Jets QB Wilson ‘unbelievable’ in winning return

  • Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff WriterDec 10, 2023, 07:03 PM ET

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      Rich Cimini is a staff writer who covers the New York Jets and the NFL at ESPN. Rich has covered the Jets for over 30 years, joining ESPN in 2010. Rich also hosts the Flight Deck podcast. He previously was a beat writer for the New York Daily News and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can follow him via Twitter @RichCimini.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Benched three times in his career and dismissed by fans and media as a first-round bust, New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson delivered the kind of performance Sunday that was envisioned for him as the No. 2 pick in 2021.

“Zach was unbelievable,” coach Robert Saleh said after the Jets snapped a five-game losing streak with a 30-6 rout of the Houston Texans at a rainswept MetLife Stadium.

Back in the lineup after a two-game benching, Wilson passed for 301 yards and two touchdowns, posting career bests for passer rating (117.9) and completion percentage (75%). It was his third 300-yard passing day in 32 starts, but his first in a victory. Saleh called it the best game of Wilson’s career, and it left teammates buzzing about his resilience.

They described an unburdened Wilson, who, frustrated by the way he has been treated by the organization, vowed to teammates that he’d play with a chip on his shoulder and for the team. That resonated in the locker room.

“He told me, ‘I’m playing for y’all. I’ve got nothing to lose,'” cornerback D.J. Reed said. “He said, ‘What’s the worst that can happen, I get benched again?’ That’s what he said and that’s the way he played. It showed.”

Guard Laken Tomlinson said, “He said it early this week: F it. Go out there and have some fun. Leave it all out there.”

Wilson was Aaron Rodgers-esque over the final 30 minutes in tough conditions. After throwing for only 92 yards in the first half — the score was 0-0 at halftime — Wilson was 18-for-21 for 209 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, his highest yardage in any half of his career.

Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett opened up the game plan, allowing Wilson to come out throwing. Wilson led touchdown drives on the team’s first two second-half possessions, no small feat for the Jets.

Before Sunday, they had gone eight straight games without scoring more than one offensive touchdown. The team snapped a streak of 18 straight games without three offensive touchdowns, tied for the longest such streak since 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It came out of nowhere for the Jets (5-8), and it came out of nowhere for Wilson, who had struggled in his previous nine starts.

“The flow of just playing football today was there, and I can’t say it’s been like that a lot, unfortunately, in my career here,” said Wilson, who completed 27 of 36 passes with no interceptions. His only blemish was a lost fumble on a scramble.

Wilson, replaced by Rodgers in the offseason, was pressed into action in Week 1, when the four-time MVP tore his left Achilles tendon. The Jets got off to a 4-3 start, but the offense was sputtering under Wilson. After a Week 11 loss to the Buffalo Bills, Saleh benched Wilson in favor of career journeyman Tim Boyle — a move that backfired with two ugly losses.

Publicly, Wilson said he understood the demotion, but privately he stewed, teammates said. When it became clear that Boyle was getting benched, Wilson expressed reluctance about the prospect of retaking the reins, The Athletic reported. Wilson said the report was “absolutely” false.

On Sunday, he played with a purpose, and teammates said he took more risks than usual. His most daring moment came early in the third quarter. On a third-and-12, he was flushed to his left and threw against his body to the middle of the field, finding wide receiver Garrett Wilson for a 25-yard gain. That set up the first touchdown, a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Randall Cobb.

During the run-up to the game, the coaches implored Zach Wilson to play with a let-it-rip mentality. He did on that play.

“As a coach, you’re always like, ‘Don’t throw those,'” Wilson said. “Sometimes they go the other way. So, for me, it’s throw it when you believe it’s there, trust in it. Sometimes bad plays are going to happen, but you’re going to have to trust in those and let it rip. It’s part of football.”

Later, Wilson made it 21-6 with a 3-yard touchdown pass to running back Breece Hall. He did a terrific job of getting the ball to the top playmakers, as Hall finished with eight receptions for 86 yards and Garrett Wilson made nine catches for 108 yards.

“He balled,” Garrett Wilson said of his quarterback. “He put it all out there, throwing dots in the rain.”

The game plan helped. After a relatively conservative first half, the coaches finally showed trust in Zach Wilson. They called passes on the first five first-down plays in the third quarter. He rewarded their confidence by making a handful of tight-window throws, using his arm strength instead of checking down.

“From what I’ve seen, that’s the best he’s played,” Cobb said. “He just went out and played his brand of ball, without feeling constrained. The pressure he’s faced over the past two or three years — he just went out there and put it aside and played phenomenal tonight.”