We’re only three years removed from the last time we went through this exercise, the one where we pretended the Jets’ acquisition of a quarterback was different this time. How it was, finally, an exercise in competence. How they won’t ruin this one like they did the last hundred. So forgive anyone who follows this team if they meet tonight with either the feigned interest of someone who has been beaten down over time, or the complete opposite: the beautiful, optimistic amnesia that a follower of this organization tends to acquire.
But here’s why Zach Wilson will actually, really, truly be different this time. He is joining an organization in arguably the healthiest place it’s been in for years. There is a general manager who hired a head coach. There is a competent offensive coordinator running the most quarterback-friendly system in the league. There are pillars in place to prevent the entire thing from collapsing, regardless of how long it might take for Wilson to develop.
Leave it to the Jets to wait until the age of nomadic quarterback movement to finally find the recipe for stability. Wilson and, by extension, any quarterback who the Jets take from here to eternity, may never get the chance to replace the Joe Namath–sized hole left in people’s hearts. But he can make them a passable franchise again. He can hoist them to something truly rarified: (somewhat) sustained relevance.
When Mark Sanchez was drafted, the team vacillated between irresponsible coddling and naked indifference. They loaded him up with mercurial wide receivers, completely ignorant of the chemistry Molotov cocktail they were creating and plastered him all over town as if he were the next Namath.
With Geno Smith, it was almost the opposite. From the moment he arrived, it was almost as if the organization were doing him a favor. Brief glimpses of talent and personality were quickly shuttered amid the administrative chaos plaguing the team. They offered more support to the sixth-round pick who uppercut him in the locker room.
With Sam Darnold, the offense was never prepared to support him. There were moments, quite literally, during his rookie year when the game plan featured various checks and calls that meant two different things. He made some brilliant throws in games despite the fact that some aspects of the game plan were irreparably broken. He got mono. He was tossed behind a paper-thin offensive line. He was beat up and had no one to throw to.
The promise of Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh and, by extension, Mike LaFleur, is that there is a general, harmonious competence with it all. Yes, LaFleur may not be his brother, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. He may not be Kyle Shanahan. But he has a deep understanding of the system, which gives quarterbacks the kind of time and space to make correct decisions. It points them in that direction at the snap. This is the system that momentarily made the Mike Pettine Browns relevant. This is the system that rescued Ryan Tannehill’s career. That brought the Falcons to the Super Bowl. That was behind two straight 13–3 Packers seasons.
While the NFL is cyclical, there are few things that have been tested as rigorously.
There is a quiet desperation to this pick, though one that has little to do with Wilson proving the Jets right. Surely, if he does not succeed, there will be endless speculation as to whether the franchise should have dealt the No. 2 pick and used a bounty of selections in a far deeper 2022 draft to retool.
Instead, this is about the Jets finally proving their competence. Because, in the age when quarterbacks are no longer afraid to pack up and brawl their way out of town, who wants to play for a team that has no track record of development or success? Who willingly signs up for bad health?
Wilson being the first would mean more than just immediate success. It would mean an end to a twisted cycle years in the making.