Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer 62d

Woeful New York Jets run risk of stunting Zach Wilson's development

DENVER -- When the New York Jets drafted quarterback Zach Wilson, perhaps even before, they determined he was good enough to be a Day 1 starter and tough enough to withstand the mental and physical rigors of a 17-game season. They also felt the infrastructure was sound and would soften the entire rookie experience for him.

After three games, how can you not wonder whether they miscalculated? How can you not think they're doing it again, ruining another promising young quarterback?

The Jets did it to Sam Darnold, now 3-0 with the Carolina Panthers, and now they're treating Wilson like a fraternity pledge during Hell Week -- except this Hell Week already is on three weeks, and counting.

The grisly totals over his first three NFL starts: 25 quarterback hits, 15 sacks, seven interceptions and a few body slams/sandwiches that would make a WWE enthusiast cringe. At this rate, he won't make it to Halloween, let alone the end of the season. And if he survives the onslaught, he could develop bad habits and lose his pristine mechanics.

The Jets are playing a dangerous game, and there's no way out. They opted not to sign a proven backup, putting their faith in Wilson and the players around him to make it work.

They're failing him, from his teammates to the coaches, who have failed to create a quarterback-friendly formula.

"It's hard. I didn't experience this in college," Wilson said Sunday after an embarrassing 26-0 loss to the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. "The crazy thing is, I knew it was going to be like this. You come to a program that has all new guys coming in. It's a process."

He wore a brave face after another beating, which included five sacks, nine QB hits and two interceptions in an utterly dreadful offensive performance (162 total yards). At his postgame news conference, Wilson had a black rubber band on his left wrist that said, "No excuses."

Asked whether his confidence is shaken, he said, "Absolutely not."

He didn't play like a confident quarterback. He looked hesitant at times, not trusting his reads and holding the ball too long. On the first interception, wide receiver Corey Davis was open for a hot second, but Wilson threw late and it was picked off by safety Justin Simmons.

Wilson threw off his back foot at times and he showed a tendency to hitch -- bad habits. Speaking of bad habits, the offense has gone eight quarters without a touchdown. They've been outscored in the first half 46-3, not even giving themselves a chance to spring an upset.

They're scoring 6.7 points per game. They're allowing five sacks per game. No team should be putting up those kind of numbers, not even a rebuilding team with as many rookies as the Jets.

Coach Robert Saleh insisted the 0-3 start isn't stunting Wilson's development, and he took issue with the notion that the team is getting worse by the week.

"I wouldn't call it regression," he said. "That's a fair question to the naked eye. We played three really good football teams. Carolina is undefeated, Denver is undefeated and all three of them have top-5 defenses, so this has been a rough indoctrination for the quarterback and our offense. At the same time, you expect plays to be made and progress to be made. But I don't think it's regression."

Wilson isn't getting any help from his friends. There were at least four dropped passes, including two by Davis, their big-money free agent on offense. There was no running game; they gained only 43 yards on 13 carries, including six carries for negative yardage. The offensive line, which was supposed to be much improved, stinks.

The Jets can't even execute against a standard rush. Six of Wilson's seven interceptions, and 11 of his QB hits, have come against a four-man rush, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Guard Greg Van Roten came close to criticizing Wilson, but included the offensive line in his rather candid assessment.

"He has to learn, this is the NFL and you have to get the ball out," he said. "You can't hold on to it and try to make a play and throw it downfield. And we have to protect him better. It starts with us up front. We have to get on the same page."

They had the misfortune of facing Vic Fangio- and Bill Belichick-coached defenses over the past two weeks, increasing the degree of difficulty for their 22-year-old quarterback. But this wasn't a surprise; the Jets knew the schedule back in May, yet they went all-in on Wilson.

Safety net ... who needs a safety net? Don't think for a second that Saleh will ever bench Wilson for Mike White, who has no experience. Van Roten admitted the struggles are "frustrating," but he quickly noted it's part of the growing process with a rookie quarterback.

"I'm in this position for a reason," said Wilson, adding, "I promise, it's making me stronger."

For the long-term health of the franchise, the Jets, known for breaking quarterbacks, better hope he's right.

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