If the Jets could construct their reality out of the press conference comments and plaudits they’ve showered on Zach Wilson, they would enter Week 3 still basking in the paradise that descended upon Florham Park when Aaron Rodgers arrived.
The picture of Wilson the Jets have attempted to paint resembles a glowing one, where the former No. 2 overall pick — and replacement for Rodgers — just needs time.
Everyone sees progress. Everyone sees potential. The playoffs remain a feasible, and reasonable, expectation.
But the records and stats and film have smeared whatever canvas Joe Douglas, Robert Saleh, Garrett Wilson, Rodgers and others have tried drawing on.
The true Zach Wilson image is far from flattering. The Jets are 8-15 with him as their starter after Sunday’s 30-10 embarrassment against the Cowboys. His performance didn’t hint at much growth or future potential, either.
Forget about what happens four or five years from now. This team’s Super Bowl window opened in March with an expiration date of Rodgers’ final snap with the franchise — whenever that arrives — and still exists given the talent scattered across the roster.
The Jets will keep riding with Wilson, though, and that’s where it gets tricky. They’re navigating a difficult diplomacy where relationships with building-block players could be damaged. Wilson’s mediocrity eventually will lead to grumblings. Frustrations have already started bubbling after just one loss.
Saleh and Douglas entered the season with their seats warming, too. Their choice to back Wilson could pan out. The third-year QB could make strides. But the consequences of supporting the 24-year-old as his progress stalls would be far worse for the Jets, only making the franchise’s outlook — for its on-field performance, for its front-office lineup — murkier.
The Jets are dealing with the Week 1 overreactions delayed due to their improbable overtime victory against the Bills. It produced a blueprint that seemed, for six days, sustainable. The defense was tenacious. Their special teams unit was electric. Wilson was serviceable.
But the Jets can only deflect so much blame for Wilson being average. They can make all the statements they want, give him all the hugs and reassurances he needs, but if Gang Green’s season goes anywhere, they’ll need him to win them a game. Probably three or four.
Would Breece Hall really have criticized the Jets for only giving him four touches and said “that’s why we struggled” if it was Rodgers who threw the 27 passes?
Would Garrett Wilson call out the “passing game” for needing to be better, as he did after a pathetic 10-3 loss to the Patriots in 2022, if they hit a low point with Rodgers as their quarterback?
The Jets, for the most part, have said the right things. They’ve tried to keep Zach Wilson’s confidence as high as it was when he was the star of “Hard Knocks” as Rodgers’ little brother.
That’s why Saleh reiterated — and kept reiterating — in the days after Rodgers’ season-ending Achilles injury that they trusted in Wilson. That’s why the Jets haven’t signed another quarterback yet. That’s why everyone from offensive linemen to defensive players has lauded Wilson’s strides, claiming this year will be different.
Because for so long, Wilson has faded toward becoming an infamous first-round bust, someone whose MetLife Stadium career started with a four-interception game in 2021 and hasn’t improved since.
Five quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 2021 draft, and Wilson has the worst Pro Football Reference quarterback rating among Trevor Lawrence (No. 1), Trey Lance (No. 3), Justin Fields (No. 11) and Mac Jones (No. 15) — though the upsides of the latter three have not exactly appeared thrilling, either.
Even if the Jets snatched their offense away from Wilson, the backup plans hold limited upside. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett already redid the offense in three days, and he’d need to do it again if Douglas traded for or signed another quarterback.
Receivers and running backs would need to sync their instincts with another signal-caller not named Rodgers.
So what happens when this all backfires for the Jets? What happens if their defense can’t win them the big games, their offense can’t win them any games and another sub-.500 finish sinks whatever preseason hype Rodgers generated?
What happens when Douglas’ 21-47 record since taking over as general manager in 2019 and Saleh’s 12-14 record since 2021 keeps dipping?
The pair assembled a strong draft class from 2022 — with Gardner, Garrett Wilson and Hall looking like future cornerstones — but whiffing on a No. 2 pick will always set back an organization.
Maybe the front office can get a mulligan for the season, but for better or for worse, these Jets — and this front office — appear set to ride out the Zach Wilson experience until everything falls apart.
The tantalizing payoff still exists, at least in their eyes. The flip side is where it gets ugly.
Today’s back page
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⚾ HEYMAN: There’s a more sensible plan for Mets than signing Shohei Ohtani … Edwin Diaz won’t return in 2023 … Mets 2, Marlins 1
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📱 Join the Inside St. John’s text-message conversation to keep up with all the behind-the-scenes buzz around Rick Pitino’s Red Storm and to get your Johnnies questions answered by reporter Zach Braziller.
Will they remember?
The Yankees will have played 104 since the infamous Toronto series — with the “shut up, fat boy” and “f–king crazy” comments — when they open a three-game series against the Blue Jays on Tuesday. They’ll have turned from a team in playoff position to one clinging to whatever mathematical odds they have left.
The long gap between series is a consequence of MLB’s new scheduling format. It also provided ample time for some of the tensions from those May games to extinguish.
So for the next three nights in The Bronx, the Yankees and Blue Jays will demonstrate just how much of a modern rivalry they have.
If this were an old-school game, either Clarke Schmidt or Yusei Kikuchi would plunk somebody in the first inning. The benches would clear. The insults would fly.
But with the Blue Jays trying to secure one of the wild-card spots and the Yankees trying to stall their tragic number with a youthful lineup, perhaps no nothing will materialize, the two teams won’t mention what happened in Rogers Centre and the incidents will become buried footnotes of the 2023 season.
There are certainly compelling storylines carrying over from that wild series in Toronto, though. The Blue Jays’ broadcasters pointed out Aaron Judge kept moving his eyes toward the dugout, which he originally attributed postgame to his Yankees teammates engaging in back-and-forth chatter after manager Aaron Boone’s ejection. The Blue Jays wanted MLB to investigate potential rule violations, and the next night, after the Blue Jays dugout called out third-base coach Luis Rojas for where he was standing, Toronto manager John Schneider shouted “shut up, fat boy” toward the Yankees dugout.
And after all of that back-and-forth, the Blue Jays pitcher facing Judge — reliever Jay Jackson — admitted to tipping his pitches.
Domingo German, currently on the restricted list while receiving treatment for alcohol abuse, was ejected for a sticky-stuff violation in that series, too. Crew chief James Hoye told a pool reporter that it was the “stickiest hand I’ve ever felt.”
So for six of the Yankees’ next nine games, thoughts of what unfolded in Toronto will likely emerge — especially on broadcasts and during interviews. Managers and players will get asked about the spillover effects, the memories, perhaps even the absurdity of it all.
Then the games will show whether this could be the deepening of an old-school rivalry. Those four meetings in May at least laid a foundation.
Laney lights the way for Liberty
Early in the season, Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello approached Betnijah Laney and asked for patience.
The former All-Star’s role had changed at the start of her third season with the Liberty — a byproduct of having a newly assembled superteam, with Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones joining Sabrina Ionescu — and Laney became more of an off-ball player.
Laney didn’t need to average 16.8 points per game, as she did in leading the team in 2021, or even anything close to it. The Liberty needed her to guard the opponent’s best player, knock down some corner 3s and fill key roles alongside their other stars.
Laney’s season started off slow. Brondello reiterated the team would find a way to incorporate her strengths on offense, too, so the Liberty started posting up the 6-foot wing and “trying to exploit her on mismatches,” Brondello said.
As the Liberty enter Game 2 of their first-round playoff series Tuesday against the Mystics (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), Laney — who signed a contract extension earlier this month to remain with the Liberty through 2025 — has emerged as a key source of offense to complement her defense, averaging 16.0 points across the final 14 games of the regular season and then contributing 19 points and eight rebounds in their Game 1 victory Friday.
“[Laney] could’ve become a free agent and tested the market, but we’re very, very happy that she chose to stay here and continue to build what we have here with this team,” Brondello said Sept. 10, one day after Laney’s extension was announced. “We talked about all players making sacrifices in the beginning and [Laney] did, but I think her game has gone to another level.”
When asked about her different role this season, Laney said her assignments have changed throughout her eight-year WNBA career. She made her lone All-Star appearance in 2021 with the Liberty — her first season with the franchise after winning 2020 Most Improved Player with the Atlanta Dream — and then started working with Brondello as a two-way player when the now-coach arrived the following season.
“I think just continuing to lock in, to try my best to be consistent,” Laney said about her defense. “I know that that’s what the team relies on me [for], and as I said before, just trying to be the best professional that I can be. So if that’s my role, to just be the best in it.”
Laney finished the 2023 regular season with a defensive rating of 98.8, which marked her second consecutive season with the metric sitting under 100 (96.6 in 2022). It took time for the Liberty’s coaching staff to implement her into the offensive gameplan, especially with Stewart playing like an MVP and Vandersloot and Ionescu pulling the strings from the backcourt.
In Game 1 against the Mystics, Laney shot 8-for-15 from the field, only trailing Ionescu in shot attempts as well as Ionescu and Jones for points. It was the latest sign of her versatility, her altered role standing out among the other members of the superteam.
Laney’s patience, and Brondello’s assistance with helping her evolve, had finally started to pay off.
“Everyone should have a piece of the pie,” Brondello said, “because it makes it more fun.”
End of an era
For the first time since Tom Brady’s first campaign as a full-time starter in 2001, the Patriots have opened with an 0-2 record, following Sunday night’s one-score loss to the Dolphins.
Earlier in the weekend, perhaps a bit unnoticed with Deion Sanders and Colorado stealing the national spotlight, Alabama stumbled again.
Yes, they managed to beat South Florida, but the 17-3 victory — it was 3-3 at halftime — wasn’t much of an accomplishment. They’re 2-1, with a loss to Texas, and at No. 13 in the AP rankings, they are outside the top 10 for the first time since 2015.
Alabama doesn’t resemble a College Football Playoff team this year given its quarterback carousel — as well as the stability of Georgia and Michigan and the surprises of Florida and Texas. The Patriots, unless the Rodgers-less Jets bail them out, are tracking toward the AFC East basement despite a strong defense.
Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, both 71, long have always been associated because of their perennial winning programs, taciturn demeanors and shared coaching tree.
And now their dynasties are falling apart at the same time.
With much of the modern NFL dictated by explosive offenses, the Patriots — featuring former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones — have fallen behind. They don’t have the dynamic playmakers that helped define the Brady era, such as Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots’ defining highlight in Week 2 was a bit of special-teams wizardry: Brenden Schooler getting a flying perpendicular start and knocking away a field-goal attempt. Their offense managed just 288 total yards.
That’s not entirely the same conundrum in Alabama. They still have the five-star recruits and the reputation as the SEC’s best team. That won’t change after one underwhelming season. But the Crimson Tide have never had a quarterback problem. Since 2010, they’ve cycled through Greg McElroy (national champion), A.J. McCarron (two-time national champion), Blake Sims (SEC champion), Jake Coker (national champion), Jalen Hurts (national runner-up), Tua Tagovailoa (national champion), Jones (national champion) and Bryce Young (SEC champion).
Jalen Milroe, Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson haven’t provided anything close to that level of stability in 2023. While it might be easier for Alabama to recruit (or transfer-portal) its way to another dynasty than it would be for the Patriots to rediscover that same dominance, it’s at least fitting that the crumbling of Saban’s grip on college football has overlapped with Belichick’s NFL downfall.
A new era has arrived for both levels of the sport. And for now, at least, it appears the longtime powerhouses could get left behind.
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