Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Zach Wilson became on Thursday the baby face of the 2021 NFL draft.
Yeah, Trevor Lawrence went No. 1 to the Jags. No big deal. There might be some thrill in that, but no mystery.
The former BYU quarterback, though, was selected with the second overall pick, taken by the New York Jets. Everybody knew that was coming, but not a soul knows with exactness what’s coming next for Wilson and the Jets.
Wilson has been poked and probed like a lab rat over the past few months, observed, studied and interrogated by NFL decision-makers. His competitiveness is obvious, as is his arm talent, his diligence and his creativity. The questions about him center on a ho-hum sophomore season prior to his beating a bunch of nobodies last year.
The Jets, on the other hand, are a bunch of nobodies who beat just two teams in 2020.
If that last part, after all this time, is a tired narrative, then there’s only one thing for the Jets to do, and now for Wilson to do, about it — prove that it’s tired no more, it’s flat-out false.
That’s a jagged cliff to climb.
Wilson has said he relishes being an underdog. He’d better. He is one now. And the team he’ll play for is a whole pack of them.
If he starts for the Jets this fall, he will be their 35th different QB starter since Joe Willie Namath’s last snap for the team in 1976. That’s right, that’s a 3 and that’s a 5.
There was a Richard Todd in there and a Marty Domres and a Browning Nagle and a JackTrudeau and a Bubby Brister and a Quincy Carter and a Ray Lucas and a Bryce Petty and a … a … a … you get the idea.
The Jets’ record of futility is, in fact, a matter of record. They’ve been on the ugly side of the football business for six decades. They’ve lost more than a hundred regular season games more than they’ve ever won. In the less-than-frequent occasions when they’ve made the postseason, they’ve lost more playoff games than they’ve won.
It’s as though Namath’s guarantee of a Super Bowl victory over the Colts back in 1968, when the Jets mastered not only the most surprising outcome in the history of professional football, but the most important one, the most influential one, the most-of-everything one, laid a curse across the franchise from which it’s never recovered.
Into that mess, the young Wilson steps.
Last year, the Jets were 2-14. The year before, 7-9. The year before, 4-12. The year before, 5-11. And the year before that, 5-11.
The 16 seasons prior to that stretch, since the turn of the century, the Jets went a combined 127-129. In the seasons leading up to that … let’s say it like this, in an average of just one-fourth of the years did the Jets break on the favorable side of .500.
God help Zach Wilson.
Not only does he find himself led by the nose, drawn into and chained onto a club that has far more often than not suffered the buffetings of losing, he finds himself laboring to change history under the brightest, hottest of lights, in the biggest sports media market in the world.
He’ll be paid more than six fistfuls of millions over the span of his first contract, cheap by NFL quarterback standards, and an amount that will make whatever comes thereafter ridiculously worth it. But if it’s winning Wilson craves, then say a prayer for the man.
There are a couple of potential upsides.
The first is that there’s a revamped regime in New York, led by new head coach Robert Saleh. Maybe he can steer the fortunes of a forlorn, forgettable crew in a different direction. Maybe GM Joe Douglas, who is resting his head on an iron pillow now by picking Wilson, can build a club in the middle of which the former BYU quarterback can thrive.
The second is, if Saleh and Douglas can do that, allowing Wilson to blow past everything former Jets quarterbacks such as the traded Sam Darnold did, if Wilson is what so many NFL scouts seem to think he is, a prospect with the wherewithal to do what a successful quarterback must do, then it will happen to great acclaim.
The bright lights do shine.
Like Frank sang it, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Sinatra said something else, too: “The big lesson in life, baby, is to never be scared of anyone or anything.”
Unless you’re the quarterback of the New York Jets. … Then, be afraid, be very afraid.
There were 22 QBs taken in the first round of the NFL draft between 2009 and 2016. None of them are starting for the team they were drafted by heading into the 2021 season. Only three are projected starters for any team. What’s that … 15 percent?
So it is that with a sloppy stretch of logic here, Wilson has about a 15 percent chance of winning in New York. If you’re a gambling man, you probably don’t like those odds. But then, Wilson already has beaten the odds to be where he is.
A year ago at this time, Cougar coaches didn’t even know whether he would be the starting quarterback at BYU. If he knew it, he was pretty much the only one. BYU quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick said he had to wait until fall ball before he, with his colleagues, could make that determination.
On Thursday — let’s repeat it again — Wilson, jumping out after his junior season in Provo, was the second overall pick in the NFL draft. What were the percentages on that? Whatever they were, only a fool would have felt good about slapping cash on the barrel on such a bet.
Will the Jets break free of their dismal tradition, led by a quarterback from Draper, Utah, that 12 months ago nobody knew?
Good news: Maybe.
Bad news: Maybe not.
Anyone who says it’s a sure thing is a sure liar.
Zach Wilson on the Jets is the essence and personification of what the NFL draft has always been about, what it’s always been, especially when it comes to quarterbacks, the most important and fickle position in football:
A crapshoot, an elongated chance where the variables, the risks, are magnified and the rewards are, too.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.