Zach Wilson’s chance to pull his career out of the dumps in New York depends on how humble he can be and how hard he works behind Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers, claim those who know him best.

The Jets never had the luxury of placing Rodgers around Wilson when they picked him out of BYU and made him the starter after his junior season of college. 

Two years ago, my colleague Doug Robinson begged the Jets not to take Wilson. He got a lot of flak for writing that from Jets fans. But he foresaw a big issue.

It would be like putting a sturdy log into a woodchipper and expecting a Christmas tree to pop out.

That’s kind of what happened to Wilson. A lot was his fault. Some would say all of it is his fault, that he is a bust. Is that really fair?

Part of Wilson’s struggles could be due to injuries to teammates, and to himself, missing his first games as an NFL rookie and a franchise trying to make a big pivot. At times Wilson ran for his life, got out of rhythm, and made plenty of bad decisions and bad throws. He was not very good. But he also had his moments the past two seasons. Then there was the death of quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp on the eve of the Jets camp in 2021, before Wilson’s rookie year.

Wilson is very talented. He has an elite arm. He’s a skilled athlete and knows how to work hard. What he did not get when he started his career in the NFL was a break-in period many other successful quarterbacks have enjoyed early in their careers.

Right now, before the Rodgers experiment, he’s just another Jets QB who struggled. The list is long and proof of franchise tries. Victims include Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, Sam Darnold, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown, Luke Falk, Trevor Siemian, Mike White and Joe Flacco.

What do they all have in common? Unfulfilled experiences in a New York Jets uniform.

Today, Wilson and Rodgers are determined to create a successful QB for the Jets. Rodgers is committed and confident as a veteran; Wilson is humbled and expectant, and motivated to prove himself.

That should energize hungry Jets fans.

Celebrate Rodgers time

Quarterback guru John Beck, who tutored Wilson during his college tenure at BYU and even joined the Jets staff in 2022, declared this is the time for Jets fans to rally and celebrate having Rodgers lead the team. Period. That’s what all the hype should be about.

Speaking on the “Rich Eisen Show” after the Rodgers acquisition, Beck said there isn’t anything he can say that will take the bitter taste they have in their mouths away over Wilson and how many believe he is toast.

“If Zach were sitting in this chair he would and should say the same thing: ‘It didn’t work out the way I liked.’  

“Zach’s extremely talented. He’s very passionate. Those things will never change about the kid. I love the way he works. And I believe in that dude a lot. I think that there are good things in store for him,” he continued. “And like any quarterback that has gone through tough things, there’s a better version of yourself on the other side.

“Now, it will take some things from the organization, like they still have to have faith. They still have to have some patience. I think this Aaron Rodgers situation can be great for Zach because what would have benefited him in Year 1 he may be getting in Year 3.”

Beck speaks from experience. Situations are key. What you are drafted to counts. As a second-round pick by Miami, Beck’s coaching staff melted away after a year. Similar situations followed Beck at Washington.

“It would have been great to have them take Zach and have a veteran there,” said Beck. “Even just through the first part of the season, through training camp, but the second that Zach got there, he was ‘The Guy’ and it didn’t work. It didn’t work like Zach hoped, and it didn’t work like the Jets hoped.”

Beck believes in Wilson

Beck, who works for 3DQB out of Huntington Beach, California, invited Drew Brees to come to Southern California to speak to NFL draft prospects earlier this year. The star QB explained how he was benched twice and San Diego then drafted Philip Rivers. Beck’s message was clear, things are not always without challenges. Brees then stepped up and was named to 13 Pro Bowls before retiring as a superstar legend with New Orleans.

Washington Redskins quarterback John Beck throws to a receiver during game against the San Francisco 49ers in Landover, Md on In this Nov. 6, 2011. The former BYU standout still believes in Zach Wilson as an NFL quarterback. | Nick Wass, Associated Press

Before Steve Young was a Super Bowl MVP and Hall of Famer, he struggled as a high pick in the USFL for the Los Angeles Express and with Tampa Bay Buccaneers before settling into a role, learning from Joe Montana under Bill Walsh at San Francisco.

Dustin Smith, co-founder of QBElite along with Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and Mark Brunell, worked with Wilson when he played at Corner Canyon High in Utah. Smith believes Rodgers and Wilson can become a beneficial union in New York.

“I think that Zach got five years of NFL experience in two in these first two years and I think he went through about every type of emotion probably imaginable during those two years,” said Smith earlier this week.  

“Zach had success and he had the mistakes on the field and then he had some tests in a media room. I can’t imagine that he hasn’t grown up significantly and matured from those first two years.

“I think having somebody like Aaron Rodgers there is going to be a tremendous upside for Zach. Hopefully, they both come into camp with Aaron believing this is a chance for him to pass on some experience and knowledge to a hungry up-and-coming kid who wants to be great and who has gone through a lot, and sort of leave a legacy behind with Zach.

“And if Rodgers does that, and Zach will take the good and the bad from Aaron Rodgers, then I think this is an invaluable opportunity for Zach to continue his maturity in the NFL and get to where I think he’s capable of becoming, which is a successful starting quarterback.”

Wilson’s first two years are similar to former Wyoming and current Buffalo QB Josh Allen’s first two seasons. Wilson has completed 55.2% of his passes for 4,022 yards, 15 touchdowns with 18 interceptions. He has a 70.9 pass rating. After Year 2 in the NFL, Allen had completed 55.8% of his passes for 5,163 yards with 30 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions with a 76.5 rating.

Many Hall of Famers were not thrust into the starting role like Wilson was his rookie season.  They include Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, Rodgers, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.

Many stars began slowly

In addition to Allen and Young, there are many famous quarterbacks who struggled early as starters in their careers, including Peyton Manning, Johnny Unitas, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Fouts and Matthew Stafford.

Take 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. 

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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.

Former Green Bay, Dallas, Los Angeles and BYU linebacker Brady Poppinga, who works as a sideline reporter for Fox Deportes, was at an airport listening to banter between Rodgers and 16-year NFL veteran Alex Smith about the draft, speculating who would be taken first, second and so on. Poppinga finally spoke up. “It doesn’t matter where you’re taken. What matters is where you go.”

Older than both Rodgers and Smith, Poppinga believed he had a legitimate perspective.  Speaking to ESPN 960 Radio in Provo, he said, “Just look at the different paths of Rodgers and Smith. There’s absolutely a correlation as to the reason why Aaron ended up having a holiday and Alex Smith didn’t. I mean, I think in his (Smith’s) first four or five years he had four or five or six different offense coordinators.”

Closer to home, Poppinga said Beck had an elite arm, not like Rodgers or Brett Favre, but certainly better than Manning or Brady, in the same category as Tony Romo or Roethlisberger. “Nobody works harder than Beck,” he said. “But when Miami took him in the second round, they then went 1-15 and everybody on the staff was gone. He was then thrown to the scrap pile before going to Washington where he had to fight his way up. It was kind of like the Alex Smith story.” Smith was once a No. 1 pick.

“It absolutely matters where you land.” 

Poppinga said when Minnesota picked BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, once a backup to Wilson, in the fifth round last month, Hall was in a far better situation than Wilson was when the Jets picked him No. 2 in 2021.

“For just starting off, Hall is in a much better position than Wilson. It’s a great position for Hall because Kirk Cousins is at a point in his career and the Vikings are looking for a replacement. They are done paying Cousins $30 or $40 million a year, but at the same time they aren’t ready to cut ties with him.” Hall has a chance to learn and adjust to the league.

Wilson’s backup with better NFL chance?

Poppinga said Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, drafted by New England before playing a role for the Jets as a backup, is going to give Hall every opportunity to succeed. In other words, he won’t be put through a woodchipper out of the gate.

“They’re going to build a scheme around Hall. The scheme they’re going to play in Minnesota is the exact scheme in terms of principles as the scheme (BYU offensive coordinator) Aaron Roderick uses at BYU in terms of an outside zone blocking run scheme as a base that works complimentary to the pass game and there will be guys all around him that are used to running it, so I think Hall has landed in a perfect spot.”

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall warms up before taking on Notre Dame at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.
BYU quarterback Jaren Hall warms up before taking on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. Hall was selected in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Poppinga praised O’Connell for his wisdom and acumen as a QB teacher and gave a Jets anecdote directly shared by O’Connell to emphasize his point.

Poppinga said former Jets coach Rex Ryan brought O’Connell in from the Patriots practice squad before the playoffs for one reason — to find a way to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Reciting a story O’Connell told at a broadcasting boot camp, O’Connell said Ryan called him to come directly to his office.

O’Connell wasn’t even taken on a facility tour, shown where the snacks were or introduced to staff. He went directly to Ryan’s office where a video screen, remote and pointer were set up. Ryan wanted to know how to beat Brady.

O’Connell showed Ryan the poison pill for a Patriots protection scheme and how to counter, what to show and what to adjust. It worked when the Jets stunned the Pats in the AFC playoffs.

“Kevin gained a reputation from that point on, and while he got into broadcasting, he had this pull to get back into coaching because he had this innate ability to break down defenses. He’s really good with quarterbacks. He’s new-age,” Poppinga added.

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When New York drafted Wilson, Robert Saleh was just hired as the head coach. QBs coach Knapp was tragically killed in a biking accident before he could work with Wilson and Saleh brought in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur the same offseason they drafted Wilson.  LaFleur left the Jets last January and Rodgers and Wilson will now work with his replacement, Nate Hackett.

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Jets have plenty of work

In the meantime, New York has yet to name a starting tackle who will protect Rodgers’ back. Nobody wants to see a Hall of Famer put through a woodchipper in 2023, but …

Beck says he isn’t making excuses for Wilson and Wilson isn’t going around blaming the Jets for his failures. Wilson is manning up that he needs help, needs work and Beck says Wilson will grind and grind his tail off to get better. “That’s what Zach does best.”

Beck believes there are good things in store for Wilson because folks in the organization have faith in him. Beck praises Saleh and likes him. “I have a lot of friends on the Jets,” Beck said. “There are folks in the Jets organization that want Wilson to succeed.

Beck said what Wilson is going through now should be looked at in a positive light — the only way it can be productive for him.

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“I like the challenge that Zach gets to have in his life to have this happen. You know, we were talking about Steve Young and the things that he had to go through. If you talk to Steve, he’ll talk about how those things made him stronger.”

Many long-suffering Jets fans may be through with Wilson. Others see it differently because they know what Wilson is capable of doing. This respite behind Rodgers is what Wilson needed in 2020. Rodgers is all-in with it.

The two built a relationship the past two seasons when Rodgers played for the Packers and Wilson was trying to find how to hold the reins as an NFL starting QB.

“The last couple years he’s hit me up from time to time during the season,” Rodgers told reporters after his acquisition by the Jets. “Obviously we’ve spent time together. I love him, I really do.”

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) and New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) talk during a joint NFL football training camp practice Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. The two QBs are now Jets teammates in New York. | Matt Ludtke, Associated Press
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