FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Zach Wilson hit bottom for the first time on Nov. 23, when he was removed from his job as the New York Jets' starting quarterback. The benching, once unthinkable, came after a poor performance against the New England Patriots. Truth is, it had been rumbling beneath the surface for several weeks.
Alarmingly sloppy practices and head-scratching interceptions in games, combined with behind-the-scenes grumbling by players -- particularly the wide receivers -- opened the organization's eyes to the possibility that Wilson isn't the player the Jets envisioned when they drafted him second overall in 2021.
Jets owner Woody Johnson, speaking after the season, essentially ended any hope of Wilson reclaiming the QB1 job by declaring there's a "missing piece" (see: quarterback) and that he's "absolutely" willing to spend big money for a proven veteran. That comment has fueled the Aaron Rodgers trade rumors.
How did it unravel so quickly for Wilson?
Interviews with players, staffers and outside quarterback experts paint the picture of a physically gifted player who has struggled to execute basic quarterback fundamentals and whose teammates lost faith in him weeks before his benching. The fallout has caused angst and second-guessing within the organization. ESPN also learned there was a difference of opinion in the building on Wilson's pre-draft evaluation.
It was a humbling season for the 23-year-old, who was reduced to tears at one point. "A lot of learning, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of good and bad," he said at the end of the season.
It was mostly bad.
Wilson missed the first three games due to arthroscopic knee surgery, won his first four starts, got benched twice and was booed off the field in a prime-time 19-3 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He ended the season on the bench, healthy but deemed incapable of leading the offense even with his replacement, Mike White, injured for the final game.
Out of 47 quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts, Wilson finished 37th in Total QBR, 47th in completion percentage, 40th in touchdown/interception ratio and 46th in QBR when throwing under pressure, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
"For years, he got away with bad mechanics -- and he hasn't erased the bad mechanics," said former quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, adding that Wilson "falls apart" when facing pass-rush pressure.
LET'S GO BACK to the beginning -- before the beginning, actually.
After wrestling with the decision for the first three months of the 2021 offseason, the Jets decided to trade Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, in large part because general manager Joe Douglas was sold on Wilson. His conviction was so strong that he eschewed the idea of trading the No. 2 overall choice for a windfall of draft picks.
But the feeling wasn't unanimous.
Some talent evaluators within the organization didn't see Wilson as worthy of being the No. 2 pick, according to two sources familiar with the pre-draft process. They saw him as a developmental player who could be a starter within three years. Assistant GM Rex Hogan and then-offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur were the driving forces behind the decision to pick him second, they said.
"[LaFleur], along with Rex Hogan, were in 2021 draft meetings selling the narrative that there was a legit argument Wilson was better than [No. 1 overall pick] Trevor Lawrence," one source said. "[Some of us], we're like, 'What the f---?!' It's one thing to like a player; it's another to pump a prospect up higher than he actually is."
Ultimately, it was Douglas' call to draft Wilson -- and his decision fell in line with the rankings of many national draft experts who had Wilson rated as a top-10 prospect. Scouts Inc. and NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah ranked Wilson as the No. 2 quarterback behind Lawrence, while ESPN's Mel Kiper rated him No. 3, behind Lawrence and Justin Fields.
Unlike the other four quarterbacks drafted in the first round that year (Lawrence, Trey Lance at No. 3, Fields at No. 11 and Mac Jones at No. 15), Wilson didn't have to compete for the starting job against a veteran. The Jets made the conscious decision to roll with Wilson, as they were willing to absorb his growing pains in a transition year for the roster.
In retrospect, that was a mistake, LaFleur said Jan. 5 -- his final interview before being replaced. It was a candid acknowledgement the team had mishandled its prized rookie. Wilson would've been better off learning from a veteran before taking over, LaFleur said.
The owner didn't disagree. Johnson questioned the organization's plan for Wilson.
"No, I don't think we did everything the right way. No, no," he said, adding that it would've been better if Wilson "sat behind a veteran." The team didn't have a viable veteran option until Joe Flacco arrived in a midseason trade in 2021.
Maybe it was too much, too soon for Wilson, who played no Power 5 opponents in his final season at BYU. While the level of competition in college isn't always an accurate barometer for NFL success (see: Buffalo Bills star Josh Allen, who played at Wyoming), it became an internal discussion as Wilson's problems mounted in 2022, team sources said.
Former quarterback and current CBS analyst Phil Simms doesn't agree, saying Wilson demonstrated the raw talent in college to warrant his draft position and justify immediate playing time, though he said of Wilson's 2022 performance, "Zach didn't progress in the physical part of the game as much as I expected."
After struggling as a rookie on a 4-13 team, Wilson was gifted a handful of skill players in the 2022 draft, including wide receiver Garrett Wilson and running back Breece Hall. Douglas made it his mission to surround Wilson with as much talent as possible.
Everything seemed fine when Wilson reported to training camp, fresh off a bonding weekend with several teammates at a posh Idaho resort, but he was noticeably inconsistent up until the moment of his knee injury in the first preseason game. He returned from a seven-week layoff to rally the Jets to a come-from-behind road win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in his 2022 debut, sparking hope.
False hope, as it turned out.
The Jets continued to win, but Wilson sputtered. One player recalled him completing only three balls in a practice before the Oct. 23 game against the Denver Broncos. For context, there are 20 to 30 pass attempts in a typical midweek practice. The Jets won again, but it was another shaky performance by Wilson (16-of-26 for 121 yards, no TDs). Concerned, coach Robert Saleh elevated White to second string for the next game, a subtle but significant change.
A lazy interception near halftime in the Oct. 30 loss to the Patriots -- the second of three picks that day -- was the blunder that sent shivers through the organization. It was a careless overthrow on a short pass, off his back foot, the kind of play that would infuriate a middle-school coach.
INT! The @Patriots D comes up big with less than a minute left in the half 😮💨— NFL (@NFL) October 30, 2022
📺: #NEvsNYJ on CBS
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/FzCADVP5Ro pic.twitter.com/fggxXAVr13
A few days later, Wilson had another poor practice, one player recalled. Now there was a growing sense in the locker room that he would be replaced by White after the bye (Nov. 13), but Wilson put that to rest (temporarily) with an efficient outing (18-of-25 for 154 yards and 1 TD) in the Jets' upset of the Buffalo Bills.
It soothed tensions over the bye week.
Then came the fiasco in Foxborough, a 10-3 loss.
Wilson's accuracy was so bad (9-of-22, 77 yards) that he missed wildly on high-percentage throws, prompting one staff member to compare it to former baseball player Steve Sax and his yips from the early 1980s. Wilson exacerbated matters with his now-infamous postgame news conference, the one in which he declined to accept responsibility for the dreadful offensive performance.
"The defense wants to kick his ass," one player said at the time.
Facing a possible locker-room mutiny, Saleh benched Wilson, who was demoted to third string.
Tight end C.J. Uzomah, speaking on "The Chris Rose Football Show," said he told Wilson via text, "Obviously, you know you rubbed the team the wrong way." Uzomah encouraged Wilson to "say something," which he did -- an emotional apology in front of the team three days after the game. Several players said he seemed genuinely remorseful.
The benching and the fallout shined a light on Wilson's leadership. Privately, team officials acknowledged that he fell short in that area at times, especially when dealing with the media. Leadership came up in their pre-draft discussions -- Wilson wasn't initially voted a captain at BYU, which raised questions -- but they determined it was nothing he couldn't overcome.
"He has to continue to work on himself, and I mean that in the best way possible," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins told ESPN at the end of the season. "Because at the end of the day, in order to step in front of a group of men and lead them, you have to continue to take care of things the right way."
Another player said Wilson "may not be as vocal as some may like. [He] has tools of greatness. He just has to believe that himself."
Wilson's reputation, already battered, absorbed more blows when teammates expressed their affinity for White. Not only did they speak glowingly about him, but a few traveled on a road trip wearing Mike White T-shirts. A photo -- posted by the Jets, oddly enough -- went viral.
"It's like watching a stepparent spend time with your kids," Orlovsky said. "It cuts you, I don't care who you are. Then you start to ask yourself, 'Do they like him better? Do they connect with him better? Why didn't they do that for me?' Heck, yeah, that's a real thing."
Wilson, dealing with the pro-White sentiment and his own on-field struggles, became "completely mentally blocked," according to Orlovsky. And he played like it.
Forced back into the lineup because of White's rib injury, which ruined Saleh's plan to ride him the rest of the year, Wilson started two games and came unglued in a Thursday-night loss to the Jaguars. Afterward, he all but admitted his confidence was shot. He didn't play again last season.
Things were bad even when they appeared good.
Some in the organization believe Wilson's struggles and LaFleur's playcalling were the reasons behind wide receiver Elijah Moore's oddly timed trade request in late October, which became public a few hours after he blew up at LaFleur.
The Jets were riding a three-game winning streak, but Moore had become a nonfactor with Wilson at quarterback. Sources said Moore didn't want to throw Wilson under the bus by citing him as the reason, but his frustration seeped out when asked about their chemistry.
"I couldn't tell you," he said. "I don't get the ball."
Others in the wide receiver room complained privately about Wilson, team sources said.
Wilson hasn't received much public support in the offseason. Cornerback Sauce Gardner, perhaps trying to recruit a new quarterback on social media, tweeted at Rodgers before deleting it and following up with a tweet saying he was joking. Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, while watching the San Francisco 49ers struggle to score in the NFC Championship Game, tweeted, "Now [Nick] Bosa see what I been going threw, No offense." He deleted the tweet.
LaFleur tried to help Wilson last offseason, scaling back the volume of plays in the playbook. The idea was to focus on the plays that worked the best in his rookie season, a year in which he finished 30th out of 31 qualified passers in Total QBR. The coaches also tried to clean up his fundamentals, especially his footwork and pocket presence.
LaFleur's West Coast-style offense is a timing-based scheme, one that requires precision footwork by the quarterback. This is what team officials, quarterback experts and opposing personnel staffers saw from Wilson:
An inability to play consistently from the pocket and within the structure of the offense.
Too focused on making highlight plays instead of the routine.
Sloppy footwork -- good one play, bad the next.
A tendency in shotgun formation to drift after receiving the snap, making it hard for the offensive line to know where he was.
A penchant for moving backward or sideways when under duress instead of "climbing" in the pocket, a basic quarterback technique.
LaFleur took the blame for Wilson's first two seasons, saying, "We haven't done our job with him." In some areas, Wilson actually regressed. His 54.5% completion rate was the fourth worst in the league since 2015 (minimum: 200 attempts), per ESPN Stats & Information research.
"Is that correctable? Oh, my gosh, absolutely," Simms said.
The Jets have said repeatedly their plan is to keep Wilson and continue to develop him "through hell or high water," as Saleh said. Dumping Wilson after only two years would be highly unusual. Of the 40 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 from 1998 to 2020, only two failed to last more than two seasons with their original team -- Josh Rosen (drafted No. 10 overall in 2018 by the Arizona Cardinals) and Ryan Leaf (drafted No. 2 overall in 1998, San Diego Chargers).
Wilson, who has two years remaining on his contract, said he wants to remain with the Jets and plans to attack the offseason. He knows there's a lot of work to be done. Showing accountability, he said at the conclusion of the season, "I wish I played better for [LaFleur] and for everybody in the locker room."
"This is going to sound crazy, but I think it might have been good for him," running back Michael Carter said of the 2022 adversity.
"The NFL is the first time some guys are like, 'Oh, I really have to get my s--- together.' I think there are times where Zach has felt that. Other times he's been limited in what he could do, whether that's a trust thing or what. He's shown he can do pretty much everything. I believe in Zach."
Historically, it's rare for a quarterback to overcome such a poor start to his career. Wilson's two-year stats are eerily similar to those of Oakland Raiders draft bust JaMarcus Russell, but his supporters say he has the determination and talent to succeed. His work ethic never has been questioned by the organization. A recent report that he was late for meetings was shot down emphatically by team sources.
Only years removed from his grand entrance, Wilson in Year 3 is trying to avoid an ignominious exit.
"He's going to tell us the answers," Simms said. "You'll be able to see it when you go to training camp. If you don't say, 'Oh, wow, this is a different guy,' then that will answer a lot of questions."