“It’s ok to play a boring game of football.”
Those were the words of Jets head coach Robert Saleh about his quarterback after the team’s Week 2 loss to the Patriots. That game was a nightmare for Zach Wilson who threw four interceptions in his regular season debut in front of his home fans.
In his next home game two weeks later against the Tennessee Titans, Wilson led the Jets to an overtime victory. He quarterbacked a Jets offense that entered the game averaging less than 7 points per game to a 27 point outburst.
Wilson’s performance was anything but boring against Tennessee. In fact the three completions that traveled the longest distance in the air all had something in common. The plays weren’t executed the way the Jets drew them up.
A 54 yard completion to Keelan Cole late in the third quarter seemed to spark a dormant offense.
On the play the Titans were showing a blitz. Wilson thinks he has his first read, Corey Davis on a slant. Against off coverage, it should be there.
However, the presnap look was a disguise. A presumed blitzer drops into coverage and undercuts the slant forcing Wilson to hold the ball.
Zach then leaves a pretty clean pocket to move to his right.
Keelan Cole who had been running an out sees Wilson break the pocket. This causes him to break his route and run up the field.
Zach goes on to hit Cole for a 54 yard gain.
On the next Jets series the team is driving, but there is a botched center-quarterback exchange leading to a fumble. It seems like a disaster, and many Titans move to the ball, disregarding their assignments. Among them was the deep middle safety.
It’s difficult to say exactly what the coverage was here, but it’s clear based on his positioning that the defender covering Jamison Crowder was expecting help if Crowder broke inside. Because the safety is out of position, Crowder is able to break that way freely between the two defenders.
Wilson is able to pick up the ball, maintain his composure, and find Crowder. The fumble actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise.
The Jets scored later in that drive. The next time they got the ball, the play call was a bootleg with Wilson moving to his right. This is most likely a three level read with a deep route, and a pair of routes running to the sideline at different depths.
Corey Davis is coming across the field, but he likely isn’t a part of this read.
On this play the deep middle safety thinks he has things figured out and vacates his area to follow the deeper crossing receiver in coverage.
Because the safety has again vacated the deep part of the field, there is an opening. Wilson sees Davis and points for him to break off his route and go deep.
Davis does just that.
Wilson hits him for a touchdown.
These are three big plays all created by what you might call “schoolyard” football. None of them could be called boring.
Ironically Wilson’s ability to create outside the structure of a play reminds me a bit of something I mentioned that encouraged me when scouting Justin Fields earlier this year. When talking about Fields’ rushing skills I said the following.
I think his ability as a runner is the kind of thing that can sustain Fields as he develops.
When we talk about young quarterbacks I think we sometimes forget the emotional side of things. Failure can be overwhelming. It can be difficult to survive if you experience nothing else. People like to opine about a quarterback not being tough enough to survive, and to be certain you need a level of toughness to be willing to shake off failure.
No quarterback is capable of surviving if the failures come too frequently. For the moments all young quarterbacks experience feeling lost, the ability to make positive plays with your legs can come in handy.
Right now Zach Wilson is seeing multiple defensive looks each week for the first time in his life. He’s inconsistent sitting in the pocket trying to read a defense. That’s because every rookie is. Playing this early in a career is overwhelming for practically every quarterback this young. Patrick Mahomes has stated he didn’t really know how to read a defense until he was halfway through his third season as a pro and second as a starter. He won an MVP during this period that preceded him knowing how to read a defense. It was primarily based on his playmaking ability and the best offensive infrastructure in the game.
The Jets’ infrastructure on offense isn’t as good as Kansas City’s. Wilson probably won’t ever be the same level of playmaker as Mahomes. But this ability to make things happen outside of the play structure can help compensate for some failures to read a defense while he’s figuring out the final points of NFL quarterback play. A 30 yard completion on a broken play makes up for a lot of incompletions against complex coverages. I’m not sure the Jets will design many plays where they intentionally fumble the snap, but that first 54 yard completion to Cole shows how Zach can still make things happen and beat a defense even when he gets fooled.
Only the team knows what happened in the preparation for the Denver game, but Saleh’s words stuck with me. I thought we saw a very tentative Wilson in that game. I saw Wilson repeatedly double clutch the ball instead of firing it when he had a window. I outlined some of those plays when I broke down the sacks last week.
Wilson’s first interception of the Denver game also came when he hesitated. He saw Corey Davis here.
You can see for yourself the delay in the throw. Look how much closer the defender is to Davis by the time Wilson throws the ball.
The pass was eventually intercepted.
I remember the first time my dad took me out when I was learning how to drive. I was on this two lane local road near our house. I was trying to move into the left lane and had my turn signal on. I wasn’t sure whether the car in the left lane was going to pass me so I waited for like five seconds. The car eventually did pass. When we got home my dad talked about it. He told me that while it was dangerous to recklessly fly from lane to lane without looking, it was also dangerous to be indecisive on the road. If I waited five seconds some car might think I wasn’t going to shift lanes and try to pass me. If that’s the point I decided to move there would be trouble.
I think of playing quarterback in the same terms. You certainly don’t want to throw the ball to blanketed receivers the way Zach did against the Patriots. At the same time I think there’s a perception that taking an extra split second to figure things out is “safer” and perhaps even “boring.” The truth is opportunities close quickly in the NFL after the ball is snapped. Hesitating is just as reckless.
I think there’s also a perception that to cut down on mistakes, shorter and less risky passes are a good idea for rookie quarterbacks. Through the years we have seen many Jets offensive coordinators get very conservative after a young quarterback has a bunch of turnovers in a game.
Although Denver’s downfield coverage and pass rush certainly played a role in it, the Jets passing offense got awfully conservative in that Week 3 game. You can see it here. Zach only attempted four passes all game that went further than 15 yards in the air. (Courtesy of NextGen Stats)
The Jets’ most productive drive in that game last 7:00 and lasted 12 plays. It only gained 32 yards, however, and did not produce any points. It’s very difficult to succeed playing this way in the NFL. There are only so many times you can gain 2 to 3 yards at a time. Eventually somebody is going to make a mistake on offense to stall the drive. There have to be big plays made if you want to put up points.
It isn’t an accident that a more aggressive passing attack produced far better offensive results.
It’s easy to speak in generalities about quarterback play saying, “I’d rather have a quarterback who plays it safe,” after games where there are lots of mistakes, or, “I want somebody willing to take risks to hit the big play,” after a listless offensive performance.
The truth is there has to be some balance. It isn’t as easy as telling a quarterback to never take chances or always throw it down the field. If it was, more teams would have a good quarterback.
You certainly don’t want to see another reckless Wilson performance like New England again, but a fear of bad plays can’t take all of the aggressiveness away. One of the biggest reasons Wilson went second overall was his ability to make plays.
And some of this goes back to the quarterback himself. Hopefully one day he will be able to sit in the pocket and pick apart any defense he sees. For now he can use that playmaking ability to break outside the pocket and create when he’s confused. It certainly beats hesitating and throwing late.
It’s difficult to design plays for a quarterback to succeed outside of their structure. The very notion itself is contradictory. To the extent the coaching staff can help, getting Wilson on the move frequently by design can help produce some of these big results. It simplifies the reads and manipulates the defense. That’s exactly how the broken play Davis touchdown came into existence.
Boring quarterback play is fine in small doses, but Zach Wilson can’t forget to bring some exciting plays to the table. Schoolyard football just delivered the Jets their first win.