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“You’ve got to attack every single day.” — Zach Wilson
Former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson has killed it with the New York Jets through the preseason.
Which is a little like shooting a canary in a cage.
Now, he’s hoping not to get killed as the games turn real.
The happy news is the rookie so far has wowed a city that doesn’t wow easily. He’s stirred all of New York, at least the part of it that cares more about the Jets than the Giants, in two exhibition showings, which, as mentioned, feels a little hollow given that any QB worth a nickel or a dime, or 300 million of them — and a whole lot of QBs that aren’t — can conquer the preseason.
Typically, those games are loaded with players who, contrary to their dreams, are suddenly now unclogging pipes or bagging groceries or selling software.
Still, the combo-pack of Wilson’s numbers — 15 of 20 for 191 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions — and the look of comfort and ease with which he compiled those stats has Jets fans feeling good about being Jets fans, again.
It’s been a long, long time coming.
Most Jets fans have almost a sense of imminent defeat, of self-loathing, not fully understanding themselves how they got tangled up in such a mess.
Wilson is in the early stages of changing that.
But the big stage awaits.
Coach Robert Saleh has praised the quarterback, saying he is far beyond the norm for a rookie, while also warning anyone with ears to hear that there will be wild undulations for Wilson, as he learns. About that last part, the club doesn’t seem to care, not enough to form a Plan B.
The Jets have said from the start that Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, is their guy and they hardened their intentions by, to date, adding no seasoned quarterbacks to compete with or even back up Wilson, at least not one with much experience on the field.
Compare that with the methodology utilized not just by other NFL teams with rookie QBs — the 49ers with Trey Lance, the Patriots with Mac Jones, the Bears with Justin Fields, and even, to some degree, at least for a while, in a classic Urban Meyer faux kind of way, the Jaguars with top overall pick Trevor Lawrence — but local college teams, too, Utah, BYU and Utah State, looking for starters.
All the other outfits have pranced down the more elongated competitive route, whether that path was disingenuous or not, seeing value in making guys fight for the top jobs. The Pats cut Cam Newton at the end of camp, after a supposedly heated battle with Jones, favoring the competitive ruse.
Not the Jets.
They fiddle-faddled around not one bit with their leading spot. They gave Wilson all the significant reps, allowed him to learn through that “process,” a favorite word of Saleh’s, and handed him the wheel to drive the car.
So drive it he has over what’s been pretty much an empty track.
The asphalt gets a whole lot more crowded in the regular-season opener on Sunday, Sept. 12, against, compellingly enough, the Carolina Panthers, who happen to be quarterbacked by the Jets’ former franchise guy, Sam Darnold, the young man the team roughed up and traded away to pick You-Know-Who.
“It’s typical [of] the NFL,” Wilson said of the scheduling. “But it’s exciting. That’s what people want to see. We’re in the entertainment business. That’s what’s fun.”
A couple of things here.
The first has already been broached, namely that Jets fans are … desperate. Their forever standing as a base waiting for someone, anyone, to step into the empty shoes of Joe Willie Namath lives and languishes in infamy. Namath, as oldsters and students of NFL history know, won the most important pro game of all time — the Super Bowl some 50 years ago against the formidable Baltimore Colts, an AFL vs. NFL showdown, which led to a merger of those two competing leagues. Namath guaranteed that win in the run-up, although the Jets were substantial underdogs.
They’ve been ‘dogs ever since.
Their fans aren’t necessarily looking for a replication of that dramatic SB win, they’d just take a quarterback who can make them relevant in the AFC East. A couple of guys have lifted them along the way, stumbling or butt-fumbling through, but none has stuck, none has taken them all the way.
Most have lost a lot of games.
“J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets,” has become more a cry for help than a cheer.
Those fans, then, are considerably and understandably shy about loading their hopes into just any fresh-faced QB. Those have come and gone before. Much of that has been the fault of management and coaching and decisions that have been nothing short of bad.
But Wilson, under a new coach and a relatively new front office, has shown just enough promise to loosen and bolster those hopes over the past few weeks.
None of this is a surprise to BYU fans, who saw what Wilson could do all of last season, albeit against compromised competition, and that was the knock on the quarterback coming into the pros, that he had proved little against Texas State and Troy and North Alabama.
The Jets saw something beyond that — a cerebral QB with a quick release, a strong arm, a suitable work ethic, some swagger, an ability to improvise, and a command of an offense not all that different from what they wanted to implement in New York.
And they were so moved by what they saw out of Wilson through his first two preseason appearances that they held him out — as though he were a prized veteran to be protected, not subjected to the risks of another bunch of meaningless hits — of their third and final preseason game.
Wilson was disappointed because he wanted to play. He always wants to play.
There’s more, though. Wilson has handled the media in New York with awareness and confidence and maturity, speaking candidly and forthrightly about what he’s experiencing and what he aims to achieve with his new team.
That, mixed with those brief performances on the field, has been enough to soothe the beast for now. Reporters in New York have been impressed by way of the small sample of what they’ve witnessed.
Everybody knows that could change when the games actually count, when teams have their frontline players going, when everything speeds up and the pressure grows. Those shards of hope can turn to painful sharp-edged glass in a hurry.
But the Jets seem assured that their fortunes are in good hands, although they are just 22 years young.
In a recent meeting with the press, Wilson answered a bevy of questions with honesty and intelligence.
He was asked if it was tough not playing in that third game.
His answer: “I get reminded that it’s going to be a long season, 17 games, so I was just trying to take mental reps, to put myself in those shoes … just making sure I had the calls down, going through the whole process, pretending I was out there.”
He was asked if it seems real now, with the regular season approaching.
“I feel like it’s the same mindset all around, I feel like it’s been real the whole time, as far as understanding that this is the NFL, you’ve got to attack every single day, because it’s a grind, it’s a tough process, you have a couple good days and a bad day, you just got to keep stacking the days and understand, you’ve got to bring it every single day.”
He was asked about preparation for the opener, he was asked about the speed of the game, he was asked about the Panthers, he was asked about the difference for him from college to the NFL, he was asked what he learned in the preseason, he was asked about world peace and the meaning of life.
“Things I want to just keep getting better at is operation, making sure I’m commanding the huddle, getting guys in and out, and, of course, moving the team up and down the field, avoiding turnovers, avoiding negative plays,” he said. “There’s always so much you can work on.”
He talked about everything from pre-snap and post-snap indicators, how he adjusts as a play unfolds to how he goes about his game prep.
“I don’t know how veteran quarterbacks do it in the NFL, but I kind of found something that works for me as far as making sure I get on the tape and sort cut-ups in a certain way,” he said. “I watch games early in the week and I start to get more cut-ups of situations as the week goes on and I kind of have a process of just overloading information as the week goes and at the end of the week, my process is now how can I give myself one or two things that’s going to simplify the game for me, and it’s going to tell me exactly what’s going on by one thing because you sit here and have all day to diagnose what’s going on. … On the field, you have a couple seconds and you don’t want to be sitting out there and overthinking anything. So it’s like, how can I just simplify and that’s part of my process. Taking all this information and simplifying it.”
That’s what Wilson has to do in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Problem is, playing quarterback in the NFL is the most complicated, most demanding, most difficult position in all of team sports. Nothing else comes close.
He knows this. The Jets do, too.
But he and they believe in Zach Wilson.
”You’ve got to attack every single day.”
Yeah. Or every single day will attack you. Under the brightest of lights, where the fans are hopeful and hungry, anxious and angry, in the big city the Jets call home.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.