The game meant more for the undrafted free agents and journeymen desperate to either realize their childhood NFL dream or cling to it yet again.
But when you are the second-overall pick of the NFL draft, when you are the Chosen One for a franchise that has chosen you to take flight on opening day on Woody Johnson’s Jets following a decade of being grounded, the game meant everything to you, and to your franchise, and to Jets fans, because all of them do, and will, from here to eternity, or to the next rookie franchise quarterback.
So this was the first step for Zach Wilson, a baby step in the preseason opener against the Giants, because you crawl before you walk, and you walk before you run, and he must be able to run on Sept. 12 on the road against Sam Darnold and the Panthers.
Head coach Robert Saleh and Wilson’s teammates can talk about his it factor in training camp practices, but you don’t sign off on it until you see it in the games. These preseason games are hardly a fail-safe barometer, but at the very least they can whet the appetite of a championship-starved fan base.
Earlier on Saturday, Justin Fields sure had whet the appetite of Bears fans still scarred over the ill-fated Mitch Trubisky Era with a convincing case for the opening day job over Andy Dalton. Trey Lance lit it up on Saturday night, too. The Jets, of course, preferred Wilson over Fields and Lance, for whatever that is worth at this moment in their nascent NFL careers: LNPTICY (Let’s Not Put Them In Canton Yet).
It turned out to be a good first baby step for Zach Wilson (6-for-9, 63 yards) … no electric wow moments in his two series against the Big Blue reserves, but more importantly, no deer-in-the-headlights moments, and no ghosts, and no turnovers and, most importantly, no injury.
“It was a great experience,” Wilson said after a 12-7 Jets win.
He showed an understanding of what was expected of him, seemed in command of the huddle, didn’t make any shake-your-head decisions … and if he didn’t have the arm talent, he wouldn’t have been the first quarterback selected after Trevor Lawrence.
The off-platform throws that will titillate Jets fans will come, but first things first. Wilson stood in there nicely as a pocket quarterback, displayed that quick release, and a ball that comes out of his hand smoothly and naturally.
There wasn’t a place the target would have been than MetLife Stadium. “This is awesome,” Wilson thought to himself. “I get to play football for a living.”
Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur got Wilson comfortable immediately by having him roll right and fire a bullet to Corey Davis for nine yards. You saw Wilson’s arm strength and accuracy on a throw across the field to the left sideline to Davis for nine more yards to position the field goal. “A great call by Coach LaFleur,” Wilson said.
He and Davis walked through the locker room door painted “ALL GAS NO BRAKE” together after the game. “That connection’s gonna keep growing,” Wilson said.
The first-string offensive line gave Wilson plenty of comfort on a 16-yard missile over the middle for Keelan Cole. “It starts up front with those guys,” Wilson said.
He followed with a 12-yard slant to Vyncint Smith; a first-down slant for Jamison Crowder that was nullified by a Cole interference; a 13-yarder to Tyler Kroft 1 yard short of the sticks on 3rd-and-14.
“He looked comfortable, especially on third down. … It was a good first day,” Saleh said.
There were plenty of green No. 2 jerseys in the stands, and a good deal of green No. 14 Sam Darnold jerseys, even though Darnold is gone and this was a Giants home game.
In the summer of 2018, this was Darnold (13-for 18, 96 yards, one TD) following his first preseason action against the Falcons:
“I felt pretty good. I put the ball where it needed to be and tried to get it in the hands of our playmakers. There were a couple of plays, especially on the sack, I felt like I could’ve gotten the ball out there. But, you know, live and learn, I guess.”
Darnold became the opening night starter. Wilson is on that Darnold track. The baby started his walk, and he did not fall.
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