CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you are still trying to determine how to feel about Zach Wilson’s big-league debut, here is a little tip: Remember the crushing hit he absorbed late in the game and forget everything else.
Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos weigh in at a combined 585 pounds, and when they charged up the middle and pancaked the Jets’ 214-pound quarterback, the rookie could have stayed down for the count.
The kid could have even cried for his mother.
“I didn’t think he was going to get up,” Carolina coach Matt Rhule said.
Nor did a stadium full of people watching.
“I feel like I got hit by a truck for a second,” Wilson said.
The back of his helmet slammed into the field. The Panthers’ sixth and final sack left the rookie with a sore neck and, in his words, “a little bit of whiplash.” Flat on his back, the wind knocked out of him, Wilson was pulled to his feet by a teammate.
He seemed a bit wobbly, yet stepped into his next throw, a crossing route to Corey Davis for 12 yards to the Carolina 8-yard line. On the subsequent play, the first snap after the two-minute warning, Wilson fired a strike to the right corner of the end zone, before Davis even broke for the pylon, and hit him for his second touchdown pass in what would be a 19-14 defeat.
“When you have a guy like that,” Rhule said, “you sense his moxie. He’s only going to get better and better and better.”
In other words, the kid is going to be all right.
Sure, the quarterback Wilson replaced, Sam Darnold, outplayed him at home as expected. Darnold has three years of NFL experience behind him and one of the best playmakers in the world, Christian McCaffrey, by his side.
But in the end, despite the Zach vs. Sam hype, this opener wasn’t about Wilson trying to prove that the Jets made the right decision when they traded away Darnold. It was about Wilson taking his first step toward the kind of greatness required to lead the Jets to their first Super Bowl title 53 years and counting. In that context, Sunday was actually a smash hit.
How should you judge Wilson’s final 20-for-37 line that included 258 passing yards, two touchdowns, one ghastly interception, those six sacks, and one cocky, high-stepping gallop into the end zone for a two-point conversion?
For context, given that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers threw a combined 19 passes as rookies, Peyton Manning stands as a good comparable. Manning started Week 1 in his rookie year, 1998, and debuted with a gruesome face plant against Miami, taking four sacks and throwing three interceptions, including a late pick-six that sealed the Colts’ fate.
After the game, Manning discovered that his father was caught by TV cameras in the stands wincing and shaking his head over his son’s mistakes, and told him, “It’s bad enough out there, and I don’t need to see you reacting like that.”
Nobody who cares about the Jets should’ve been shaking his or her head over Wilson today. What if the offensive line had given the quarterback a fighting chance in the first half? What if Elijah Moore had proved that NFL evaluators got it wrong when they let him slip into the second round by hauling in Wilson’s long third-down pass — a very catchable ball — near the end of the first quarter? What if McCaffrey played for the Jets instead of the Panthers?
What if?…What if?…What if?
“Zach’s gonna play better with a little help from his friends,” Joe Namath tweeted at halftime.
He got a little more help in the second half, not much. Wilson showed special escapability, making untouched pass rushers miss, and threw a beautiful ball on the run for his first NFL touchdown, a 22-yarder to Davis that was spoiled some by the knee injury Mekhi Becton suffered on the play.
More than anything, Wilson showed the toughness that separates elite quarterbacks from the above-average ones.
“Same thing he showed on his college tape,” said Jets coach Robert Saleh, who called the kid fearless.
“The resilience he showed was phenomenal,” said center Connor McGovern.
“No. 2 is going to win a lot of games for us,” said linebacker C.J. Mosley. “For him to stick in the pocket and make those plays and take those licks that he did in his first game, I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
The Panthers thought so much of Wilson that they tried messing with his head, dressing up their linebackers in single-digit jerseys. It probably wasn’t necessary. Wilson was already confronting enough forbidding obstacles to make a victory here a remote possibility.
But at least the rookie found a way to win while losing. “He’s really tough,” Rhule said.
And that’s the best reason to believe that Zach Wilson is going to be really, really good.