The message from the Jets’ locker room came out in unison: They need to start faster if they want to win games. That was clearly the theme of the day and, they’re convinced, the key to saving their season.
But it’s really much more than that.
The Jets aren’t just starting bad this season. They’re playing bad, particularly on offense. And that’s especially true of their rookie quarterback, which is hardly a surprise. Rookie quarterbacks, as you may have heard, often struggle. And Zach Wilson is struggling. Forget his mediocre final numbers. He was just 13-of-23 for 122 yards with an interception when he got the ball back, down 10 points, with 2:19 remaining.
That’s not a slow start. That’s a bad game.
And the Jets just can’t let a couple of garbage-time drives in the first five games make them think they’re better than they are.
“We’re going to figure it out,” Wilson said on Sunday after the Jets’ 27-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in London. “We’re right there. We really feel like we’re right there as a team.”
Maybe they are, but the flip side of that is it’s equally possible they’re just a couple of plays away from being a complete disaster. They were down 20-3 at halftime to a Falcons team missing its top two receivers and had just 80 total yards of offense. Wilson was 5-of-13 for 42 yards and an interception when they went to the locker room. It was a completely pathetic display.
Was the second half better? Yes. But not as much as the Jets seem to think, especially on offense. It took a 65-yard kickoff return by Tevin Coleman to open the second half to set up the Jets’ easy first touchdown. And really, the Jets put together only one good drive – a four-play, 90-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. And even that one needed the help of a 41-yard defensive pass interference penalty at the goal line to set up the Jets’ score.
Heading into the fourth quarter, with the Jets down 10 points, Wilson was an ugly 10-of-19 for 65 yards and an interception. Yes, he went 9-of-13 for 127 yards in the fourth quarter, and that’s something to build on. But he was 6-of-9 for 70 of those yards in the final 2:19 when the Falcons defense was sitting back knowing the Jets would need a miracle to tie the game.
“Obviously we were able to move the ball down the field (then),” Wilson said. “It’s interesting, I feel like in those two [minute] drives the confidence for everybody is higher than ever.”
Well sure, because at that point, the defense is playing soft. Maybe they weren’t in the old “prevent defense,” but they surely were playing deeper in the hopes of preventing the really big plays. That gives a quarterback plenty of ways to gain confidence with mid-range throws underneath the coverage.
There’s a reason, though, that defense don’t play that way the entire game.
And when defenses are playing the regular way, Wilson has looked like a rookie – even though this time he got good protection from his offensive line. He missed some easy, wide-open passes. He made some bad decisions. He hesitated too often when it appeared he was looking down field.
None of that is unexpected. It just is what it is. And unfortunately, that big second half and overtime he had in the win over the Tennessee Titans a week ago is basically an outlier on this season. It’s really the only real good half of football that Wilson has had.
Yes, he was better in the second half of the opener too. And in general his second halves have been better than his first halves. But so much of that is because the Jets are forced to sit back and throw as they try to climb their way out of early holes. They’re not wrong that those slow starts are killing them slowly.
But it’s not going to matter if Wilson and the offense don’t start playing better overall.
“We couldn’t get into a rhythm,” said Jets head coach Robert Saleh. “When (Wilson) did get into a rhythm in the second half, obviously he showed he can be pretty good when he gets into a rhythm. But again, we’ve got to start faster and I’m putting that on me to try to figure this out over the next week.”
That, actually, might be the most important part of these slow starts – that Wilson and the offense take too long to get into a rhythm. Maybe if they did get off to a better start, he’d end up playing better the rest of the game, too.
But it’s not as if he looks like a rookie in the first halves and magically transforms into a Pro Bowler in the third quarter. He looks a lot like a rookie from the start to finish in most games. As a result, the offense struggles. It starts slowly and never really moves much faster.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Wilson said. “I think we showed it at the end.”
Maybe he’s right, but it’s hard not to think of the final 2:19 as garbage time and fool’s gold that serves only to hide some of the Jets’ offensive problems. Wilson’s season hasn’t really been all about slow starts and strong finishes.
What it’s mostly been is a very slow start to his career.