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Perspective: In the NFL, brutality isn’t only on the field. The commentators bring it, too

From Zach Wilson to Mac Jones, young quarterbacks are stars one day, losers the next, with no thought to how criticism might land

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New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) answers questions during a news conference after an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J.

Adam Hunger, Associated Press

On Sunday, the media loved Zach Wilson. On Wednesday, he’s the worst thing since the Tuck rule.

Or is it the other way around? Do we hate Wilson on Monday and Saturday and love him on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday? Who knows? One of the kindest things that’s been said about the New York Jets quarterback and BYU grad is that he’s inconsistent — said by the very people who can’t seem to stick with a narrative.

The bingo card for anyone following media coverage about Wilson contains the words “garbage,” “awful” and “disaster” as well as “promise,” “grit” and “best game of his career.”

On Sept. 25, Joe Namath called Wilson’s play against the New England Patriots the previous day “disgusting” and said on “The Michael Kay Show” on ESPN New York Radio, “I wouldn’t keep him. I’ve seen enough of Zach Wilson.”

This week, on the same show, Namath said, “I take it back. I hope he stays for 10 years,” after Wilson’s performance against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night.

Collectively, sports analysts chuckled at Namath’s turnabout, as if his earlier words didn’t matter, or even as if they were positive — tough love to motivate a young quarterback. But there is something deeply unsettling about the way the media machine chews up and spits out these young men every week, based on little more than how they performed in the last game.

And although a New York Post headline said that Namath was “coming around” on Wilson, does anyone doubt that he’ll be done with him again if the Jets lose to the Broncos this week?

It happens all over the league. Just ask Daniel Jones after the New York Giants’ loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Monday, or Mac Jones, who is on the hot seat in New England after the Patriots’ worst loss under Bill Belichick.

In the case of Wilson, the harsh criticism seems particularly unfair, given the circumstances he is playing under this year. He began the season expecting to be an understudy of Aaron Rodgers, but was thrust into the starting lineup when Rodgers was injured, and expected to lead an offense that had been designed for the longtime Green Bay superstar.

With the media, Wilson had a honeymoon of about a week, before analysts were calling for him to be kicked to the curb. For a while, about the only person saying anything positive about Wilson was O.J. Simpson. Now we can rally around him again because of his performance in a 23-20 loss to the Chiefs? Got it.

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) walks off the field after a close loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J.

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) walks off the field after a close loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J.

Adam Hunger, Associated Press

The vitriol heaped upon Wilson is seen elsewhere, of course. Jones, once heralded as the successor to Tom Brady (Cam Newton having been booted after a season), is now “miserable” and “dreadful” since the Patriots aren’t winning. His backup, Bailey Zappe, is alternatively seen as the Pats’ savior-in-waiting or another profound disappointment, to the team and to all of New England.

Jones is 25. Wilson and Zappe are 24. That’s a lot to hang on guys who could legally still be on their parents’ health insurance.

To be fair, professional football players are paid enormous sums of money for their skills and the physical abuse that they take on the field; vitriol from sports radio and media analysts is part of the job as well (though it’s questionable whether their mothers should have to take it from angry fans, as Lisa Wilson has).

But the recent whiplash in the coverage of Wilson shows how absurd the commentary has become. As in certain political circles, no one is talking in measured terms and considering the players as the human beings they are. Everyone shouts. Hyperbole reigns. Player are either the best ever or the worst ever, with little consideration given to the fact that football is a team sport. And why should it matter, when you can say the next day with a grin, “I changed my mind,” as Namath did.

In 2021, Deseret columnist Doug Robinson wrote a widely shared column begging the Jets not to draft Wilson because of the team’s reputation as a graveyard for quarterbacks. As a mother with a son the same age as Wilson, I had another reason to dread that pick: I knew the New York sports media would tear Wilson to shreds, even when he was playing well.

From Philly to Boston, sports commentary has an especially hard edge; sports radio in the Northeast corridor, in particular, has more in common with a bad-tempered Rottweiler than its counterparts in Provo or Tuscaloosa. Into this maw we funnel fresh-faced young men who were treated like conquering kings throughout their college careers, and then as first- or second-round draft picks, are expected to be the saviors of the worst NFL teams.

When it doesn’t happen quickly enough, the brickbats descend. But fear not, young American quarterback — play well enough next weekend, and the Rottweilers will love you again.