FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — In one of his first training camp periods as a professional quarterback, Zach Wilson absorbed a flying shoulder bump from a 300-pounder. Guard Greg Van Roten had sprinted over from position drills to officially welcome the team’s first-round pick before some run-concept work that involved a portion of the offense.
It would seem to be the one moment of undesigned, gentle light heartedness amid an afternoon that tends to take on a familiar, unsatisfying rhythm for highly drafted, expected-to-start quarterbacks who are just now seeing the machinations of a regular season. Wilson’s first official day as an NFL quarterback entailed being followed around by quarterbacks coach Rob Calabrese as if he’d been assigned to Secret Service detail. The two would initiate small meetings after each banal action. Calabrese would stare at Wilson’s feet while he was stepping back to hand the football off, perhaps in an effort to make up for the two practices Wilson missed while the details of his rookie contract were ironed out.
Wilson was being evaluated after three-quarters-speed checkdowns. He was watched and filmed during innocent soft tosses to tight ends. And, he was momentarily applauded for his first throw in a team session, which went nearly 50 yards down the middle of the field to fellow rookie Elijah Moore. Moore was blanketed in tight coverage and was falling away from the defender to gain separation. Wilson put the ball right on Moore’s hands as he was hitting the ground (he said afterward that he wished he threw it even sooner).
After that moment, he would be sacked on one play, blitzed and nearly forced into an interception on the next. On the third play of the following period, he skied the ball over new teammate Corey Davis’s head. He and his receivers were struggling to stay on the same page, cutting inward while Wilson would fire a pass to the vacant sideline. In the fourth team period, he pumped a ball directly into the stomach of safety Marcus Maye.
Head coach Robert Saleh was unfazed, noting that defenses always perform better in the early days of training camp throughout the “history of time.”
So goes the strangeness of a rookie quarterback’s first training camp practice; a spectacle that can sometimes, rarely, be a predictor of performance down the road (there were legendary tales of E.J. Manuel hurling footballs into the hospitality tent in Buffalo, or Jets practices of long ago where Mark Sanchez was unable to find a vacant receiver against Rex Ryan’s pressure defense) but is almost always just a showcase for the emotional and physical complications of breaking in a young passer in the first place. Here were 89 other people holding their breath; a group of coaches, players and administrators all practicing collective patience, hoping that somewhere down the line the struggles become less and less recognizable. They all will become experts in discovering the positive, in searching for the silver lining in every errant pass.
At some point, there will come a workout, a moment, a drill, a pass that will, in the minds of his coaching staff, solidify Wilson’s status as either a franchise quarterback or cut-our-losses trade bait. It will take hundreds of these days in order to form the evaluation, which heightens the importance of not placing too much importance on one day. But it has to begin somewhere.
On Friday, Wilson looked in command one moment and overwhelmed the next, frequently taking longer than the assigned number of drop back steps to release the football. The offense was, before practice, saddled with a heavy portion of their installation while the defense had been fed a smaller, more digestible playbook in increments. They could play fast (and, most of the time likely had an idea of what plays were being run) while Wilson had to progress his way through each concept and throw to receivers who may have been just as confused as he was. The clash led to the immediate assumption that Wilson had a poor day of practice and not the more accurate takeaway, which is that we have no idea what the hell it was given how disparate the offense and defense looked. Had Wilson breezed through his first practice and carved up the defense, it may have been a far more concerning indictment of the defense’s ability, or the lack of the offense’s complexity.
The Jets’ offense, steeped in the principles of the back-to-back Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos of the late 1990s, asks the entire team to move as a collective ballet company. One day, each play will resemble the next at its outset, disallowing the defense from creeping up and pawing the kind of low-hanging fruit interceptions that populated Wilson’s first day of camp.
At least that is the hope. That day is a long way from here. Wilson’s ultimate evaluation is a long way from here. And so, the Jets broke camp on Friday to the sound of three elongated air horn blasts content in dismissing the bad and pocketing the good (Saleh noted his processing ability, confidence and command). Does the first practice ever really mean anything, or is it simply a test of everyone’s belief?
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