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Why there’s still hope for Zach Wilson

The former BYU standout isn’t the first young QB to struggle in the NFL. Whether he’ll be among those who figured it out, time will tell

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New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson reacts after play against Jacksonville on Dec. 22, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J.

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson reacts after play against Jacksonville on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J. It’s been tough sledding for Wilson since being drafted No. 2 overall in 2021.

Adam Hunger, Associated Press

No sooner had Year 2 ended than Zach Wilson threw down the gauntlet. Faced with the possibility of the New York Jets signing a veteran quarterback to challenge him for the starting job next season, Wilson said, “I’m going to make that dude’s life hell every day in practice.”

Wilson spent the final game on the sideline, playing (or, rather, not playing) behind 15-year veteran Joe Flacco, who threw for 149 yards in another loss. The play at quarterback clearly cost the 7-10 Jets a playoff spot. Wilson had a miserable season. He missed the first three games with an injury and was benched for six games in the second half of the season.

It was one thing to have a weak rookie season, but he made little improvement in his second season. After two seasons, he has an 8-14 record as a starter, completing 55.2% of his passes and totaling 15 TD passes, 18 interceptions and 6.4 yards per attempt.

The Jets have stated that they will not try to move him to another team. So Wilson and the Jets are all-in for next season, but what are the chances of the quarterback turning things around after such a poor start? How does the start of Wilson’s NFL career compare with that of quarterbacks who have had successful careers?

Glad you asked.

Very few quarterbacks play well as rookies (quarterbacks tend to win most offensive awards, yet only 10 of the 55 Offensive Rookie of the Year honors have been awarded to quarterbacks). There was a time when teams didn’t expect much of young quarterbacks. If coaches played rookies at all, they were more patient than they are in the modern era. 

None of the following Hall of Fame quarterbacks were handed the starting job as rookies: Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. We know what they went on to do.

Here’s a look at how a handful of great quarterbacks fared early in their careers when given the chance to start. The vast majority of them played poorly as rookies; many of them played badly in their second seasons, as well, just like Wilson. Most of them figured it out in or by their third seasons.

  • Peyton Manning — As a rookie, he started all 16 games and won just three of them. He threw 26 touchdown passes against 28 interceptions. He averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt. He had a paltry passer rating of 71.2. In his second season, he flipped his won-lost record to 13-3 while throwing for 4,135 yards, 26 TDs, 15 interceptions and his rating climbed to 90. He improved that performance in his third season, throwing for 4,413 yards, 33 TD passes, 15 interceptions, and he was off and running (or, in this case, passing).
  • Johnny Unitas — As a rookie he started seven games and won three of them. He threw nine TD passes and 10 interceptions and finished with a rating of 74.0. He improved dramatically a year later (7-5 won-lost record, 2,550 yards, 24 TDs, 17 interceptions) and again in his third year (2,007 yards, 19 TDs, seven interceptions, 8-1 won-lost).
  • John Elway — He had an awful rookie season, throwing seven touchdowns against 14 interceptions, winning only four of 10 starts, with a paltry 54.9 passer rating. A year later he was 12-2 as a starter and threw 18 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions. He improved his passer rating to 76.8 (which was average at the time, but he never would be an efficient passer (79.9 for his career), which nonetheless didn’t stop his Hall of Fame election.
  • Steve Young — He was 1-4 as a starter during his first year in the NFL, and this was with two years of experience in the USFL. He had an atrocious 56.9 passer rating. His second year wasn’t much better. After two years in the league he had 11 TD passes and 21 interceptions. His career didn’t take off until he landed with the 49ers in time for his third season, when he was transformed by coach Bill Walsh and threw 10 TD passes and zero interceptions in eight game appearances.
  • Terry Bradshaw — He was worse than awful as a rookie (six TD passes, 24 interceptions and an almost unheard of passer rating of 30.4). He didn’t fare much better in his second season. After two seasons he had 19 TD passes and a whopping 46 interceptions. He looked like a bust. He began to gain traction in his third season and went on to win four Super Bowls.
  • Troy Aikman — He hardly looked like a future Hall of Famer as a rookie, when he lost all 11 of his starts and totaled nine TD passes to 18 interceptions. His passer rating was 55.7, and he averaged a meager 6.0 yards per attempt. His second season was not much better (11 TD passes, 18 interceptions). Like Young and Bradshaw, he was much improved in his third season but really didn’t take off until his fourth season.
  • Dan Marino — He was one of the rare rookies who played well in his first season, winning 7 of 9 starts and throwing for 20 TDs, six interceptions and 7.5 yards per attempt (a rating of 96.0). He improved again the following season, setting six NFL single-season passing records, including yards (5,084) and TDs (48), and he took his team to the Super Bowl. The record for passing yards stood for 26 years.
  • Ben Roethlisberger — Along with Marino, he is another of those rare rookies who made a seamless transition to the NFL. He was 13-0 as a starter, averaging nearly 9 yards per attempt and boasting a 98.1 rating, with 17 TDs and 11 interceptions. He became the first quarterback in 34 years to win Rookie of the Year honors.
  • Dan Fouts — He was winless in six starts as a rookie and completed just 44.8% of his passes. After three seasons he had 16 TD passes and 36 interceptions. It really wasn’t until his sixth season that he began to excel.
  • Matt Stafford — He threw more interceptions (20) than TDs (13) as a rookie and won only two games with the lowly Lions. His career took off in his third season when he threw for 5,038 yards, 41 TDs and 16 interceptions.
  • Josh Allen — Along with Mahomes, he is the best young quarterback in the NFL now, but during his rookie year he threw 10 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions and completed just 52.8% of his passes. He sported a terrible passer rating of 67.9. But in his second season he was a different player, throwing 20 TD passes and nine interceptions and improved his pass efficiency rating by 17 points. He became a superstar in Year 3.

The thing these quarterbacks have in common is that they were given time to develop despite many mistakes and lost games, and most of them, by Year 2 or 3, established themselves as their team’s quarterback of the future. Wilson could still turn around his career, but it remains to be seen if the Jets have the patience to endure another season like the one that just finished.

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New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) huddles with teammates against the Jacksonville Jaguars during game Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J.

Adam Hunger, Associated Press