Analysis

Signs of hope for new-look Jets as Zach Wilson era begins

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When the football was at its peak and the coverage had broken down and all that stood between Zach Wilson, Elijah Moore and early training camp glory was blue sky and soft hands, you could hear the intake of breath from the more than 1,000 Jets fans watching.

It had been 19 months since anybody had seen the New York Jets play in person, and what they had seen on television in 2020 probably made them want to change the channel. But this -- the baby-faced quarterback, the high-energy coach, even the freshly painted logo high on the field house -- felt like a fresh start. Again.

It seems like the Jets have regularly scheduled rebirths, so you understand if the fans assembled on Saturday were holding their breath for more than just Moore's catch and run to the end zone. But world weariness was set aside for a few hours and especially for those few seconds. Wilson's pass descended into Moore's hands, he sprinted alone to finish the 80-yard touchdown, and you were not going to wake those who witnessed it from their fever dream.

"SUPER BOWL!" one fan screamed, and the rest organized the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets chant they didn't have much occasion to use, even on their sofas, last year.

That fan wasn't the only one talking big so early in Wilson's career. Wilson had barely signed his contract last week when he was asked if he had any big purchases planned.

"You can't buy a Super Bowl, so I guess I have to work for that," he replied.

If spring cleaning had an official football team, it would be this year's New York Jets. The dinginess of the past few years has been scrubbed away, everything is sparkling and rejuvenation is in the air. Receiver Jamison Crowder noted that he is starting his third season with the Jets and essentially everything and everybody in the building -- players, coaches, scouts -- has changed. He's right. Even ownership is different from when Crowder arrived, with Woody Johnson returning from four years as ambassador to the United Kingdom for his own fresh start at running the team he has owned for two decades. Continuity is the holy grail in the NFL, but the Jets needed a reset after a two-win season, a decade out of the playoffs and a quarterbacking tailspin that saw them use eight different starters in the last five seasons, all of which ended with the team under .500.

That's why Saturday's practice only heightened the excitement that surrounds the Jets right now.

"If we can give him time and he can make throws like that, we're going to win a lot of games," said left tackle Mekhi Becton.

It wasn't just the bomb that created a stir. This was Wilson's second practice since signing his rookie contract last week and it followed a rocky premiere that featured poor timing, hesitancy and inaccuracy. None of it was a surprise for a rusty rookie and Wilson shrugged it off, telling reporters that is what practice is for.

There is a bit of an edge to Wilson that belies his wholesome appearance, a self-assuredness he will need to weather the growing pains the Jets are sure to experience. On Saturday, though, Wilson showed the full range of ability that caused the Jets to fall in love during the run up to the draft. He has a quick release, he rolled out and threw on the run, he scrambled to extend broken plays, he threw from odd arm angles.

The Jets are a young team, and while they might have hit rock bottom last season, nobody is fooling themselves. They are still rebuilding. Wilson is far from a finished product. On the field Saturday, he looked slight and in need of a few pounds of muscle. And the Jets are incredibly inexperienced at the most important position -- no quarterback on the roster has ever taken a snap in an NFL game and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is a first-time play-caller. Compounding it all is the tragic death of assistant coach Greg Knapp, the long-time quarterback shaper who was expected to tutor Wilson.

Still, these first glimpses of Wilson are restorative. Coach Robert Saleh talked about Wilson's "tremendous mental horsepower" as he absorbs the offense without becoming overwhelmed by it. It is the on-field display, particularly during broken plays, that will sustain fans who have been looking for a savior every few years since Joe Namath left the field.

"I'm not going to say that's his strong point, but that's one of the traits that is very unique about him -- he is an improviser," Saleh said. "You have your runners, you have your scramblers and then you have your pocket passers. He is more of a scrambler in the sense that he's looking to throw, he's trying to move, and he can throw off his right, left, sidearm, whatever motion or platform you want to talk about. That's what makes him unique."

The Jets did plenty of other work in the offseason to give Wilson the best chance for quick success. They fortified the wide receiver room, signing Corey Davis, drafting Moore and retaining Crowder, who said one of the responsibilities the receivers have with Wilson is to help build his confidence -- Wilson does not seem to lack for confidence anyway -- by always presenting him with a viable target.

"I've definitely seen he has the arm talent, he has the accuracy, he's definitely a playmaker," Crowder said. "Once he's outside the pocket, he can make the throws. You can see the versatility in his game."

Internally, the Jets are most excited about the improved offensive line, where first-round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker is already entrenched at left guard next to Becton and veteran tackle Morgan Moses is helping to shore up the right side. Even around the Jets, there is an acknowledgment that Sam Darnold was not given the best chance as the signal-caller because of holes elsewhere on the roster, and the offensive line designed to protect Wilson is the most glaring example of what Darnold missed out on.

What should not go unnoticed -- and didn't in some corners of the Jets universe -- was the unsolicited praise from Saleh for the job general manager Joe Douglas has done reconstituting the roster. That was an indication of organizational synergy, which has not always been abundant between Jets coaches and general managers of recent vintage. Darnold, after all, was drafted when Todd Bowles was already on the hot seat and a disconnect with former general manager Mike Maccagnan was already apparent. Then Maccagnan was involved in the hiring of Adam Gase, before Maccagnan was fired and Douglas was brought in for a shotgun marriage with Gase. The result: None of the three most important people on the team have been on the same timetable for a while.

Finally, this year, Douglas got to hire his coach and he and Saleh got to select their quarterback. Success on the field might be judged by just a few more victories this season, but having the brain trust on the same page and on the same timeline would represent real progress for the Jets.

"Joe has done such a great job of bringing in an unbelievable amount of great character in this building, not only from the player standpoint, but coaching and scouts," Saleh said. "And so there's a collection of people who want to find ways to get better and they're relentless in their pursuit to get better. And because of it, we've got a lot of confidence in the people in this building."

After Saturday's practice, as the thrilled fans filtered out -- some in Wilson jerseys, some still honoring quarterback of old Chad Pennington -- Saleh was quick to remind reporters that Wilson will have ebbs and flows and "it's going to drive us all crazy."

Probably so. But for a team that has suffered through so many losing slates, a clean one is reason enough to cheer.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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