Jets made right call not risking Zach Wilson in telling move

An apocalyptic pregame storm wrecked a lot of tailgating plans, flooding the MetLife parking lots and trapping Jets fans in their cars. But that was OK. The gain was going to be worth the pain of the rain.

Zach Wilson was going to play football after all. What else would you want to do in the dying hours of summer but watch a potential franchise quarterback throw spirals under the Friday night lights?

Even if it was going to last for two or three series, hey, this was going to be fun. Wilson was entering his last tune-up, and then he would walk out of the stadium knowing that the next time he took a snap in uniform, it would be for real. He would be going head to head against the Panthers’ Sam Darnold, the last quarterback who was going to change everything for the Jets. The guy who was effectively fired because his bosses believe Wilson is the better man for the job.

Then, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to an entertaining close to a productive preseason: Robert Saleh, rookie head coach, decided that it would be a bad idea to expose Zach Wilson, rookie quarterback, to the inherent dangers of a violent sport. Saleh did not want to take the kind of preseason chance that past Jets coaches took, and regretted, with Chad Pennington and Mark Sanchez, so he ignored the kid’s public plea.

“I wish I could play the whole game,” Wilson had said.

He didn’t play a single second. Instead the second-overall pick in the draft stood on the sideline holding a ball and wearing a hat, earpiece, long-sleeve shirt and shorts while the backup Jets played a rain-delayed game against an Eagles team quarterbacked by Joe Flacco. Wilson was deemed too valuable to compete, but Philadelphia threw out there a 36-year-old former Super Bowl champ with 190 regular-season and postseason starts behind him. Strange how things work out in the NFL.

Zach Wilson
Bill Kostroun

But this was the good news on a night of largely meaningless and mostly unwatchable football: The Jets now have a young quarterback worthy of guarding as if he were a sacred scroll.

Frankly, it never made any sense for Wilson to play on a wet track, or on a dry track for that matter. Quarterbacks who had a hard enough time surviving a 16-game regular season are now being asked to remain healthy (or healthy enough) over a 17-game regular season. Why expose the franchise’s most valuable asset to even one unnecessary hit, especially when he had already shown an advanced poise in the preseason, and when so much is seemingly accomplished in the joint practices that are all the rage in today’s NFL?

Even to the untrained eye, Wilson has displayed playmaking mobility, a strong and accurate arm and a talent for throwing to the right receiver. When the rookie is looking at an opposing defense, he clearly isn’t looking at a jigsaw puzzle that he can’t piece together. On the contrary, he appears to be looking at a very readable menu with all sorts of delicious options.

This is why Saleh talks about Wilson’s preparation, or process, as being “light years beyond a normal rookie.

“When I talk process, I’m not necessarily talking about how he processes the game when the ball is snapped,” Saleh said. “I’m talking about the way he goes about his day-to-day business and the way he studies tape, how he studies the night before, what he’s doing and the things he’s asking the video guys, the information he wants.”

Wilson was smart enough to take advantage of every preseason minute he spent in the company of the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, picking his idol’s brain on what it takes to win on Sundays. The kid gets it, so no, Saleh didn’t need to see much else before Wilson plays in his first game that counts. The coach was crazy enough to run up and down the stadium steps Friday evening, honoring his pregame ritual in the pouring rain. But he wasn’t crazy enough to put Wilson in the game.

The kid is 22. The way quarterbacks are going these days, Wilson might have this Jets job for the next 15 to 18 years. That’s why fans in the stands, along with the young woman who sang the national anthem, were wearing his jersey, No. 2.

While Darnold made a statement for the Panthers on Friday night, completing 19 of 25 attempts and throwing two touchdown passes against the Steelers, the Jets made their own statement in the Meadowlands with Darnold’s replacement. They did not take any risks with Zach Wilson.

Starting Sept. 12 at Carolina, all the rookie has to do is prove that he was worth protecting.

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