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Pre-Snap Read: Benching Zach Wilson Is Delicate, Necessary

Zach Wilson Detroit Lions
Nov 20, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) on the field against the New England Patriots in the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

If your team doesn’t have one of the top five or six quarterbacks in the league, on any given Sunday – or every Sunday if your team has one of the bottom five or six – you might be visited (haunted?) by the thought, “Is this really the guy we want?”

With a good body of work in the rearview mirror and the playoff push under way, that type of talk seemed to ramp up Sunday, and is still hanging around, with the poster example being Zach Wilson and the New York Jets.

The good news about being in the playoff race in late November is everything matters more, and everyone is watching. The bad news about being in the playoff race in late November is everything matters more, and everyone is watching.

The Jets’ passing game, and Zach Wilson in particular, struggled mightily in a 10-3 loss to the Patriots. And when you start the game at 6-3 with Bill Belichick’s 5-4 Patriots on the opposite sideline, it’s front-and-center material for all to see. And evaluate. Had Wilson and the passing game been below average, or just plain poor, the Jets would have won. But they couldn’t survive his 9-of-22, 77-yard performance, and couldn’t sniff a touchdown with his 4-of-11, 12-yard performance in the second half.

The Jets’ running game was also unacceptable (59 yards on 2 yards per carry), and that needs to be acknowledged. That kind of running is a losing formula nearly every single time, and that part of the Jets’ offense missed a chance to save the day.

But Wilson is the story here, and while Sunday’s performance was the low point, it unfortunately wasn’t that off-brand. The Jets have found ways to win more often than lose in spite of a sputtering offense and at times non-existent passing game. They are the only team in the AFC East averaging below 20 points per game, and in this stretch where they’ve lost two out of three, they’ve scored the fewest points (40) in the NFL. Many are part of the problem, but Wilson sits at the head of that table.

It’s all the more frustrating because the defense is top-10 level, and the overall competitive energy of the team is terrific. It needs a passing game and a quarterback that doesn’t tap the brakes on progress, and potentially slam the brakes on the playoffs.

The Jets would be better off giving the ball to Joe Flacco the rest of the season. Two reasons: One, he’s much more likely to raise the level of the passing offense from the F level we saw in Foxboro, and the D levels we’ve seen too often, into the C range, which would allow this defensive-led team to make a strong push for the postseason. I wouldn’t expect a Wilson-to-Flacco change to give the Jets what we’d call a strong NFL passing attack, but it would allow them to elevate to average for the next few weeks, and their playoff run can continue.

And two, in addition to being best for the team’s chances to win right now, it could very well serve Wilson well in the future. Watching a few games from the sideline takes on different meaning once a quarterback has a good amount of starting experience under his belt. He’ll see more, notice more, recognize more because of the games he’s just played. The part of a young quarterback’s mental and emotional makeup that makes him capable of learning from the sidelines is switched “on” once he’s had some game-day success and failures of his own. It’s fertile ground.

I find this potential especially ripe when I notice what seems to be ailing him the most: indecision. Wilson doesn’t lack talent; he’s actually got a whole lot of it. But right now,  he’s lacking conviction. He looks unsure in that all-important moment quarterbacks are presented with throughout a game where the ball needs to come out. I think that’s mostly a vision thing, but the uncertainty he’s feeling has invited footwork and balance issues as well, both of which often look out of sync at the top of his drop.

And while there’s no guarantee that a stint on the bench will cure that, he just may see it better in his next run of games if he’s allowed to exhale, take his experience to the sidelines, and watch a veteran do it better. The young QB with some dirt on his spikes has a better chance to absorb and apply than the one who hasn’t played.

There’s another potential problem brewing, one of leadership, and our Rick Spielman pointed that out on Sunday. After the Jets’ loss at New England, Wilson was asked if he thought he let the defense down, considering New York didn’t allow a touchdown but still lost. His response was “No, no.”

Rick was correct to go right to the reality that in tough times quarterbacks, coaches and general managers err on the side of taking responsibility. Always. That unwritten truth as it applies to Wilson right now makes me think of the relationship – and rivalry – between the offense and a defense. In most buildings it’s playful, friendly, and mostly supportive. Like siblings. But it can also turn in a hurry, and this combination of a defense way outperforming the offense, and a young quarterback not only struggling on the field but whiffing at the post-game podium, has the potential to turn what’s an inevitably tense dynamic into a highly flammable one.

If the Jets think Wilson has the mettle to respond to Sunday’s outing with confidence and production, staying with him right now could prove to be a moment that advances his clout and leadership and swagger like nothing else would. But if there’s more of the same ahead, regarding performance and leadership, these next few weeks could do significant harm to a talented young kid they’d like to lead the franchise for the next decade.

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