Jets’ Zach Wilson playing versus Giants a balance of risk and reward

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When you think of the history of these Jets-Giants preseason games, old-timers will immediately flash back to Joe Namath and the Super Bowl III Jets humiliating the Establishment NFL Giants, 37-14, at the Yale Bowl to earn NYC bragging rights. 

Giants fans undoubtedly prefer to talk about the night an undrafted free agent named Victor Cruz caught three touchdown passes and made the team against all odds. 

But Jets-Giants has also given us ugly reminders us that a preseason game can be a curse for the quarterback more than a blessing. 

The decision by Giants coach Joe Judge not to play Daniel Jones in Saturday night’s Jets-Giants preseason game was based on getting backup QB Mike Glennon up to speed. Jones will likely play at least one half with the starters on Aug. 29 against the Patriots. 

Jets coach Robert Saleh had more of an urgency to get Zach Wilson, his rookie franchise quarterback and opening day starter, as much game experience as he deemed sufficient as quickly as possible. 

And the coach kept his fingers crossed that the perils of preseason past wouldn’t lay a glove on the franchise’s latest would-be savior. 

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson
Bill Kostroun/New York Post

It was the summer of 2003, a year after Chad Pennington had taken the torch from Vinny Testaverde and led the Jets to a division title and a 41-0 playoff win over Peyton Manning’s Colts, less than two minutes left in the first half. 

“We ran a blitz … I came up the middle untouched,” Giants linebacker Brandon Short said afterward. “Chad rolled to his right. I must have grabbed his legs right as he threw the ball, and he fell down on his arms and was just lying there. 

“I asked him if he was all right, and he just kept lying there until the trainers came out. It’s unfortunate to see someone go down like that.” 

There were fears Pennington would miss the entire season, but successful surgery on his dislocated and fractured left wrist allowed him to return after the first six weeks. 

There were gasps in the second quarter of the Jets-Giants 2010 preseason Cruz game when a busted play saw Eli Manning run into running back Brandon Jacobs, endure a hit from Calvin Pace on which his helmet went flying and fell forward and hit the facemask of Jim Leonhard. Squeamish fans at the inaugural game at new Meadowlands Stadium recoiled in horror at the sight of blood trickling down from a 3-inch forehead laceration that required 12 stitches. 

“I feel fine, I feel normal,” Manning said. “The play was my fault. We had a run play with an option to throw a fade that I thought I might try, but Brandon was coming right up the middle. Sometimes you make a mistake and you get hit in the head. It’s preseason. You learn from it. I’ll be back as soon as I can. It’s not really an injury. Nothing serious. I feel like I could go back out and play right now if I had to.” 

Then there was the Mark Sanchez fiasco in 2013 when then-head coach Rex Ryan inexcusably played his one-time starter behind the third-string offensive line in the fourth quarter against the Giants. Sanchez was battling Geno Smith, the second-round pick that year who had thrown three interceptions in the game, for the starting job, when Giants defensive tackle Marvin Austin drilled him, then expressed surprise afterward that Sanchez was playing. 

“Yeah, I mean, they got a huge investment in him. So I was a little surprised,” Austin said. “I just knew that I gotta go out there and hit him. I gotta go out there and perform and show ’em that I can play in this league. Who better to do it against than the Jets quarterback?” 

The former Jets quarterback. A month later, following a futile rehab, Sanchez decided on surgery on his torn right labrum and never threw another pass for the Jets. 

Sam Darnold was impressive in his preseason debut (13-for-18, 96 yards, one TD) against the Falcons in 2018. Darnold threw a 14-yard TD pass as he began to make his move to win the opening day job over Josh McCown. 

“The first touchdown drive of my whole career was a two-minute drive going down the field,” Darnold said. “It was awesome.” 

Jones, his butterflies gone quickly, was 5-for-5 for 67 yards and a 12-yard TD pass to Bennie Fowler on his first and only preseason drive against the Jets in 2019. 

“Yeah, it was a good feeling just to be in the stadium, wearing a uniform, playing the first game,” Jones said afterward. “So it was good to kind of see what we’ve been doing in practice and come out here and put it to work a little bit.” 

This was then-Giants coach Pat Shurmur prior to Jones’ rookie preseason debut: 

“There’s no red jerseys in real games, so obviously they’re exposed to hits. It’s understanding the timing. Sometimes the timing changes a little bit. So they get that all calibrated in the preseason games. Just like fending off low blocks. There are certain things that you really can’t practice safely that you have to get in the preseason games. That’s probably one of the elements for the quarterbacks.” 

It’s the element that Saleh had to balance as he weighed risk versus reward for as long as Zach Wilson’s debut lasted.

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