FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Zach Wilson was in the middle of the locker room Thursday talking about relieving injured Aaron Rodgers when a teammate yelled and made the New York Jets quarterback smile.
“Zach, we love you, brother!”
It was a light moment, but revealing.
Wilson struggled greatly during his first two seasons in the NFL and his confidence took a big hit, as did his popularity in the locker room. He was benched twice last season and his playing future – particularly with the Jets – was uncertain when New York acquired Rodgers in April. The No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft was no longer the face of the franchise.
But Wilson insisted he would absorb as much football knowledge as possible from the sidelines and learn from Rodgers, a four-time NFL MVP and former Super Bowl winner. He found himself in the lineup after just four snaps with Rodgers out for the season with a torn left Achilles tendon suffered in the Jets’ season-opening overtime win over Buffalo.
Suddenly, the spotlight returned to Zach.
“One step at a time, one game at a time,” Wilson said. “And I think it’s trusting the guys around me.”
Wilson had a rough time Monday night when he replaced Rodgers, finishing 14 of 21 for 140 yards and a touchdown with an interception. But he was also capable of playing under pressure, and the short passes to get out of trouble – which was such a problem last season – were there too.
All of this, from the Jets’ perspective, is progress.
“I’ll tell you, my respect for him is off the charts,” said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, in his first season with the Jets. “For a guy who doesn’t have any training to come out there and execute like he did, it’s so awesome to see.”
Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich knew Wilson would be fine when he looked across the locker room at halftime against the Bills.
“There was a really cool moment,” Ulbrich said, “where I saw the talented guys wrap their arms around Zach and lift him up.”
It almost feels like after all the beating Wilson has taken, on and off the field, the Jets are doing everything they can to make sure he knows they’re behind him.
“I think when he came in, he had a nice swagger,” center Connor McGovern said. “I think he lost his mind a little bit along the way. And it’s back. It’s back and better than ever. The way he carries himself in the locker room and in the building is awesome.
Wilson feels it in himself too.
“A lot of confidence, man,” he said. “I really believe in myself and I think this is the first step to getting into the NFL. You have to believe in yourself first and the rest can take care of itself.
Wilson said he was having more fun than ever. And having Rodgers around him “absolutely” has made him better in the five months they’ve been teammates.
“I feel like I tried to copy everything he does, from his footwork to the coaching advice he gave us,” Wilson said.
But Hackett and coach Robert Saleh have made it clear they don’t need Wilson to be Rodgers. They need Wilson to be a better version of Wilson — the one they’ve seen all spring and summer — starting Sunday against the Cowboys’ stout defense in Dallas.
Many Jets fans remain skeptical that Wilson will make enough progress to replace a team that had Super Bowl hopes with Rodgers.
“For me, it’s that I know what I’m capable of,” Wilson said, adding that he doesn’t listen to outside noise. “And I feel like I have the trust of the guys in this locker room.”
However, there could potentially be some déjà vu for his teammates if he struggles a little in matches.
“It’s the past. This is the future,” Hackett said. “He’s a guy who trained hard, learned a new system and grew within it. I think everyone can say they’ve seen him grow and that’s all we can do every game.
“There are going to be ups and downs with all the quarterbacks and with all the players, especially the young players. There will always be questions. For me, as a coach, I just want to continue to teach him. I just want him to feel more and more comfortable and continue to grow.
While Saleh said the Jets were considering signing another quarterback to back up Wilson alongside Tim Boyle, the coach insisted it wouldn’t be someone who would compete for the starting job.
The Jets want Wilson to play freely, knowing the team is his — again — and he doesn’t need to look over his shoulder.
“It’s good to know he has a lot of confidence in me,” Wilson said. “As a quarterback, when you step in and you feel the confidence of the guys around you, it makes you want to go out there and do whatever you can for them.”
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