FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – There is no debate, no controversy and no Plan B – at least none that anyone outside the Jets organization knows at the moment. Zach Wilson is on the fast track to be the Jets’ Opening Day starter this September, just one month after he turns 22-years-old.
That could be a very good thing for a franchise eager to get yet another version of their bright future starter.
It also could be very bad.
That’s the thing about starting rookie quarterbacks: There is no consensus, no time-tested method of how best to make this work. Ask a quarterback and they’ll say they need to play, that they do their best learning and growing on the field. Ask a coach and they’ll preach the virtues of patience and the value of watching a smart veteran at the helm.
They Jets may eventually add a veteran like that. In fact, they probably will, considering the only other quarterbacks on the roster right now are James Morgan and Mike White who have combined to play in zero NFL games. The Jets met with 35-year-old Brian Hoyer in the weeks before the draft. And they have a connection to 32-year-old Nick Foles through Joe Douglas from their days together in Philadelphia, and Foles may be available since the Chicago Bears drafted Justin Fields.
Whether Hoyer or Foles or some other vet comes in as a mentor or as a placeholder, that’s probably up to Wilson. Because if he can learn the playbook and adjust to the speed of the NFL fast enough, it sure sounds like the Jets are eager to get him on the field.
“It’s no different than how you would want to bring around your ‘mike’ linebacker or offensive lineman – there’s a process which we’ll go through,” Saleh said. “There’s Football 101 coaching, there’s Football 301 coaching and there’s Football 501 coaching. The development of all these rookies are really the same with regards to trying to reach them from a 101 level and trying to get them to their grad degree of the 501 level.”
Yes, but even Saleh said, “I get it, the magnitude of the quarterback position.” It’s just more important, more complicated and under far more scrutiny than any ‘mike’ linebacker or guard. It’s easier for players at those positions to learn on the fly, to endure ups and downs far under the radar. It’s much different for a quarterback trying to basically run the entire offense while everyone is watching every move.
That’s why it’s hard to say if being a Day 1 starter is really the best thing for Wilson, who just three years ago was the youngest player to ever start a game at quarterback for BYU. It’s hard to say, since the right approach tends to depend on the player and the circumstances, and is rarely clear until the world gets a clear look at the results.
Patrick Mahomes was unbelievable in his first year as a starter, becoming just the second quarterback in history to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, leading the Chiefs to the AFC championship and being named the NFL MVP. Would he have done that if he hadn’t sat and learned behind Alex Smith for a year? Or would he have done the same, just one year earlier? Aaron Rodgers sat for three years behind Brett Favre and looked like a seasoned veteran in 2008, his first year as a starter, throwing for 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns. Could he have done that as a rookie in 2005 or — though he’d never admit it — did sitting and learning from one of the best in NFL history actually help?
And what about Eli Manning, who suffered through 3 1/2 years of growing pains before everything suddenly kicked in for him in 2007. Was he helped by sitting for nine games at the start of his career behind Kurt Warner? He wasn’t good as a rookie. Should he have sat even longer? Or would he have been better off not sitting at all?
The Jets can’t even look to their own history for answers. Sam Darnold was a Day 1 starter in 2018, beating out veteran Josh McCown. His first start was pretty good, too. But by midseason, he was settling into an unmistakable spiral. And when he was forced to sit out three games with a foot injury, even he admitted the chance to sit and watch and absorb helped stop his head from spinning. When he returned, it was clear those weeks off had completely settled him down.
Of course, in the long run, Darnold still ended up on a three-year roller coaster which probably had more to do with injuries and a terrible surrounding cast than it did any decisions then-coach Todd Bowles made about his playing time as a rookie. If he had spent that entire year on the sidelines, he still would’ve had Year 2 ruined by his bout with mono and still would’ve been surrounded by the same mess during his two seasons under Adam Gase.
Health and coaching and the team will always matter most. But what happens to Wilson this year could tell the tale, or at least set the tone, for how quickly his success comes. A rookie is likely to have growing pains, so there is wisdom in setting the clock on that as early as possible. Then again, that growing might be less painful if he had time to get used to his new job.
It’s a good thing Saleh and the Jets still have four months to make that decision. And for now, at least, Wilson’s focus isn’t on the second weekend in September. It’s exactly where Saleh wants his focus to be.
“Obviously (starting) is important, but that’s not my focus right now,” Wilson said. “My focus is to learn the offense, to keep getting better every single day, do what I can with the guys around me. And I think the rest takes care of itself. At each position, the coaches want to play the best player. It’s got to be earned.”