Welcome To New York
In case you were wondering, the honeymoon period for New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is officially over. It ended a few minutes into the team’s second game of the season and first home contest last Sunday against the New England Patriots, somewhere after the first of Wilson’s four interceptions on the day. We know that because the Gang Green faithful welcomed the BYU rookie with a cascade of boos, a visceral reminder to this year’s number two draft pick that he’s definitely not in Utah anymore.
Perhaps what made it even worse was that the Patriots, who won 25-6 in a game that was just as lopsided as the score would indicate, were led by fellow rookie Mac Jones, the Alabama quarterback taken 13 spots later in the draft with far lower expectations and anticipation. Jones completed 22 of 30 with no interceptions, a stat line that’s somewhat deceiving given the low risk play calling from the sidelines. Regardless, Jets fans feel like they’ve seen this show before, most recently featuring lead man Sam Darnold who was booed out of town last year before miraculously going 2-0 to start the season for the Carolina Panthers, who, of course, beat the Jets in week one.
Wilson, to his credit, handled it well, saying both that he doesn’t pay much attention to the noise and that fans probably should boo that kind of performance. This indicated that Wilson has either a) a thick skin, b) a great PR team, or c) the ability to lie convincingly. I’m guessing he’ll need to keep it up most of the season, since any football analyst will struggle to find many winnable games on the Jets schedule. On a positive note, the Jets’ backup QB is Mike White, who has never completed an NFL regular season pass. So at this point, it’s ride or die with Zach Wilson.
This isn’t a new narrative around sports fans and top draft picks, especially quarterbacks. Despite the fact that there are 11 people playing offense and the fact that the NFL is wildly different than college football and the fact that top quarterbacks are usually drafted by otherwise awful teams, fans seems to have very little patience or perspective when it comes to their messiah. I don’t care how good Zach Wilson is or isn’t, it would be nearly impossible for him to succeed just two games into his new life. Just ask fellow rookie QB Trevor Lawrence how it’s going in Jacksonville. Spoiler alert, they’re 0-2.
This used to be less of a problem, of course, back in the old days when rookie quarterbacks could at least finish their HR paperwork before starting. But heightened expectations, salary structures, and the short timeline on player assessment – not to mention the weight of social media – has changed that onboarding process. Fans don’t want to see Andy Dalton play while Justin Fields holds a clipboard on the sidelines, something they won’t since Dalton went down with an injury at the beginning of the Bears game against Cincinnati. As much as it might be better to let the young guns sit and learn, it’s just not going to happen these days, at least not with anyone drafted on day one.
So what should this mean for fans, especially New York Jets fans, one of, and I mean this with sincerity, the absolute worst fanbases in all of sports this side of Philadelphia. Any reputation they have is well earned, and it’s no surprise they couldn’t contain their guttural emotion before Wilson even learned directions to the stadium. At the very least, it demonstrates the heightened sense of fandom and human commodification in the age of interactive media and exorbitant ticket prices. It’s a simple trope to suggest that Wilson almost deserves this because of how much money he gets paid. I think that’s probably the wrong point. It’s not whether he’s earned the admonishment, because in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What’s interesting is that this is how New York sports fans choose to enjoy their time with their favorite football team. Not cheering, or crying, or even booing the other team. But yelling at their own prodigy because he’s not making them feel better. That’s quite a sociology experiment, if not a psychology one as well. Of course, I’m certain the Jets employ team therapists – for the players, not the fans – to make sure Wilson doesn’t lose his mojo too quickly. At the very least, he should be aware that the honeymoon, if there ever was one, is officially over.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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