There are times in a season which seem like inflection points. The whole arc of the season seems to hinge on a single game. Perhaps it is a mirage: a narrative retrofitted to the situation after the fact.
There is no way to know whether the New York Jets’ victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers will eventually be perceived as an inflection point. Perhaps one day we will tell stories about how the entire fortunes of this woebegone franchise began to turn on a cloudy day in Pittsburgh. Or perhaps we will forget this game almost as soon as the buzz wears off, as the Jets sink back into mediocrity and the season spirals downward to oblivion. There is no way to know for sure right now. But the game we saw today sure seemed like a decent candidate to begin to turn the tide.
In Cleveland the Jets needed a miracle of a lifetime to get the victory. It felt gratifying, but it also felt lucky. Like the team didn’t quite deserve it, but they were gifted it by the football deities, and by a franchise in the Browns with an equally sorry history.
In Pittsburgh it felt different. The Jets earned this victory. They deserved to win. And perhaps the most deserving player on the Jets was the teams’ young quarterback. If the Jets are to finally change their stars, Zach Wilson will need to become a star. Perhaps today was the first step on that journey.
Zach Wilson wasn’t perfect. Far from it. In fact, for roughly the final 5 and a half minutes of the second quarter, Wilson was downright bad.
Wilson badly missed a wide open Breece Hall, who had gotten behind the defense and may have scored on a good throw, on a deep throw off a rollout. He then was almost intercepted (and rightfully should have been) on a terrible third down pass that fell incomplete.
A few minutes later Wilson threw another dangerous pass into double coverage to Michael Carter that fell incomplete. Wilson then fumbled the ball on a lateral from Carter in what was nearly a disastrous turnover. Finally, after getting the Jets into position for a field goal to end the half and take a 10 point lead into the locker room, Wilson airmailed a pass well out of reach for Jeff Smith and into the waiting arms of a Steelers cornerback. That led to a last gasp 59 yard field goal as time expired to get the Steelers within four points at halftime when the Jets should have had a 10 point lead.
That was a very bad 5+ minute stretch for Zach Wilson.
But I don’t want to belabor the negatives. The Jets won, and Zach Wilson was the most important ingredient in that win, so let’s talk about the positives.
We saw today how valuable the mobility of Zach Wilson can be. It wasn’t about running for yards, although Wilson did a little of that. It was about escaping the rush and buying time when a makeshift line gave him very little. Joe Flacco couldn’t do that. Zach Wilson can, and when, like most of the game today, he doesn’t negate that with bad decisions, that is a very valuable commodity in this league.
Joe Flacco was averaging 300+ passing yards per game coming into this game, but those yards were like calories from sugary treats: empty. There was a noticeable lack of big plays with Flacco under center, as he constantly took the checkdowns. It is very difficult to score consistently in the NFL without big plays. Long, double digit play, clock eating drives are fun, but it’s very difficult to consistently manage those without a negative play grinding things to a halt. Chunk plays get the job done. Teams who make chunk plays score much more often. Zach Wilson was getting chunk plays all over the place today, and it was a sight sorely missed in his absence.
One of Zach Wilson’s bugaboos from a year ago was his accuracy and ball placement. He not only missed badly on some throws, he put the ball in bad places for his receivers repeatedly, making the receivers’ jobs much more difficult than necessary. Wilson today still had a few passes that badly missed. But he was generally more accurate than a year ago, and his ball placement was often superb. Gone were the drops generated off of errant passes that made things difficult for receivers. Oh, there were plenty of drops today, but they weren’t being made more difficult by Wilson’s ball placement. Wilson in general put the ball where it should be, and at times, he put the ball in tight windows the only place he could get a completion. It was fun to watch.
The Jets started three drives today backed up at their 11 yard line or deeper. Those are dangerous possessions. A three and out there generates a punt that gives the opponent excellent field position near midfield, and an easy distance away from scoring range. Gaining some territory, even if you don’t score on those possessions, is extremely important. Every time the Jets were backed up against their own goal line today, they managed to progress past their own 30 yard line and out of dangerous territory. Wilson hit several key passes to make that happen. It may not show up on the scoreboard as points for the Jets, but those possessions were instrumental in keeping the Steelers’ offense in check.
COOL IN THE CLUTCH
With the Jets trailing by two scores in the fourth quarter, Zach Wilson led them downfield for a long touchdown drive. When the Jets bogged down at the goal line, going backwards from the one yard line for a first and goal at the eleven, it didn’t phase Wilson at all. He calmly stuck the ball in the endzone on a strike to Corey Davis. When the Jets managed to get the ball back, he did it again, leading the Jets to the game winning touchdown. In those last two drives, with the game on the line, Zach Wilson was near perfect. He hit five of five passes, coming through in clutch situations time and again.
STATS CAN BE MISLEADING
Zach Wilson finished the game 18 of 36 for 252 yards, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a fumble. Those statistics look pedestrian. Over long time frames statistics tend to tell the story of a player’s career in fairly accurate terms. But statistics can in some individual games be misleading. Zach Wilson wasn’t perfect in this game. But he wasn’t pedestrian either. Under heavy duress for most of the game behind a makeshift offensive line, with his receivers dropping pass after pass, Zach Wilson stood tall when it mattered the most. It wasn’t perfect, but it sure as heck was something to build on.
Will the Jets take this victory and run with it? Who knows? The road only gets tougher from here. Perhaps this will be just a drop of joy making a fleeting splash and then disappearing into an ocean of misery. Perhaps. But somehow this one feels different. This one feels like maybe, just maybe, a star is sending out its first light into the universe as it hits ignition. Maybe, if we’re lucky, the Jets are in the process of finally finding a quarterback. If there is to be an inflection point, if the Jets are ever going to change their narrative, maybe today’s victory was ExZachly what we need.