Zach Wilson is not the only NFL rookie learning that the jump from college to the pros is hazardous enough to require a surgeon general’s warning attached to it. Urban Meyer, first-year head coach of the Jaguars, captured the experience with this line to Broncos coach Vic Fangio:
“Every week is like playing Alabama in the NFL.”
Meyer is a 57-year-old man who doesn’t get hit for a living. If he feels that way, how do you think a 22-year-old quarterback with a rookie head coach, a rookie coordinator, and a suspect offensive line feels?
Ordinarily, an NFL midweek press conference is not a place to go to learn a ton about what’s really going on with a player and his team. But when Wilson stepped into his on Thursday, something was different about his demeanor from the previous Thursday, when he appeared bouncy and energetic and called Bill Belichick “that dude.”
Wilson lost his professional debut at Carolina to the quarterback he replaced, Sam Darnold, but showed enough talent and toughness for those watching to judge it a relative success. Week 2 was anything but. Wilson’s home-opening loss to Belichick’s Patriots and fellow first-round pick Mac Jones (from the aforementioned Alabama) was a complete face-plant.
“I haven’t thrown four picks ever in my life in a game,” the former BYU star explained.
So it made sense that he appeared more subdued, and a bit humbled, as he prepared to face Fangio’s Broncos, who just did a number on the top-overall pick, Trevor Lawrence. Wilson is learning the cruelest of lessons about on-the-job training during the early hours of a rebuilding process:
It’s one thing to expect turbulent times, and to talk about turbulent times, but quite another to actually live through those turbulent times.
Wilson looked Thursday as if he could use another game against Texas State. Rookie Jets coordinator, Mike LaFleur, might have called Wilson “unflappable,” but the film doesn’t lie. Wilson was a lost little boy out there at MetLife Stadium, and the fans let him know about it.
This process is going to take a toll on Wilson. The Jets might be lucky to go 5-12 this year, and frankly, as long as Wilson develops, that wouldn’t be the end of the world.
But rebuilding in football isn’t like rebuilding in most other sports. You get physically beaten up when you’re starting a program from scratch in the NFL, and Wilson will absorb as much punishment as anyone.
“Man, can you imagine being a quarterback, just being a piñata back there?” the Jets’ head coach, Robert Saleh, asked his defensive coordinator, Jeff Ulbrich, while watching film Monday.
It’s an awfully hard job, and only a dozen or so men on the planet can do it at an elite professional level. The job offers all kinds of fame and fortune for those who succeed in it, but it can also break a young athlete in half. Only time will tell which side of the divide Wilson will land on.
“He’s as talented, if not the most talented quarterback I’ve been on a team with, from arm talent to athletic ability to timing to all the things that he has,” said Ulbrich, who has spent 18 years in the league as a player and coach, with Matt Ryan as his most accomplished quarterback and co-worker. “And plus, he’s got this real authentic swagger and confidence about him.
“But he plays a position that is an absolute monster to start as a rookie. You look at the great quarterbacks of this league, they either struggled as rookies or they didn’t play as rookies, one or the other. I still have tremendous faith in him, as our team does, as the entire organization does. We understand he’s going to have some days that are rough and there’s going to be some bumps in the road. … It’s so necessary to go through these bumps to become the quarterback he needs to be.”
So necessary, and so painful too. Belichick has said a lot of complimentary things about Wilson’s arm strength, (“He can really zing it”), accuracy, quick release, and athleticism, but when breaking down the tape of the kid’s most ghastly interception — the virtual punt to Devin McCourty — with former Pats quarterback Scott Zolak, Belichick said, “I’m not really sure what Wilson was seeing here.”
Wilson wasn’t sure either, inspiring Saleh to ask him to occasionally embrace what the coach called a “boring” approach to his craft. Like everything else with a rookie, that’s easier said than done.
“When I signed up for this job to come here,” Wilson said, “I knew there was going to be adversity.”
But knowing it, and living it, are two entirely different things. Wilson is living it now, and starting to realize just how much this is going to hurt.