Any modicum of progress from a Jets quarterback in the past has been squeezed so tightly that his future was suffocated by outsized expectations and, in most cases, delusionary, reactionary behavior from the organization itself.
Zach Wilson was O.K. on Sunday in a win over the Titans. It was his first O.K. game of the year after starting the season with games that ranged from almost O.K. to hit-the-eject-button, this-is-definitely-not-O.K. terrifying. The Jets needed a missed field goal in overtime to escape without a tie. They also needed one of the more spirited defensive play calling performances of Robert Saleh’s career, which included some perfectly-timed blitzes and the bolstering of a cardboard secondary that didn’t fold even after the entire unit was stomped on by Derrick Henry.
But Wilson, facing a late deficit, also rolled out of the pocket, escaped pressure, and dropped a perfect ball to Keelan Cole on what seemed to be a broken route concept in the third quarter. He also hit Jamison Crowder off his back foot to set up a game-tying touchdown and hit Crowder again for the score. The touchdown throw to Crowder was a late throw, but Wilson’s arm talent was such that he could still thread a slightly-behind ball to the wideout and come away with six points.
His second touchdown to Corey Davis, a 53-yard score into double coverage, was his best individual throw as a professional.
In the overtime, Wilson noticed that the Titans were misaligned and rushed ahead a play call that resulted in a deep completion to Cole, setting up the eventual game-winning kick. It was a third-and-2 behind midfield, and Wilson lofted the ball as if he were trying to arc it over a forming tornado. It landed in Cole’s hands just a half step from the sideline.
What a relief it must have been that these Aaron Rodgers-ian flicks of the wrist began to materialize after a summer’s worth of promise that this was the player the Jets had drafted. What a relief it must have been that the offense began to buy him the kind of time the offense was supposed to a lot on those sweeping bootlegs. Wilson missed some passes when he was forced to drop back and fire the ball on a standard three-step-and-out concept. He threw another interception reminiscent of the communication miscues that defined his horrid afternoon against the Patriots. But he also continued to grow and take chances. He did not merely attempt survival, which has become a common posture for undermanned Jets quarterbacks.
All of this is to say that Wilson did not arrive on Sunday, and that is O.K. Sam Darnold allegedly arrived in his debut against the Lions when he battled back from a first-throw pick six to lead the Jets to a 48–17 dissection of an incompetent Matt Patricia scheme. Mark Sanchez arrived so many times during the team’s second headache-inducing run to the AFC championship that the organization stockpiled his offense with a number of mercurial wide receivers in an attempt to squeeze that progress. Instead, the franchise melted down.
So it was O.K. that Wilson was O.K. It is O.K. that the Jets were O.K., especially against a good Titans team that was universally believed to be the best team on the field Sunday. Slow and methodical progress from the quarterback position, leading to methodical patience with the head coach, leading to methodical patience with the front office would be the greatest blessing this franchise has received since Joe Namath was available at the top of the AFL Draft.
The Jets in 2021 were always going to be judged not by whether they made the playoffs, but by their ability to remain in games that would have resulted in a blowout a year ago. And, of course, the progress of Wilson. On Sunday, they beat a team they were not supposed to. On Sunday, Wilson took the lessons digested from a not-O.K. performance and made them O.K., even after Saleh did his best to tamp expectations and encourage a more “boring” style of football, free of costly turnovers.
Discovering that happy medium is a fine place for the Jets to exist, happy knowing that Wilson will probably be O.K.
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