FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Forget those offensive statistics for a moment, as hard as that might be. Try to do the same for the never-should-have-come-to-that, game-winning, punt-return touchdown that handed the Jets their 14th straight loss to the New England Patriots.
That’s not even close to the most alarming aspect of Sunday’s disastrous 10-3 defeat.
Zach Wilson, standing atop a makeshift platform in the bowels of Gillette Stadium, was asked if his play let his defense, which allowed just three points, down. That’s not just a softball question — it’s the equivalent of putting a juiced ball on a tee for Aaron Judge on a little-league diamond.
And how did Wilson respond?
“No,” he said. “No.”
Are you serious?
Teams recover from losses.
But a lack of accountability without the slightest sense of humility? The supposed captain and face of the franchise?
That’s the stuff that divides teams right down the middle. And the Jets are teetering on the brink of that right now.
A straightforward Justin Hardee, New York’s captain on special teams, shouldered blame while seated in front of his locker. Punter Braden Mann did, too, for sending that line drive to Marcus Jones, who gleefully raced 84 yards for the game-winning touchdown with just five seconds left.
Good for the two of them. But the fact is this game should have never come down to that. The fact is that the Jets did not lose because of Hardee, Mann or anything that happened on that punt return.
This loss falls entirely on the shoulders of their offense. And their offense was utterly inept because they couldn’t even receive competence from their second-year quarterback.
“I don’t know,” head coach Robert Saleh said when asked if Wilson is holding the Jets back. “We couldn’t run the ball, either, so there’s a lot of things that we need to look at to see if we can find some efficiency on offense.”
You can start by looking under center.
Wilson, making the 20th start of his career, completed 9 of 22 passes (40.9 percent) for 77 yards. Thirty four of those yards came on one play — an underthrown ball to Denzel Mims. Two of Wilson’s’ passes bounced out of the hands of Patriot defenders (Devin McCourty and Jones).
Take a moment to let those statistics sink in. It’s 2022. The passing game reigns supreme. Players routinely complete over 70 percent of their passes, throw for more than 300 yards, and toss three-plus touchdowns. Wilson, in a 60-minute football game, couldn’t complete 10 passes or throw for 80-plus yards.
Instead, he routinely sailed passes over his receivers heads in the flat, or bounced it short. He led the Jets offense to six total first downs (just the sixth time in franchise history they have had six or fewer), 103 yards (the fourth-lowest in franchise history), and 3 of 14 (21 percent) on third down. They had just two yards in the second half (the fewest of any team in any half this year). Not once did they get into the red zone.
“I think you have to take into account it’s windy as hell out there, too, guys,” Wilson said.
Mac Jones, with far less talent around him, completed 23 of 27 passes (85.2 percent) for 246 yards in the same conditions.
This was the fourth time this year Wilson has both completed under 60 percent of his passes and thrown for fewer than 160 yards. Among 33 qualifying quarterbacks, Wilson ranks 32nd in passer rating (72.6), 33rd in completion percentage (55.6), 31st in passing touchdowns to interceptions (4-5), and 31st in passing touchdowns per attempt (2.1 percent).
Here’s the thing, though: You can live with that. All of it. Really. You can.
Wilson is a small-school quarterback in the second year of his career playing a quality opponent led by a coach (Bill Belichick) who routinely gives young quarterbacks fits. It’s not what you want to see — heck no. It certainly doesn’t instill much faith Wilson will finally answer the Jets unanswered prayers for a franchise quarterback. But, at the minimum, you could try to focus on the future if he at least showed some sign he was self aware enough to acknowledge his struggles were holding the Jets back.
Wilson cited executing, an inability to move the chains, the Patriots defense, and a failure to establish the run game when asked why the offense wasn’t working. After that he finally admitted, “Obviously, I had some I want back.” He mentioned some variation of that a few more times over the next five-plus minutes, but then, before walking off the podium, he dropped the bombshell that he didn’t believe he and the offense let the defense down.
How is that possible? How can those words come out of his mouth?
Two weeks ago Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen lost to the Jets. His postgame news conference went exactly how every quarterback’s should. Allen put the entire loss on himself, even though he threw for 205 yards, ran for 86, and scored two touchdowns.
“I let the team down,” he said because of his two interceptions. “As a quarterback you can’t play like s–t.”
Last week, Wilson said that “no one outside this building knows what they’re talking about.”
As the Jets offense struggled to do, well, anything, their defense stood on its head. The Patriots managed just three offensive points. Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich’s scheme helped limit them to 4 for 15 (27 percent) on third downs. Nick Folk did uncharacteristically miss two field goals, but the Jets sacked Jones six times.
All the Jets offense had to do was score more than three points, and it never comes down to Mann’s punt. Greg Zuerlein’s 34-yard field goal on the third possession of the game was the only time the Jets were even in range to attempt one.
The defense did more than enough to win this game — as they have for most of this season.
The Jets instead added the fourth loss to their column because of the struggles of their young quarterback. The team knows it — both wideouts Denzel Mims and Garrett Wilson (who was visibly upset after the game, saying he was “done,” among other things) snapped at Wilson during the game following inaccurate passes.
“We’re all close,” Wilson said. “We’re all talking and communicating. There’s stuff that I want them to do different and I guess get frustrated as well. Then there’s stuff that I missed a throw high there and they’re frustrated as well.
“It goes both ways. This isn’t anyone pointing fingers here. This is everybody taking accountability here and everyone’s trying to get better.”
Only Wilson and Mims weren’t the only ones.
Wilson’s stance at the postgame news conference wasn’t just to spurn the media. Sources inside the Jets’ losing locker room told SNY that Wilson was walking around after the game “like he isn’t the problem.” It rubbed more than a few the wrong way, frustrating several others.
And that was before his words began to spread like wildfire.
If defensive teammates were ticked off before, it’s not going to get any better now.
Saleh said after the game he never considered going to Mike White, whom the team elevated to backup quarterback two weeks ago. He said the thought of turning to White as the team’s starter is the “furthest” thing from his mind.
The second-year coach is right to take that stance with his second-year quarterback. This game against New England should not send Wilson to the sideline.
But if the quarterback struggles again against a bad Bears team next week?
If he again is the reason the win-now Jets find themselves a loser?
Saleh might not have a choice.
Wilson’s play isn’t the only thing that could justify a quarterbacking change, but also the fact every time he looks in the mirror he seems to see everyone but himself.