CANTON, Ohio — Aaron Rodgers’ advice to Zach Wilson was to take a deep breath, exhale and channel the disappointment of last season into something positive.
The New York Jets‘ third-year quarterback appears to be heeding Rodgers’ wisdom.
With Rodgers taking the night off, Wilson started for the Jets, played efficiently and delivered one of the highlight plays in their 21-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game on Thursday night at Tom Benson Stadium.
Wilson threw a 57-yard bomb to wide receiver Malik Taylor, one of the best moments he’s had in a long time on a football field. In his previous game action, last Dec. 22 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Wilson was booed off his home field.
“Great call by Aaron Rodgers,” a smiling Wilson said of the Taylor play. “Have to give him a little shout-out there.”
Rodgers wasn’t on the headset, but he suggested the play to offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, according to Wilson. It was the latest example in a teacher-pupil relationship that has flourished over the last few months.
“I’m very grateful for him,” Wilson said. “He helps me more than he needs to.”
The Jets are calling this season a reset for Wilson, the 2021 No. 2 overall pick who was benched twice last season and replaced by Rodgers in the offseason. Instead of giving up on him, the Jets made him their No. 2 quarterback, hoping he can learn at the side of Rodgers, one of his boyhood idols.
“I’m loving helping Zach,” Rodgers said in an interview with NBC during the telecast.
Playing on his 24th birthday, Wilson completed three of five passes for 65 yards, leaving with a 6-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
On his 57-yard pass, Wilson knew he had Taylor in man-to-man coverage to his left, but he used his eyes to freeze the middle safety for a split-second — a subtle, veteran-like move. Wilson threw a dime to Taylor, who beat third-string cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. by two yards on a go route.
It was just one play, but it gave Wilson something to build on after two weeks of solid practices.
“For him, it’s rebuilding that confidence and the swag that we fell in love with during the draft process,” coach Robert Saleh said. “I think he’s getting it. I said it before: He’s a rookie all over again. All the footwork is different. All the verbiage is different.”
Wilson, learning a new system under Hackett, figures to get a lot of playing time in the preseason, as Rodgers probably won’t play in the next two games. There’s a chance he could get a quick tune-up in the preseason finale. Until then, it’s Wilson’s offense.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Wilson said when asked if he’s regaining his confidence. “For whatever reason, I feel like I’m trying to find my way. I feel like in this training camp and OTAs, I found what feels comfortable for me. It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s something I’m working at. It’s a great feeling to feel like there’s a good path you’re going down.”
Wilson, a Day 1 starter as a rookie, struggled through two seasons, with an 8-14 record, 15 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. He said 2021 and 2022 “were kind of hectic, I guess — scrambled. Tonight, I felt like I had a plan.”
For another former first-round pick, it was an unexpectedly abbreviated night. Left tackle Mekhi Becton, playing his first game in nearly two years, lasted only seven plays on offense before leaving the game in the middle of a series. He was slated to play 20 to 25 snaps, according to Saleh.
“That turf isn’t friendly for people with my size and my type of injury,” said the 6-foot-7, 350-pound Becton, who had two surgeries on his right knee. “I was feeling it in warmups, so I pulled myself a little earlier. I’m good, though.”
Curiously, Becton returned to play on special teams — four snaps as a blocker on the place-kicking unit. Saleh said Becton “probably has a confidence issue” with his knee.
Becton said it’s not a confidence thing.
“I just have to know this is my new normal,” said Becton, who was upbeat. “I’m going to have days where it’s painful.”