Despite the loss, Jets QB Zach Wilson showed his toughness in NFL debut

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Zach Wilson front view vs. Panthers
Zach Wilson front view vs. Panthers

The Jets knew Zach Wilson was tough. That was part of the equation when they decided to make him the second overall pick in the draft. They knew he had the physical ability to take a big hit and come up throwing, and the mental ability to bounce back when things went wrong.

“The same things he’s shown on his college tape,” said Jets coach Robert Saleh. “The kid’s been hit before. He took some shots today, obviously, but he got back up. He showed resolve. And he’s fearless, he really is.”

That’s great. It’ll serve him well, especially as a rookie.

But this season will go a heck of a lot better if his teammates would give him a little bit of support.

They sure didn’t on Sunday when Wilson’s debut turned into a 19-14 loss in Carolina. The lowlight, of course, was the beating he took behind his porous offensive line. He was sacked six times and hit 10 times, according to the official scoresheet, though it sure felt like more. And it would’ve been a lot more if Wilson wasn’t so good at avoiding pressure. The fact that he was, was the only reason the Jets were in this game at all.

The disaster around him was more than that, though. He had too many drops by his receivers – including two from rookie Elijah Moore and one from rookie running back Michael Carter. And the running game that was supposed to be the engine of this offense did absolutely nothing. Three running backs combined for 45 yards on 17 carries (yes, likely due in large part to that offensive line).

But despite all that, look what Wilson did: In his first NFL start, the kid from BYU completed 20 of 37 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns and somehow, miraculously, had just one interception. And that included a truly impressive, 13-for-20, 166-yard output in the second half.

Not only that, he nearly single-handedly dragged the Jets out of a 16-0 hole with two touchdown drives in the final 21 minutes of the game. He was actually 11 of 13 for 165 on those two drives, including an incredible 7 of 9 for 108 yards on the final drive that pulled the Jets within a touchdown with 1:56 to go.

The Jets didn’t get the ball back after that, but the way Wilson was playing it was clear they would’ve had a chance to win if they did. They certainly believed they would have had a good chance. In the end, they didn’t get the win, but seeing how Wilson played under ridiculously bad circumstances certainly gave his team a reason to believe.

“I believe we got a good one,” Saleh said.

“I tell you what,” added linebacker C.J. Mosley, “No. 2 is going to win a lot of games for us.”

They might be right. It sure looks like the Jets got a good one, even if he isn’t quite Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers or Dan Marino just yet. If he didn’t live up to the hype, it’s only because the hype was ridiculous. For a rookie in his first start, he looked good.

And he will win some games both for them and with them. But he just can’t do it all alone -- not as a rookie, not with a team this young. So it’s up to the Jets to look good around him, and not to crush his career with lack of support the way they did to Sam Darnold over the previous three seasons. They were so convinced they built a strong team around him, with what they thought was a strong line and dangerous weapons.

In this first game, though, it sure looked like they were wrong.

“Honestly, it was just a rough start. The first half was rough,” Corey Davis said. “We couldn’t really establish a run game, a pass game. It was rough for us. But we fought. The second half kind of looked a little better. But that’s not who we are. We’re a lot better team than that, and we know it.”

They better be. Otherwise they’re going to end up stunting the growth of their most important player, and the franchise’s most important commodity. And if they do that, if they all fail around him, this is going to turn out to be a very long, sad year.

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