An ode to Zach Wilson, the third-biggest bust in NFL history


Zach Wilson is the bad habit Robert Saleh can’t quit. The mistake he refuses to admit. An endless font of hope that somehow, against the odds, he’ll materialize into a franchise quarterback. On Sunday afternoon Saleh finally pulled the plug on his three year experiment, as Wilson managed to break the one person who was left to believe in him.
Wilson will exist in some fashion in the NFL for a while. He’ll cling on with the Jets, eventually get released, then some team is going to look at him like a fixer-upper and see if they can’t crack the code. It won’t work, but if Sam Darnold and Blaine Gabbert can continue existence in this league — and if Blake Bortles can hang on for eight seasons, then Wilson sure as heck will.
That won’t change that his days as a starting quarterback are effectively over, and he can be chiseled onto Mount Bustmore alongside Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, and Johnny Manziel. The Four Horsemen of the Football Apocalypse.
And you know what? I think Wilson is the third-biggest bust of this group.
Nobody in NFL history is going to eclipse Ryan Leaf. His off-field demons, coupled with being the pick after Peyton Manning will forever establish him as the biggest bust in history. After that comes JaMarcus Russell, a desperate, Hail Mary of a No. 1 pick that saw the Raiders pass over TWO Hall of Famers taken immediately after in Calvin Johnson and Joe Thomas.
Then there’s Johnny Football. The player who I think got bailed out by Zach Wilson. Sure, he only played in 14 games before flaming out of the NFL with substance issues, but he was the No. 22 pick. The majority of the league knew this was a bad move when it happened — and only the Browns were dumb enough to pull the trigger.
Wilson didn’t earn his spot alone. It takes a village to make a player fail like this. When it comes to the Jets’ quarterback it was a bad game of telephone where almost everyone in league circles talked themselves into believing Wilson was the real deal — even though it made no sense.
The feverish, ludicrous hype around Wilson is the single most confounding thing I’ve seen unfold around a draft since I began analyzing the game as a job in 2010. There were people who said straight-faced that Trevor Lawrence would wind up being the Alex Smith of the 2020 NFL Draft, and Wilson would be the Aaron Rodgers. There was nothing to back this up, but it didn’t stop the comparison sticking. An inconsistent quarterback class after Lawrence led to forced comparisons to try and find a gem, and course-correcting for the collective draft miss with Josh Allen led to overcompensation to find traits where they were none with Zach Wilson.
Wilson was, and is, the worst quarterback I’ve ever watched get drafted in the Top 5 since covering the draft. I’ve got the receipts to back this up.
“Wilson always had days to throw downfield because of a clean pocket. Despite this he still had a tendency to move through his progressions too quickly and miss easy options. In the event he was pressured Wilson was too quick to take off and run. His athleticism was enough against his competition to pick up big yards, but this could become a liability in the NFL. […] I can’t shake this feeling that Wilson is going to be a bust though. After watching film I’m not confident in him to be an elite quarterback in the NFL, and it concerns me to think he’ll be selected with that expectation on him.”
At BYU this was a quarterback who had two modes: Toss a ball up to my vastly-superior receivers, or run. That was it. There was not nuance to his game, very few translatable skills to Sunday. If you liked a quarterback who improvised and had faith in his receivers then he was your guy, but outside of that there was nothing. This was a huge problem considering the 2020 BYU schedule was a Charmin-soft 67th in the nation — and when they played Coastal Carolina (the only decent team on their schedule), Wilson was extremely mediocre.
Wilson was a gifted college quarterback when it came to beating up on bad competition. That was it. Somehow the Josh Allen effect made people convinced the film was a lie, and suddenly he’s the No. 2 pick in the draft. The rest is history.
Despite all this, Saleh still isn’t willing to pull the plug on Zach Wilson. He should, but he’s still leaving the door open.
“We’re gonna watch the tape and we’ll make a decision tomorrow,” Saleh answered. “We’ll look at all of it. I’m not ready to answer those questions yet.”
The Jets’ coach is still framing this as a holistic failure, not solely a quarterback problem. Part of that is true, but man … if you’ve watched Zach Wilson play for three years and this point and still need another day to decide if he’s not the guy — I don’t know what to tell you.
At the very least it seems like time is ticking down on all this. Whether Wilson starts next week or not is immaterial. The Jets are just burning the clock until Aaron Rodgers is able to return, and then the Wilson experiment is over.
Winner: Trevor Lawrence
I do love some nice juxtaposition, so let’s move from Zach Wilson to the franchise quarterback taken one spot ahead of him.
It’s not worth gilding the lily too much when it comes to Trevor Lawrence beating the Titans, but it’s still significant. This is the kind of game the Jaguars would always find a way to lose down the stretch and find themselves on the wrong side of the playoff picture because of it. Instead Lawrence played near-flawless football as he went 24-for-32 for 262 yards and two touchdowns in the win.
Lawrence and Christian Kirk are becoming one of the best QB-WR threats in the NFL that not enough people are talking about. Kirk is on pace to have over 1,000 yards this season, and most-importantly the Jaguars’ QB has Calvin Ridley as another outlet.
This feels like a very dangerous team come playoff time, and not enough people are paying attention to this 7-3 team.
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Loser: Frank Reich
The Panthers head coach made a big to-do about taking back play calling duties from offensive coordinator Thomas Brown to get Carolina back on track, and they sucked out loud on offense.
Not only did the Panthers manage fewer than 200 yards of offense in a blowout loss to the Cowboys, but Reich had the audacity after the game to try and gaslight fans, acting as if everything was fine and his team was really in the game all along. They were never in the game.
This coaching experiment has become an utter embarrassment. The team is so bad that Bryce Young is regressing, and everything is on fire.
Winner: C.J. Stroud
I told you I love juxtaposition.
What I loved about Stroud’s game on Sunday is that a multi-interception game didn’t break him. He just kept throwing, believing in his ability, and making plays — even when things weren’t going his way.
This is the mental fortitude it takes to play in the NFL. Being toe-to-toe with the hopeless Cardinals for a much of a game would really hurt a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL, but Stroud knew he was the guy to win the game for Houston. He went on to do precisely that.
Loser: Josh McDaniels
I know he doesn’t have a job right now. That’s the point. With each passing week Antonio Pierce and the Raiders reveal what a fraud McDaniels was as head coach. Sure, Las Vegas lost to the Dolphins in Week 11 — but a one-score loss to one of the best teams in the NFL with a rookie QB is a serious win.
This team is really responding to Pierce as head coach and he should absolutely get the nod for the Raiders long-term. Unfortunately the Raiders are allergic to good decisions and will probably end up hiring Jim Harbaugh or something.
Winner: Tommy Devito
Tell mom to cook something good because Tommy is coming home a winner.
As bad as the Giants’ QB has been the last two weeks he absolutely caught fire on Sunday and dismantled the Commanders. This was a better game than Daniel Jones has had all season, and I’ll be damned he made the Giants actually watchable.
Loser: Brandon Staley
I got nothing left. He’s sinking the Chargers and he’s going to turn Justin Herbert into Philip Rivers.
Staley is supposed to be a defensive-minded coach with one of the worst defenses in the entire NFL. This team would be absolutely abysmal if not for Herbert making them look moderately okay each week, and it’s stunning we haven’t seen a coaching change with Kellen Moore waiting in the wings.


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