EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For symbolism, it was hard to beat the sight of white towels -- the giveaway for the New York Jets' home opener -- being thrown from the upper deck early in the fourth quarter.
Figuratively -- and in this case, literally -- Jets fans got a jump on throwing in the towel on the season Sunday, even booing their rookie quarterback just 51 minutes into his home debut. Of course, those fans weren't just booing Zach Wilson. They were booing Sam Darnold. And Mark Sanchez. And a decade of missing the playoffs.
A week before the season began, Jets owner Woody Johnson all but pleaded with fans to be patient with the young quarterback, a concept that is difficult for fans everywhere but especially for ones who have only Joe Namath to look back on with veneration. Still, Wilson had shown enough toughness after getting sacked six times that even following the season-opening loss to the Carolina Panthers and Darnold, there was optimism about the Jets' fresh start.
Four interceptions, each more unsightly than the previous one, tend to shorten tempers and timelines, though. (Note: Namath didn't have a four-interception game as a rookie in 1965, but he did have back-to-back three-interception games.) Even Wilson -- so young, so promising and, on this day, so maddening -- didn't blame the boobirds after he finished 19 of 33 for 210 yards and those four picks in a 25-6 loss.
"I'm not paying attention to it, but they should be booing, right?" he said with a smile.
That was probably the most astute read of a situation Wilson made all day. The No. 2 overall pick has to know -- indeed, every member of the team's new regime should know -- that the 2021 Jets are bearing the baggage of years of franchise ineptitude. At least three of Sunday's interceptions were poor decisions by Wilson, but that's nothing compared to the avalanche of poor decisions that drove Gang Green to the bottom rungs of the NFL in the first place.
For Wilson, who played his college football at BYU, there was never much doubt there would be days like this.
The first two interceptions -- which came on his first two passes of the game -- meant it was impossible to get into any kind of rhythm because the offense was barely on the field. The last -- a pass intended for no easily identifiable target -- was simply confusing. At that point, he had only four completions.
"This is what we signed up for," Wilson said. "There are going to be games like this. ... I have to remember the situation I'm in. ... How can I keep learning? You've got to keep that swag and that mojo every single week."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is well known for crushing the mojo of rookie quarterbacks -- he is 21-6 against them with New England -- but Wilson and Jets head coach Robert Saleh said the defensive looks the Patriots showed were nothing they didn't expect. Belichick went out of his way to say Wilson will be a good player, before correcting himself to say he is a good player. But Wilson did Sunday what so many rookies do: He tried to play hero ball, forcing passes into places they shouldn't go, trying desperately to make a play. He wasn't overwhelmed, Saleh said. But he was trying on each play to regain all the ground New York had already lost.
"It's just having confidence to know that it's OK to play a boring game of football," Saleh said. "He's an electric dude. He's competitive as crap and wants to win so bad. Sometimes, it's OK to be boring."
That is not quite the rallying cry of All Gas, No Brake that is painted all over the place, including on the napkin holders, at the Jets' training facility and near the team's locker room at MetLife Stadium. But it is the way Mac Jones played for the Patriots on Sunday. Wilson would probably have found himself on a blooper reel anyway, but what really underscored his struggles was that he was facing another rookie, albeit one who fell into a much more fortuitous situation.
Jones is benefitting not only from a better roster around him, but from seasoned coaching. Early in the game, the Patriots called dink-and-dunk passes for Jones, allowing him to get confidence and establish a rhythm, exactly what Wilson didn't get the opportunity to do. Jones finished the day 22 of 30 for 186 yards, with no touchdowns and, more to the point, no interceptions. It was not dazzling, and maybe it was boring to anyone south and west of Connecticut, but it was winning football. The Patriots' offense essentially got out of the way, let the Jets self-destruct and did just enough to take advantage of those mistakes.
The upshot: After the game, Jones talked about his lack of deep throws, saying he can make them and it's on him to find opportunities to push the ball down the field. So even boring football has its limits, depending on the audience, it seems.
Saleh made an interesting observation about Wilson -- he promised it would not be the hardest game he ever plays. The Jets certainly hope that's true, if for no other reason than they have to hope there will be games with far higher stakes in Wilson's future. Just getting to higher-stakes contests would feel like a victory for the Jets after what the last decade has been like. What would Jets fans give now for those back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances with Sanchez?
Jones and the Patriots are closer to those kinds of games right now than the Jets, which means Jones doesn't have to press as much to make something happen as Wilson clearly feels he does. How Wilson responds to Sunday will tell us much more about how close to those kinds of games he can take the Jets.
"Obviously, you're frustrated," the 22-year-old Wilson said. "There's that switch inside where you've just got to hit the reset button. I've got to tell myself I can't be gun shy. I've got to be aggressive down the field."
It won't be boring. And there will be a fine line between waving those towels and crying into them.