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Connor Hughes is a staff writer for The Athletic, covering the New York Jets. He has covered the team since 2014, most recently for The Star-Ledger and NJ.com. Follow Connor on Twitter @connor_j_hughes.

Zach Wilson’s ongoing accuracy issues perplex Jets: ‘He has to be better’

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 12: New York Jets Quarterback Zach Wilson (2) sets to throw a pass during the second half of the National Football League game between the New Orleans Saints  and the New York Jets on December 12, 2021 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. (Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
By Connor Hughes Dec 14, 2021comment-icon@2x.png 115 save-icon@2x.png

It wasn’t an issue in college, nor when talent evaluators studied him further before the 2021 NFL Draft. Actually, most would tell you Zach Wilson was among the more accurate passers of all the quarterbacks available.

That early assessment seemed true when the Jets reported for the start of their offseason program, then training camp, with Wilson in tow. Seventeen Wilson-centered stories ran in The Athletic during that time about the No. 2 selection. So many focused on the ups and downs of the young quarterback’s development. Just one — off his first intrasquad scrimmage — mentioned an observational criticism of his accuracy. That’s because, aside from that day, Wilson hadn’t shown any signs of accuracy issues.

So … what the hell has happened?

“He has to be better,” coach Robert Saleh said.

Wilson’s accuracy deterioration has been among the more alarming aspects of his underwhelming rookie season. He has completed just 160 of 285 pass attempts through his nine starts. That’s a completion percentage of 56.1 — last among quarterbacks who have dropped back at least 289 times.

Wilson has completed better than 60 percent of his passes in games just twice this season, excluding New York’s loss to the Patriots on Nov. 24 when he left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury. Wilson has completed less than 55 percent of his passes three times (Carolina, Denver, New Orleans). He had the worst completion percentage of his young career on Sunday against the Saints, going 19 of 42 (45.24 percent) for 202 yards. He had a 39.4 completion percentage before the game’s final possession, when he completed four consecutive underneath passes against a prevent defense.

Pro Football Focus lists the Jets with 23 dropped passes. That plays a role in Wilson’s completion percentage. However, his adjusted completion percentage (which takes into consideration on-target passes that are not complete), per PFF, is still just 68.8. The Bears’ Justin Fields (63.8 percent) is the only quarterback with a lower percentage.

That’s not good. And it gets worse.

Wilson isn’t just not completing passes. He’s wildly missing them — a trait not correlated to Elijah Moore’s and Corey Davis’ placement on injured reserve last week. Against the Saints, Wilson bounced a bubble screen to Braxton Berrios. He short-hopped one to a wide-open Ryan Griffin in the flat. Even many of the passes Wilson did complete looked difficult — making the receivers twist and turn when they were open. The Saints game isn’t an outlier. Wilson has struggled with this all year. The league average for off-target passes is 15.8 percent, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Wilson has an off-target percentage of 25.1 — worst in the NFL.

Yes, Wilson is a rookie. Yes, bumps and bruises were to be expected as he acclimated to the NFL. Reading professional defenses isn’t easy. The speed of the game is far different. But throwing the football? That didn’t figure to be a problem.

So, again: What the hell happened?

“He’s in his own head, there’s no doubt about it,” Dan Orlovsky, the ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback, told The Athletic. “He’s trying to be too Aaron Rodgers-ish.”

Orlovsky is arguably the top quarterback analyst in the media today. He’s watched virtually every one of Wilson’s starts. He’s seen the accuracy flaws because it’s impossible not to. In his opinion, though, it’s not just one thing leading to the inconsistencies.

Example: Against the Falcons, Wilson wanted to connect with Keelan Cole on a corner shake route. The quarterback tried to rhythmically time everything, from his hitch, to his eyes, to his shoulder, in an attempt to get the corner to jump on the flat route in a Cover 2, while also, in the same movement, hitching to Cole. The result: Wilson threw 5 yards behind Cole for an easy interception.

That’s “football 601 stuff,” Orlovsky said — meaning, it’s only for the best in the NFL. It’s far too advanced for a rookie, because Wilson forgets the basics of playing quarterback while trying to put it all together.

Orlovsky sees other times when Wilson’s footwork deteriorates. He threw a deep crosser against the Texans where, at the time he released the ball, both his feet were off the ground despite standing in a clean pocket. There’s no need for that. On the short, gimme routes, Orlovsky sees a player volleying between the 180 of trying to guide the football — Wilson seems to want to call a Zack Morris timeout, then run the ball to where his guy is and put it right in his hands — but then also throwing 100 miles per hour to players less than 8 yards away.

The cumulative result is a mishmash of quarterbacking no-nos.

“He hears the noise,” Orlovsky said. “He hears the flaws. He hears the issues. When you think about that stuff in a game — when you’re facing pressure, the pocket is collapsing — it’s going to have a negative impact. It’s like a shooter being in an extended slump. You need to start seeing some go in. It’s like he’s thinking his way through the process of throwing, and not letting his body and arm be as natural as possible.

“He’s not throwing reactionary. He’s throwing precautionary.”

The Jets desperately need to find a way to change that. This offense works. Mike White, Joe Flacco and Josh Johnson all experienced varying degrees of success playing in it this year. Wilson, though, is struggling. Perhaps that’s due in part to the number of voices in his ear.

Greg Knapp was originally Wilson’s Jets quarterbacks coach. He died in July after being hit by a driver while riding his bike. Matthew Cavanaugh replaced him, but the Jets added Wilson’s personal quarterback coach, John Beck, to the staff midway through the season. They also have Rob Calabrese — the listed quarterbacks coach.

“They need to hammer home a full-time quarterback coach,” Orlovsky said. “It doesn’t matter who. They just need to find one.”

The 3-10 Jets were officially eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday. That means these final four games — against the Dolphins, Jaguars, Bucs and Bills — are the last of Wilson’s rookie season. There hasn’t been much, other than blind faith, to make anyone believe the 22-year-old is set to break the Jets’ franchise quarterback draught. But, hope can come quickly.

Sam Darnold, the last potential savior, endured similar rookie-year struggles. Then, over the last four weeks, he threw for 931 yards, six touchdowns, one interception and had a quarterback rating of 99.1. His completion percentage his first nine starts: 55.02. In his last four: 64.1.

While the Jets won just one of those games, Darnold’s individual success sent the team into the offseason on a high. A similar strong finish for Wilson can do the same.

The best way to begin: Start completing passes.

“We’ve just got to execute,” Wilson said. “I’ve got to, obviously, be more accurate.”

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Zach’s passes are like Tim Tebow’s. Just so far off target. Not sure that coaching or more experience fixes the ability to get the ball to go where you want it to. I know that Zach didn’t have accuracy issues in college, but BYU was playing nobodies and it was only one season. It’s possible that what we are seeing is who he is at this level. 

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18 minutes ago, Saul Goodman said:

Zach’s passes are like Tim Tebow’s. Just so far off target. Not sure that coaching or more experience fixes the ability to get the ball to go where you want it to. I know that Zach didn’t have accuracy issues in college, but BYU was playing nobodies and it was only one season. It’s possible that what we are seeing is who he is at this level. 

The thing is these off target throws happen when he has a clean pocket and no pressure.  There really is no excuse except he is wound to tight to function. That should change.

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In my opinion, Zach's biggest issue is nerves. I can only imagine what it's like to play against the Troy Trojans, WKU Hilltoppers, and the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, and then play against NFL talent. The coaches have to find a way to slow the game down for him like the Patriots did for Mac Jones. Part of this "slowing down" process will involve an upgrade at RG. If the team can establish a running game that is respected by other teams, it will open up middle and long range passes for Zach.

The kid can flick it and play hero ball. If he can solidify his high percentage plays instead of hitting the feet of his receivers, he'll make it in the NFL.

At the end of the day, Zach needs to step up regardless of what is surrounding him. The success of Zach falls on Zach. A good QB overcomes his situation. 

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6 minutes ago, Irish Jet said:

I just don't see how you come back from this.

Make better passes 10% of the time?

 

That’s being smart and I know its more than that.   Half the plays he seems slower and a little lost.  I think most of the bad plays come from that half.  He needs to slow the game down.  
 

im not expecting major leaps in the last games.   This one could be brutal.  

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59 minutes ago, Sperm Edwards said:

Truth is this is probably the best bet, assuming there's actually a there there.

There's no reason to believe what's likely ailing him most - thinking way too much about way too many things while defenders are trying to take his head off - will suddenly correct between game 13 and games 14-17 this year. He needs major time off working with just 1-2 other guys running routes with nobody or maybe 1 person in coverage, until he regains muscle memory he once had, which he clearly seems to have lost.

His problem (well ok he has multiple, but his primary problem for a rookie) is he's just not accurate. That doesn't get better with experience it gets better with time (unless he's turned himself into a football Knoblauch/Sasser where it never really goes away).

Not recognizing when he should be going for something easier, or not recognizing ways an NFL DC can fool him, or unnecessarily throwing off balance because he's feeling pressure that isn't there? Yeah that stuff will (or anyway it can and often does) improve with experience.

Experience doesn't make yips go away; hopefully time away from live action does. What's most concerning on that front, to me, is he actually had a good amount of time off midseason and when he returned he went right back to his yips (which arguably got worse). 

What I do wonder is if he's also doing this in practice, too, and if Saleh/LaFleur are still sending him out there anyway. 

This post could be straight out of 2009. Very similar to the discussion around Sanchez. 

Remember the red light/green light wristband?

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56 minutes ago, Saul Goodman said:

Zach’s passes are like Tim Tebow’s. Just so far off target. Not sure that coaching or more experience fixes the ability to get the ball to go where you want it to. I know that Zach didn’t have accuracy issues in college, but BYU was playing nobodies and it was only one season. It’s possible that what we are seeing is who he is at this level. 

Any athlete knows that when you are thinking too much it effects your performance. Once he gets comfortable and completes some passes he will be fine. It would help to have some open receivers this Sunday - I watch a lot great QBs on good teams and their receivers seem to be much more open than ours aside from Elijah.

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42 minutes ago, sec101row23 said:

Zach’s biggest and most concerning issue for me is his mental make up,  he just appears to be soft and meek.  I don’t think the locker room has belief in him, and he knows that.  His optics are bad on game day, multiple coaches huddled around him holding his hand, the lost puppy dog look on his face and the lack of enthusiasm around him from his teammates.   His voice gets squeaky in press conferences.   

Couldn't agree more.  Handing him the starting job and making him a team captain is on the coaching staff.  I see no leadership qualities in Wilson.

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1 hour ago, Hal N of Provo said:

Joe Flacco led the team to 17 points.   Why is it gospel that he played well in the offense?  

People point to the Flacco game to rip Zach because Elijah Moore caught 8 passes for 144 yards and a TD in that game, and Moore has largely disappeared when Zach plays. Moore has five TDs this season—only one of those were thrown by Wilson. It’s evidence that Zach is the problem and not the talent around him.

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From a Mayo Clinic article on the yips -

"In some people, the yips are a type of focal dystonia, a condition that causes involuntary muscle contractions during a specific task. It's most likely related to overuse of a certain set of muscles, similar to writer's cramp. Anxiety worsens the effect.

Some athletes become so anxious and self-focused — overthinking to the point of distraction — that their ability to execute a skill, such as putting, is impaired. "Choking" is an extreme form of performance anxiety that may compromise a golfer's or any athlete's game."

I think when the offense is able to sustain itself with a solid running game and the defense can win games vs. giving up an average of 40 every week, the pressure to be perfect eases between Wilson's ears and he gets through this.  This is why Mac Jones is doing so well.  He knows he doesn't have to be the savior up there for the team to win...

 

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10 minutes ago, T0mShane said:

People point to the Flacco game to rip Zach because Elijah Moore caught 8 passes for 144 yards and a TD in that game, and Moore has largely disappeared when Zach plays. Moore has five TDs this season—only one of those were thrown by Wilson. It’s evidence that Zach is the problem and not the talent around him.

Moore is good.   He’s dropped lots of contested balls from Zach that an elite possession guy catches.    Some of the lower stats is on Moore.  

Also didn’t they use Moore differently at the start of the season?

I can’t picture HS and college kids hanging with Moore.  He’s used to being open.  He’s also a rookie who seems extremely driven.  I would not be surprised to see a big jump in that area as he works it.  

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59 minutes ago, Sperm Edwards said:

Truth is this is probably the best bet, assuming there's actually a there there.

There's no reason to believe what's likely ailing him most - thinking way too much about way too many things while defenders are trying to take his head off - will suddenly correct between game 13 and games 14-17 this year. He needs major time off working with just 1-2 other guys running routes with nobody or maybe 1 person in coverage, until he regains muscle memory he once had, which he clearly seems to have lost.

His problem (well ok he has multiple, but his primary problem for a rookie) is he's just not accurate. That doesn't get better with experience it gets better with time (unless he's turned himself into a football Knoblauch/Sasser where it never really goes away).

Not recognizing when he should be going for something easier, or not recognizing ways an NFL DC can fool him, or unnecessarily throwing off balance because he's feeling pressure that isn't there? Yeah that stuff will (or anyway it can and often does) improve with experience.

Experience doesn't make yips go away; hopefully time away from live action does. What's most concerning on that front, to me, is he actually had a good amount of time off midseason and when he returned he went right back to his yips (which arguably got worse). 

What I do wonder is if he's also doing this in practice, too, and if Saleh/LaFleur are still sending him out there anyway. 

I dont think the time off from injury was really gonna do much. It’s just like you said it’s not gonna correct itself between a few games. He needs the off season for that muscle memory to restart. 
I don’t see it in practice and he’s out there after every one doing extra work when practice is done. 
I just think when he’s in game if he doesn’t hit a rhythm early (like drops stopping drives) then he starts to speed up and feel the need to play catch up. Then the defense doesn’t get off the field for 30 minutes and feels he has to make things happen now or he won’t get another chance until next quarter. Throw in a pass rush in his face and he’s all over the place. 

Just get out of this season healthy and hit restart. 

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9 minutes ago, Zachtomims47 said:

I dont think the time off from injury was really gonna do much. It’s just like you said it’s not gonna correct itself between a few games. He needs the off season for that muscle memory to restart. 
I don’t see it in practice and he’s out there after every one doing extra work when practice is done. 
I just think when he’s in game if he doesn’t hit a rhythm early (like drops stopping drives) then he starts to speed up and feel the need to play catch up. Then the defense doesn’t get off the field for 30 minutes and feels he has to make things happen now or he won’t get another chance until next quarter. Throw in a pass rush in his face and he’s all over the place. 

Just get out of this season healthy and hit restart. 

I don’t know if you’re privy to this, but…

Do you get a sense of what people in the building think about Wilson’s chances going forward?

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26 minutes ago, Hal N of Provo said:

Moore is good.   He’s dropped lots of contested balls from Zach that an elite possession guy catches.    Some of the lower stats is on Moore.  

Also didn’t they use Moore differently at the start of the season?

I can’t picture HS and college kids hanging with Moore.  He’s used to being open.  He’s also a rookie who seems extremely driven.  I would not be surprised to see a big jump in that area as he works it.  

I think the other QBs have proven that Moore is ready to go, though.

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