CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:
1. Stamp of approval: It’s a long-standing beat writer tradition that spans decades. Whenever the Jets unveil a rookie quarterback, which happens far too often, you call Jets great and Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Namath to get his take on the kid. He’s the only member of the franchise’s royal family of quarterbacks, so his words still matter.
And Broadway Joe is bullish on Zach Wilson, whom he watched closely in the preseason. He also studied some of his college tape.
“I like the way he moves, adjusts and goes from place to place,” Namath told ESPN. “He seems to be under control, mentally. I haven’t seen him panic in a situation. When I say ‘panic,’ [I mean] make wrong, physical moves. He buys time nicely. His ability to throw everything, even on the move, is impressive.
“His feet are very good. He has reasonably quick feet and they’ll probably get quicker. He’s got good footwork and he’s capable of throwing whether he’s running to his left, running to his right, running from the pocket or running forward. We’ve seen that this preseason. And he hasn’t been throwing into a crowd.”
Namath, 78, who will watch Sunday’s season opener against the Carolina Panthers (1 p.m. ET, CBS) from his home in South Florida, is more fired up than usual. He said Wilson’s upside provides hope.
“Oh, absolutely, it gives the whole team hope,” Namath said. “It gives the fans hope. You can believe what you see unless it’s some kind of a Vegas show with a magician. What you see, you gotta believe, man.”
Namath was impressed that Wilson, 22, was voted a captain by his teammates, saying, “It confirms what we’ve all been hearing about Zach and his leadership.” He’s looking forward to meeting Wilson next weekend when he’s in town for the Jets’ home opener (against the New England Patriots) and his annual charity golf tournament on Long Island.
By the way, Namath wasn’t voted a captain until his fourth season, 1968, the year the Jets won the Super Bowl.
2. Did you know? The Wilson-Sam Darnold matchup is historic — well, kinda, sorta. It’s the first time a quarterback drafted in the top three is starting his first game against a top-three quarterback drafted by the same franchise, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
3. Darnold Bowl: The idea of retaining Darnold and pairing him with Wilson wasn’t just a fleeting idea that came up in a spit-balling session among the Jets’ top decision-makers. Oh, no, they strongly considered it. If the Panthers hadn’t offered three draft picks on April 5, the Jets might have gone to camp with a Darnold-Wilson competition.
“It would’ve been fine in either direction,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “Whether we had Zach at the reins, whether we had Sam, it didn’t really matter to us.”
Oh, don’t get me wrong, it would have been a juicy cover story, but it would have been an unhealthy environment for both players and the team. It could have split the team, and for Wilson, it would have meant fewer reps, impeding his development. It also would have been harder to establish himself as a leader.
It was hard to say goodbye to Darnold, who was popular within the organization, but it was the right move once the Jets drafted Wilson. Namath agreed, saying a Darnold-Wilson pairing could’ve been “problematic” for the team.
“No doubt about it,” Namath said. “It’s a distraction. Players like to say, ‘No, we don’t think about that.’ Hell, it is a distraction. You can’t help it. It jumps into your mind. Players on the field in practice, they’re watching and they see a play and in their brain, they’re thinking, ‘Oh, Sam threw that thing right.’ Yeah, it is a distraction, having that kind of stuff going on.”
All about the team. pic.twitter.com/0VGlBrVOMi
— New York Jets (@nyjets) September 7, 2021
4. Look, a winning streak: The Jets are 4-0 when starting a rookie quarterback in the season opener. Hard to believe, right? It happened in 2018 (Darnold), 2013 (Geno Smith), 2009 (Mark Sanchez) and 1960 (Dick Jamieson). This is the rare case in which you can say the Jets are undefeated at something.
5. Gang (Very) Green: Just how young are the Jets? They open the season with 11 rookies on the 53-man roster — all 10 draft picks and one undrafted free agent (cornerback Isaiah Dunn). They haven’t had anything like this in a long time.
They opened with nine rookies in 2017 — aka The Year of the Tank — although it’s worth noting only two players amounted to anything, safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. The Jets had eight in both 2016 and 2013. Their celebrated 2006 draft class, which produced offensive linemen D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, also had eight on the opening-day roster.
Backup quarterback Mike White also has no NFL experience even though he’s classified as a third-year player. This is the first time since 2013 that a team is entering the season with no regular-season experience at the quarterback position; Josh Johnson has some, but he’s on the practice squad.
6. Grudge match: The Panthers have five former Jets on their roster — Darnold, wide receiver Robby Anderson, guard Pat Elflein, safety Juston Burris and linebacker Frankie Luvu. They also have an almost-connection — coach Matt Rhule, who interviewed for the Jets’ head-coaching vacancy in 2019. He almost had the job, but he and the team had differences of opinion when it came to staffing.
7. Back to Carolina: So much of the focus is on Saleh and his head-coaching debut, but let’s not forget about offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. He makes his NFL debut as a playcaller in the same state where he last called plays. That was Nov. 23, 2013. He was the O-coordinator for Davidson College, which wrapped up an 0-11 season with a 47-14 loss to Campbell before 3,309 fans. He has come a long way.
After much discussion, LaFleur will call plays from the sideline instead of the coaches’ box. It worked well in the preseason and he likes being face to face with Wilson.
8. Money matters: The Jets enter the season with $5.4 million in salary-cap space, which ranks 16th. How’d they get so low? They have $28 million in “dead” money and another $25 million for players on injured reserve.
They made a curious move recently with tight end Ryan Griffin, whom they cut and re-signed a day later. Teams do that all the time with veterans, allowing them to sneak waiver-eligible players through the final cut, but this came at a price. They got nailed with a $500,000 cap charge, per Over the Cap data, because he still had 2021 and 2022 charges remaining on his deal. The new deal also runs through 2022.
9. Cheap thrills: The seven cornerbacks on the roster have a combined cap total of $6.7 million. There are 28 corners in the league making more than that on a per-year basis. Wow.
10. The Last Word: “Some of the music and movies that we bring up, he has no idea. We’re bringing up ‘Caddyshack,’ and he kind of looks at you like, ‘What is Caddyshack?’ You see some of that youthful innocence in the meeting rooms and we all kind of get a chuckle.” — LaFleur on Wilson, who is about half the age of ‘Caddyshack’ (released in 1980).