a time and just trying to improve in the season’s final four games.
“We will go back and watch,” Wilson said about Sunday’s win. “The flow of just playing football today was there. I can’t say it has been like that, unfortunately, in my career here, and that’s what we are searching for. Just playing ball, just moving the football, and just completing passes, and that’s what we are just hunting for.
“Unbelievable job by everyone and Hack [Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett] called a great game as well. There’s always going to be things that I want back and I can think of some in the moment.
“We will watch the film and see.”