Zach Wilson is only three seasons into his NFL career, but Sunday’s game already has the feel of the start of his last real chance with the Jets.
Head coach Robert Saleh announced on Wednesday that he was returning to the former second-overall pick for the MetLife Stadium matinee against the Houston Texans and “God willing” for the rest of the season.
“I think anytime you have an opportunity, you’re putting [yourself on display] for every team in the league, whether that is here in New York or anywhere,” Wilson said of returning to the lineup after sitting out Gang Green’s last two games. “I mean, it’s not my option to choose what happens. But I do have the opportunity to control what happens on the field at least from my play and my decision making and so I really think the focus is just going out there and playing the best I can.
“I don’t think I need to think of it as if I do this, then maybe someone will give me a chance, or maybe the Jets will keep me. It doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t. I am out there to help this team win, to focus on competing because that is what I love to do and I love spending time with these guys in the locker room every single day, so that is where my focus will be.”
After Aaron Rodgers’ Achilles injury in Week 1, Wilson found himself once again the starting quarterback of the Jets despite being benched twice last season and showing he clearly wasn’t ready for primetime. Thus it was no surprise when the same problems that plagued his first two seasons arose after he became the starter again.
Wilson’s poor play and holding onto the ball too long hindered the Jets offense, which is a big reason the team is 31st in yards (260.1) and 30th in points per game (14.3). In 10 games, Wilson has passed for 1,944 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
It doesn’t help that the Jets have lacked continuity on their offensive line. Sunday will be the 10th different offensive line combination in 13 games with guard Wes Schweitzer out because of a calf injury. But because of his performance, Wilson was benched for Tim Boyle in the third quarter of the Jets’ Week 11 loss to the Bills. Not only was he not the starter the next two weeks, but Wilson was demoted to the Jets’ emergency quarterback.
After two atrocious performances against the Dolphins and Falcons the Jets released Boyle earlier this week and thus Wilson is now back under center.
And, of course, Wilson’s return as Gang Green’s starting quarterback didn’t come without controversy.
The Athletic reported on Monday that Wilson was hesitant to step back into the role, mainly because of injury concerns. Wilson denied those claims, and Saleh said the 24-year-old came into his office on Monday and told him that he “wanted the ball.”
In the past, the Jets said they wanted Wilson to play “boring football.” Now Saleh says they want Wilson to be aggressive and “just let it rip.”
In his nine starts, Wilson played like he had zero confidence. He played like he was afraid to make mistakes. He played like a quarterback who knew his team had an excellent defense and he didn’t want to be the reason the team lost. Now they’re hoping he can return to being the aggressive player he was during his rookie year.
“It has definitely made me stronger, no doubt,” Wilson said of learning from his mistakes. “I understand the situation, as a quarterback, when the offense isn’t doing well, like I have said to you guys, I get it, I do and it is tough.
“We are all trying to find a way. At the end of the day, it is a business. We have to score, we have to win games, and I understand that. I think it was harder on me in the past and I think now I am in a good spot mentally to just keep going and understand it is part of the game and appreciate that.
“Everybody knows that I am going to do everything I can for the guys in the locker wouldn’t matter the situation.”
But these five games will likely be the final ones with Wilson on the team.
The Jets will have until early May to decide on Wilson’s fifth-year option, which would pay him $23 million. Declining it would likely spell the end of Wilson in a Jets uniform.
“I’m excited for him,” Jets tight end Tyler Conklin told the Daily News about Wilson. “He took the brunt of our offense struggling and he ended up getting benched a few weeks ago. That’s tough because we struggled as a unit, that wasn’t all on him.
“I’m excited for him to get an opportunity to go back out there for five games and put his best foot forward and put his best film out. That’s the big thing for all of us, we got five games on whatever stage of career you’re in, whatever your contract is, you got five games to go out there and play your best football for your teammates and this team.
“I’m excited for him and I think he’s going to go out there and play a little bit more carefree. At this point, he has already had a tough go of it, why not go out there and have fun and have the most fun he has had in a long time.”
When the Texans come to town on Sunday, the Jets can’t help but be envious of what Houston has in its 2023 No. 2 overall pick, C.J. Stroud. Not only is Stroud the likely winner of rookie of the year honors, but he could help guide the franchise to the playoffs for the first time since 2019.
Houston enters Sunday’s game against Gang Green 7-5 and seventh in the AFC playoff picture. Stroud has passed for 3,540 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Meanwhile, the 2021 No. 2 overall pick, Wilson, never reached those heights and has been on a carousel ever since. Now, with the playoffs just about out of reach, the Jets are hoping to end their five-game losing streak and end the season on a good note while hoping Rodgers can recover for 2024 and help them reach the Super Bowl aspirations they had before the season began.
“The stability at the quarterback position, we’re always chasing it,” Saleh said. “I’ll leave that topic for you guys.”
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