MIAMI — Zach Wilson’s first nine games have delivered a roller coaster of emotions for Jets fans.
The electric playmaking explosion against the Titans in Week 4 brought overwhelming joy to Gang Green nation. The four-interception debacle against the Patriots in his second career start caused fans to bury their faces in agony. Games against the Falcons and Broncos left folks indifferent.
Then Wilson suffered a knee injury in the Week 7 rematch against New England that sidelined the rookie quarterback for four games.
In his return to action these last three weeks, the only noticeable area of improvement for the former BYU star is in his interception rate. He threw nine in his first six starts, but just two since his Week 12 return against the Texans.
But the constant theme is indecision.
“I just need to play loose and not try and be such a perfect pocket passing quarterback all the time,” Wilson said Thursday in trying to shed light on the mental war he’s currently battling. “That’s the biggest thing, I’m just trying to do so right by the coaches and what they’re asking me to do and a part of it I need to just be loose and play free and obviously play within the offense but just react and throw the ball like I’ve always known how to throw the ball and that’s what’s so cool about these next games. Even what we’ve gone through, it’s been the struggles of it all but I feel like you got to kind of go through all that to pull the good stuff from it.”
Wilson must play with a free mind against the Miami Dolphins (6-7) and react naturally.
A lot of his issues have revolved around overthinking and not trusting his eyes, a consistent issue for the 22-year-old signal-caller.
The conflict starts with his preferred playing style vs. the Jets’ offensive system.
Wilson excelled in college when he played a backyard style of football and created dynamic plays outside of the structure of the offense. Fans witnessed it against the Titans in the 27-24 upset for his first career win on the 50 plus yard throws to Keelan Cole and Corey Davis.
It’s the style of play that shot him up the draft boards all the way to the No. 2 overall pick in April.
But the Jets offense is timing-based where throws must be executed within the rhythm of the play. He takes an educated guess on what defensive coverage a team presents pre-snap, then tries to dissect the defense quickly based on what they show post-snap.
The quick part hasn’t happened fast enough for the rookie.
When Wilson’s first read isn’t open, he often panics, gets happy feet and rushes his throws. Other times, he’ll scramble out of clean pockets. There are also moments when he’ll hold the ball because he’s stuck on a receiver instead of moving through his progression.
When he plays within the structure and rhythm of the offense and gets the ball out in 2.5 seconds or less, he’s efficient. He’s completed 73% of passes for three touchdowns and a passer rating of 95, according to Next Gen Stats.
However, he isn’t executing the quick game often enough. He has the seventh-fewest attempts with 102. To be fair, he did miss four games. But only 35% of his dropbacks are through a quick passing attack.
Once Wilson starts hanging on to the ball too long, it all falls apart.
On passes between 2.5 and 4 seconds, he’s completing just 52% of his throws with one touchdown and nine of his interceptions. And when Wilson reverts to scrambling when the initial read isn’t there, he completes just 25% of his attempts.
It’s a conflicting issue for Wilson because his natural style of play that he came into the NFL with isn’t working, but the new style he isn’t used to — and is trying to get comfortable with — does work when he executes it correctly. It just hasn’t happened often enough which is why the Jets are just 2-7 in games he starts.
Even the signal-callers who specialize in off-script magic like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers obliterate defenses in structure. That’s what Jets head coach Robert Saleh is trying to teach his young QB.
“There’s a balance, and it goes back to the whole Superman thing I’ve been talking about,” Saleh said. “There’s great respect to the timing of a play. When you’re talking about just, talking about the timing of the play where the ball has got to get out in rhythm, third down, two minute, ball’s getting in and out of your hands, those are ultimately when plays are made.”
However, Saleh believes it’s only a matter of time until Wilson unlocks the juggling act.
“And I do think in time, with reps, he’s going to find that,” Saleh said. “Just play loose, don’t overthink it, go through the timing of the play, when you feel the timing is off, go make something happen, and I think he got a little bit closer last week.”
Can Wilson show some growth in his mental aptitude against a Dolphins defense that is rolling?
The Jets need it. In the Dolphins’ five-game winning streak, offenses are only scoring 11 points per game.
Wilson will get crushed if he displays his usual indecisiveness against Miami. The Dolphins blitz on an NFL-high 40% of their defensive snaps. He must fire passes to receivers quickly to avoid turning into a pinata.
The responsibility doesn’t fall solely on Wilson, though, to overcome the heat. It starts with Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur needing to create advantageous situations for his rookie against the heavy blitzing Dolphins. The offensive line communication better be on point. The tight ends and running backs must pick up blocks. The receivers must shake free from man coverage.
But as Wilson’s teammates handle their jobs, the rookie QB can’t be indecisive.
“For Zach, again, not over-analyzing anything, just take whatever play is called, the good, the bad, whatever, don’t make a bad play worse and just live in that moment and don’t overthink it and go through your progression,” LaFleur said. “If it’s there, rip it. Just like we said, getting the eyes in the right spot and at the right time is going to be critical.”
It’s time for Zach to play loose and just let it rip.