For Jets QB Zach Wilson to succeed, everything else has to go right

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National Football League

Nov. 7, 2023 3:25 p.m. ET

This isn’t a column about how poorly Zach Wilson is playing. Not exactly. This isn’t a column about how he’s a draft bust. This isn’t even a column about Wilson.

This is about everyone else on the New York Jets.

By now, everyone can see what Wilson is: one of the NFL’s worst starting quarterbacks. Look at basically every statistic, advanced or not. Look at his game film. You’ll see a quarterback who is in over his head and is hanging on to his starting job for one reason: His backup is Tim Boyle. And Boyle isn’t going to play any better.

There were games this year when Wilson looked competent. I’ve made sure to note those games, because I’ve also ripped his play as much as anyone. Not only has Wilson developed from wholly incompetent to occasionally competent, but he is actually turning into a leader off the field. There’s value there in both small developments, especially for a Jets team that seems to be attempting to patch together a few wins in hopes that Aaron Rodgers does the unbelievable and returns this season from his Achilles injury.

On Monday night, however, Wilson flopped again. He was 33-of-49 for 263 yards with eight sacks (for 57 yards) and two lost fumbles. 

Was that performance his fault? Yes. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially not anyone on the Jets. I’m not letting his coaches and his teammates off easy. 

“Was it his best game? Obviously not. Was it his worst game? No. I’m not going to say it was even close to his worst game,” coach Robert Saleh told reporters after the game.

It’s a backhanded compliment, one that made me laugh. Because, of course, Wilson’s film against Bill Belichick’s Patriots is basically a bloodbath. Wilson threw four interceptions against New England back in 2021. The QB has two games in which he had three interceptions. He once completed 35% of his passes in a game against the Bills. And he has thrown for fewer than 100 passing yards in four different games. 

There can’t be many Zach Wilson defenders left on this planet.

Zach Wilson crumbles under pressure from Chargers defense

So, yes, it was Wilson’s fault. But to put all the blame on him — after all that we’ve seen from him — is missing the point. We all know that Wilson needs everything to go right to succeed. So, in my mind, we’re past the point of blaming him for a loss.

Let’s talk first about the offensive line.

Breece Hall averaged 3.1 yards per carry and the Jets offense went 20 carries for 64 yards (3.2 yards per carry). The Chargers loaded up the box and dared the Jets to throw the ball. So they did. That’s why Wilson threw the ball almost 50 times. But the Jets offensive line was a total mess. Guard Billy Turner allowed 10 pressures and three sacks. Guard Laken Tomlinson allowed eight pressures and two sacks. They were leaking rushers the entire night.

The playcalling only made things worse. Look at how long it takes these routes (in the tweet below) to develop in a third-and-long situation. That’s on offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. He’s seen his line fail for the entirety of the game and still calls what is roughly just a wholly uncreative four-verticals play. 

Was there nothing designed to help the receivers get open? Was there nothing designed to get someone like Xavier Gipson, an explosive YAC receiver, open in space?

That’s why I think Saleh said the following when asked if Wilson regressed this week.

“I don’t know if you can stay step back,” Saleh said. “It’s all-encompassing. Obviously, he’s going to have some things he wishes he could have done better. From protection — it’s just a little bit of everything. It’s one of those bizarre games where every time we had momentum, it was just a self-inflicted wound.”

That brings me to the next Jets issue: penalties and drops. They generally fall into different categories, but for the sake of this argument, they are approximately the same. They are mental mistakes that set back an offense that must stay on schedule. (Why? Because Wilson needs all the help he can get.)

Receiver Allen Lazard, who signed a four-year, $44 million contract this offseason in free agency, was the biggest culprit. He committed one drop and two penalties. On a night when Wilson really needed a No. 2 option after Garrett Wilson, Lazard managed just two catches for 16 yards on six targets. The offense also committed six penalties.

“Too many self-inflicted wounds,” Zach Wilson said Monday night. “Just not good enough. I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. Not good enough.”

Even the Jets standout receiver Garrett Wilson, who led the team with seven catches and 80 receiving yards, had a costly fumble.

“When you play at this level and you play on the offensive side of the ball, if you weren’t angry, I would think something was wrong,” Wilson told reporters. “This is disappointing and it definitely messes with your psyche a little bit, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”

Aaron Rodgers: “Give me a few weeks” to come back from Achilles injury

The defense is the reason why the Jets (4-4, third in AFC East) have any hope of making the playoffs. The unit is staggeringly talented. It is opportunistic. And Saleh runs the unit to perfection.

The best example of that is how the Jets have shut down some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. Quarterbacks Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen posted their worst passer ratings of the season against New York. Patrick Mahomes posted his second worst. 

That’s what it takes for this unit to pull off upsets — absolute dominance against an opposing quarterback. For most teams, that’s not feasible. For the Jets, it’s actually a major part of their game plan. It should come as no surprise that their defense has the team’s top-graded players on PFF. It will probably be like that every week.

But that’s also why the Chargers’ punt-return touchdown was a game breaker. The offense can barely keep pace with opposing offenses. And now the opponent’s special teams unit is scoring, too? That just about wrapped up the game. And it was actually the first touchdown. But when New York’s opponent is getting points from two phases, Saleh must know he’s in trouble.

It just feels like one big waste.

This defense is performing at an elite level. It’s beautiful to watch. But it’s an offensive game. Teams can only go so far as their point-scorers. And the Jets have made a few major mistakes in how they structured their team. They were — in my opinion — too prideful about Zach Wilson. The reality was clear last year: a team must carry him to wins. Sometimes, the team has to win in spite of him. 

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So while it was terrific that the team got Rodgers, who almost never missed games for most of his career, they should have had a real Plan B in place. And when Rodgers went down, they should absolutely have urgently brought in competition for Wilson. None of that happened. New York’s brass, which drafted Wilson, was too proud to give up on him.

The Jets now have to live with the guy who needs everything to go right. And Saleh has to figure out how to get perfection out of everyone except Wilson. Because last night, the Jets’ imperfections were on full display. They made it clear there is no margin for error on offense. Not if they want to be in playoff position for Rodgers’ potential return.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.

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