Under heavy pressure, Wilson was sacked six times in a 19-14 loss to Darnold and the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, but he impressed teammates with his toughness in nearly rallying the Jets from a 16-0 deficit.
"I tell you what, No. 2 is going to win a lot of games for us," linebacker C.J. Mosley said.
Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, wasn't hit at all in the preseason -- not a single knockdown. That changed quickly. All told, he was hit 10 times and pressured 14 times in 43 dropbacks, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
"Neck's a little sore -- a little whiplash, but I'll be all right," he said.
On his last sack, by defensive tackle Derrick Brown, Wilson said "it felt like I got hit by a truck for a second." He got the wind knocked out of him, but one play later, he fired his second touchdown pass to wide receiver Corey Davis.
"It was awesome," center Connor McGovern said. "It was his first time really getting hit. It was great to see how he responded to that. We have to keep him cleaner, but the resilience he showed was phenomenal. Each week you guys are going to see special stuff from Zach."
Despite the poor pass protection, Wilson completed 20 of 37 passes for 258 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. For 2½ quarters, it was ugly, as he started 9-for-22 for only 93 yards. Then he perked up and led two long touchdown drives, cutting the deficit to five with 1:56 to play.
"It's tough," Wilson said of the constant pressure, "but it's part of the job, right?"
He didn't handle the early pressure, going 0-for-7 under duress in the first half. He also was 0-for-4 on third down. The former BYU star settled down and started making off-script plays, one of the reasons the Jets drafted him. In the second half, he was 3-for-6 under duress and 3-for-5 on third down.
"He took some shots, obviously, but he got back up," coach Robert Saleh said. "He showed resolve. He's fearless, he really is. And he's only going to get better."
Darnold, who dealt with similar protection issues during three unproductive seasons with the Jets, made more plays than his successor. He passed for 279 yards, threw for a touchdown and ran for another.
After a nearly flawless preseason, Wilson entered the season amid huge expectations and hype. He quickly discovered that playing quarterback for the Jets isn't easy.
Even his first signature play turned bad. On his first NFL touchdown pass, a 22-yard throw in which he escaped the pocket and threw on the run to a wide-open Davis, Wilson lost his blindside protector.
On the back side of the play, left tackle Mekhi Becton suffered a potentially serious knee injury. He was helped off the field and carted immediately to the locker room. The Jets didn't provide an update on Becton, saying he will have tests.
For 2½ quarters, Wilson struggled to find a rhythm, discovering it's a lot harder to face a starting defense than a second-string defense, which was the case in the preseason. His worst throw was a poorly thrown ball over the middle that was intercepted by linebacker Shaq Thompson.
The offensive line played poorly. In a surprise, George Fant started at right tackle instead of Morgan Moses, who was considered the favorite in the summer-long competition. Moses had started 96 consecutive games; the last time he didn't start was 2014 in his rookie year with the Washington Football Team.
Moses went to right tackle when Becton got hurt, with Fant shifting to left tackle, his natural position. The run-blocking wasn't good, either, as the Jets managed only 45 yards on 17 carries. The starting five had no game reps together in the preseason, and the lack of continuity was evident.
"We knew they were going to heat us up," McGovern said of the Panthers. "It's what happens when you have a younger quarterback. So we have to beat them on the hot throws and make big plays. That will slow them down."