Zach Wilson lifted his arm toward the sky as the Titans’ field-goal attempt sailed wide left, then offered a couple of simple fist pumps for punctuation. If everything goes according to plan, this scene will mark a historic Jets moment. This will be the day that Wilson arrived as a winning franchise player for an organization that has wasted so much time trying to find one.
Of course, to a Jets fan, the words if everything goes according to plan represent one hell of a qualifier. When does that ever happen with this team on Sunday afternoons? But lo and behold, it happened on this day inside MetLife Stadium, where the No. 2-overall draft pick earned his first career victory before the No. 1-overall draft pick, Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence, could say the same.
As it turned out, this 27-24 overtime victory over Tennessee could have ended in defeat, or even in a tie, and it still would have gone down as a big day for the home team. The 2021 season is a 17-game development camp for Wilson, and after appearing hopelessly overmatched at the start of the year, the all-world player on that BYU tape finally showed up in the flesh, hitting some home runs, throwing a couple of fourth-quarter touchdown passes, and showing enough poise to overcome potentially lethal mistakes.
You can make the argument that Wilson did all this against a substandard defense, and that the Jets merely beat a team missing its two star receivers (Julio Jones and A.J. Brown) and relying solely on Derrick Henry’s superhuman strength. But then again, the Titans went 11-5 last year, and advanced to the AFC Championship game the year before that, after beating Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on the road all but securing Sunday night’s surreal scene in Foxborough.
Tennessee was a legitimate opponent, and after the first three games, it was awfully hard to see the Jets beating one of those.
At last, the Jets came to play in Week 4. They looked like an honest-to-God NFL team. They completed long passes and they scored points and they sacked the other team’s quarterback. The Jets accomplished the things that nearly every other team in the league had accomplished at least once over the first three weeks.
Wilson made it all possible. In the third quarter, on the run to his right, the rookie fired the ball 54 yards to Keelan Cole without bothering to stop and plant his foot. In the fourth, down seven points, Wilson fumbled the snap, scooped up the loose ball, and showed enough composure to find Jamison Crowder for 29 yards to the Titans’ 5. He hit Crowder for a touchdown two snaps later, finishing off a tying 77-yard drive in four plays.
Wilson’s signature throw came on the next possession, when he rolled right, waved for Corey Davis to go deep down the field — just like any kid would do it in backyard ball — and let it rip for 56.8 air yards and a 53-yard go-ahead score. Greg Van Roten, who had rebuked Wilson after the Denver loss for holding onto the ball too long, lifted his quarterback high in the air.
As exhilarating as the day was, this was no exercise in flawless execution. Wilson had a couple of chances to put away the Titans, and failed to close the deal. In overtime he had a short pass in the right flat to Ryan Griffin that would have resulted in a walk-off victory, if only Wilson could’ve just hit his tight end anywhere near the numbers. Instead the rookie made a rookie throw, toward Griffin’s shoelaces. The kid compounded that mistake on third-and-goal at the Titans’ 1 by running right into a brick wall, losing 3 yards, and forcing his rookie coach, Robert Saleh, to settle for the field goal rather than going for the winning touchdown.
“I was beating myself up on that last drive,” Wilson said.
The defense had his back. Javelin Guidry made a game-saving open-field tackle on Henry, and the Titans ultimately tried a 49-yard field goal for the tie that sailed into a wild Jets celebration that saw Saleh get doused.
“You having fun yet?” the coach asked a quarterback who was good for 297 yards.
Yes, Zach Wilson was having a lot of fun.
“He could have easily went back in a hole and went downhill,” said linebacker C.J. Mosley. “But he stayed with it.”
A roller-coaster player, Wilson called this “a roller-coaster game.” Saleh wants him to play boring football, but in the end, winning is never boring. The Jets’ franchise player-to-be finally brought his BYU game to the NFL, and everyone wearing green had a blast.