Can Zach Wilson succeed in New York? A history of New York Jets QBs

How does Zach Wilson compare to Jets QBs in previous history?

By: Andy Davies

The New York Jets have a new quarterback. BYU’s Zach Wilson was taken second overall by the franchise in this year’s draft. Three years after trading up to get Sam Darnold at number three, the Jets have a new quarterback to pin their hopes on.

Getting a franchise quarterback has been a struggle ever since the departure of Joe Namath, winning Super Bowl 3 but failing to make the big game again. Darnold’s failure and subsequent trade to the Carolina Panthers is just another example in a long list of struggles at the position. 

Can Zach Wilson be the man to change this? Let’s take a look at a list of starting quarterbacks to have started at least ten games for the Jets during the Super Bowl era and whether Wilson can succeed in the NFL.

Joe Namath (1965-76)

Namath was the first Jets quarterback of the Super Bowl era and still stands as the best in franchise history. He was the starter when the Jets shocked the world by beating the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in a game that would change the history of the sport forever. In the first officially named Super Bowl, the Jets went into the game as massive underdogs before the team from the AFC beat the team from the NFC for the first time. This showed the entire sport that both conferences can beat each other and the league has never looked back.

Al Woodall played during Namath’s absence when he threatened to retired but during his time with the Jets, Namath was both the passing yards and passing touchdowns leader in the 1972 season. He also won the Comeback Player of the Year award in 1974 and had his number 12 jersey retired by the organization. He threw for 27,057 yards and 170 touchdowns during his time with the Jets, a career that saw Namath inducted into the Hall of Fame. 

As well as being a great player on the field, Namath was also known for his character off the field. As well as his infectious personality which saw him often spend time with women on the night before games, ‘Broadway Joe’ was an important figure for the NFL. It is not a surprise that the Jets have struggled to find anyone since with both the personality and ability of Namath.

Richard Todd (1976-83)

Namath left the Jets in 1977 for the Los Angeles Rams and his successor was Richard Todd, the sixth overall pick in the 1976 NFL Draft. He was taken by the Jets, who intended for Todd to replace Namath. Todd’s idol growing up was Namath and he spoke of what the experience was like playing alongside his childhood hero. 

“I thought it was great. It was very cool to hang out with Joe, watching his leadership and how he played. I hoped the Jets would let Joe be my tutor for four years but it didn’t work like that”. 

Todd is third in total yards recorded by any Jets quarterback in franchise history, with 24,386 yards and 110 touchdowns. However, Todd also had 138 interceptions, a 42-51-1 record as a starter and was at times booed by fans. He did guide the Jets to the AFC Championship during the 1982 season, a year after losing in the Wildcard Round to the Buffalo Bills. Todd would face a quarterback battle against Dan Marino and he vastly struggled. At Miami’s Orange Bowl, Todd was sacked four times as well as throwing for five interceptions and going 15-of-37 on his completions. He would last just one more season for the Jets before being traded to the New Orleans Saints. 

Pat Ryan (1978-89)

Joe Walton took over as Jets head coach during Todd’s final season and decided to start Ryan, who went 281st overall in the 1978 NFL Draft. Ryan didn’t start a game until Walton gave him the opportunity in 1984, where he started eleven games. This was his one true season as the Jets’ QB1, but threw for just 1,939 yards, 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in the 1984 season and only started eight more games in the remaining five seasons of his Jets career. He did get the chance to lead the Jets in the playoffs during the 1986 season, where he took over from the benched Ken O’Brien. Ryan threw three touchdown passes as the Jets beat the Kansas City Chiefs before they lost to the Cleveland Browns in overtime in the Divisional Round.

“I was in disbelief and there was no suggestion it was going to happen. I didn’t play a lot but when I did, I did a fairly good job”, Ryan said when discussing replacing O’Brien.

Ken O’Brien (1984-92)

O’Brien was the starter in 1984, before the aforementioned benching for Ryan during the 1986 season. Only Namath has thrown more passing yards for the Jets than O’Brien, who was a two-time Pro Bowler and the NFL passer rating leader in 1985. He recorded a total of 24,386 yards, 124 touchdowns and 95 interceptions during his time with the Jets but failed to win a playoff game in two attempts at a starter (). O’Brien has since spoken of his time with the Jets.

“Things didn’t go the way they were growing and I wish we had done things better, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying”. 

Browning Nagle (1991-93)

Nagle had just a 3-10 record as a starter, recording 7 touchdowns and 17 interceptions during his time with the New York Jets before a more successful career in the Arena Football League.

Boomer Esiason (1993-95)

Esiason was traded to the Jets from the Cincinnati Bengals, who received a third-round pick in exchange. Despite winning the Most Valuable Player award with the Bengals in the 1988 season that saw them go to their second-ever Super Bowl, Esiason’s numbers began to drop. He recorded 20 or more touchdowns in 5 of his first 7 NFL seasons before a disappointing final two seasons with Cincinnati, recording 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 1991 along with just 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 1992.

The decline continued into his time with the Jets, with a 15-27 record as a starter. Unfortunately for New York, it appears that the Jets picked Esiason five seasons too late.

Neil O’Donnell (1996-97)

Despite being a Pro Bowler in 1992 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, O’Donnell was traded to the Jets in 1996 in the offseason after throwing three interceptions in their Super Bowl 30 loss to the Dallas Cowboys

During his two seasons with the Jets, he posted an 8-12 record as a starter, throwing for 3,943 yards, 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.  In an article on Jets Wire back in 2016, O’Donnell was named the Jets’ worst ever Free Agency signing, although Le’Veon Bell may give him a run for his money if the article was written tomorrow. 

O’Donnell never worked out in New York,  but the Jets soon got a good replacement through the facility doors. 

Vinny Testaverde (1998-03, 2005)

Testaverde came to the organization late in his career but certainly made the most of it, earning one of his two Pro Bowl selections whilst with the Jets during his first season at the franchise. He left for the Cowboys but only lasted one season before heading back for a single year. 

He was part of a game in 2000 that many call the best ‘Monday Night Football’ game of all-time in an AFC East matchup against the Dolphins, where the Jets came back from 30-7 down at the beginning of the fourth quarter before bringing the scores back level at 37-37 at the end of regular time. A John Hall 40-yard field goal saw the Jets win in overtime.  It has been called the ‘Monday Night Miracle’ ever since, with the Palm Beach Post calling it a ‘Monday Meltdown’. Testaverde turned up when it mattered in this game, going 18-of-26 with four touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. 

He recorded 12,497 yards, 77 touchdowns, 58 interceptions with a 35-26 record as a starter for the Jets and has a 1-2 record in the postseason whilst playing in New York green.  

Chad Pennington (2000-07)

Pennington is widely regarded as the second or third best quarterback in franchise history along with Testaverde. For those eight seasons he spent with the Jets after being drafted eighteenth overall in 2000 he guided the Jets to the playoffs in three of those eight seasons, despite starting 3 games or less in three of those eight seasons. He posted a record of 2-3 in the playoffs with the Jets, reaching the Wildcard Round once and the Divisional Round twice.

He won the Comeback Player of the Year award in 2006 whilst with the Jets (along with the Dolphins in 2008), was both the passer rating leader and completion percentage leader in 2002, the latter in which he also won as a Dolphin in 2008.  

Only three quarterbacks have thrown for more yards as a Jet than Pennington (13,738), who recorded 82 touchdowns and 55 interceptions with a 32-29 record as a starter. 

Brett Favre (2008)

This one was a big shame. Favre is a Hall of Famer and is seen as one of the best quarterbacks of all time, with many current NFL players who idolized the former Green Bay Packer growing up. The one-time Super Bowl champion finished his career as a three-time MVP, eleven-time Pro Bowler, four-time passing touchdown leader, two-time passing yards leader and a one-time completion percentage leader. His number 4 jersey is also retired by the Packers. 

Favre announced his retirement in March 2008 before returning to the league in the same year. Despite the best attempts of the Minnesota Vikings, Favre was traded to the Jets in exchange for a fourth-round pick. In his one season at the organization, he ended it with 22 touchdowns, 22 interceptions and a 9-7 record as the Jets missed out on the playoffs.  Favre told the Jets he was retiring before he was cut by the team. 

He then decided to join the Vikings, where he reached one of those eleven Pro Bowls in 2009. Favre had a 12-4 record as a starter that season as well as throwing for 33 touchdowns and 7 interceptions as Minnesota reached the NFC Championship. What could have been. 

Mark Sanchez (2009-12)

Sanchez was taken fifth overall by the Jets in 2009 and reached the AFC Championship in his rookie season, albeit recording 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He would also reach the same stage of the postseason a season later. However, Sanchez never had the numbers despite an improvement in his sophomore year that saw him record 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The 2010 sophomore year saw Sanchez put himself in the history books by becoming the first quarterback to beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in successive weeks. Only Joe Flacco managed this achievement after Sanchez

After his first two seasons, Sanchez failed to make the postseason again in his career, recording 12,092 yards as a Jet as well as 68 touchdowns and 69 interceptions. He is best known nowadays for one play that took place on Thanksgiving in 2012 against the New England Patriots, which is referred to as the butt fumble.

With the Jets 14-0 down on 1st and 10 around their 30-yard line, Sanchez ran into the backside of offensive lineman Brandon Moore, before fumbling the ball. This was picked up by the Patriots safety Stephen Gregory, who took the ball to the end zone to give the Pats a 21-0 lead in a game that finished 49-19 to New England. 

Geno Smith (2013-16)

A second-round pick in 2013, Smith never took his opportunity as a starter, throwing for 5,962 yards, 28 touchdowns and 36 interceptions during his three seasons with New York. He had a 12-18 record as a Jets starter.

Ryan Fitzpatrick (2015-16)

Fitzpatrick is one of the more loved NFL quarterbacks, being the one Jets quarterback with a similar personality to Namath. He is a fun guy who may not have ever been consistent in his professional career, but he had one of his best spells as a Jet. Fitzpatrick may have had a 13-14 record as a starter but threw for 43 touchdowns, 6,615 yards and 32 interceptions during his two seasons.

Josh McCown (2017-18)

McCown only won five games during his sixteen games across two seasons as a starter for the Jets. He never truly got going but was more than likely a stopgap so they could go out and get a quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft. Their intent was clear when they traded up to get the number 3 overall pick. The player they picked, was USC’s Sam Darnold. 

Sam Darnold (2018-20)

Darnold came into the league with plenty of hype, with many seeing him as a potential number one overall. However, his NFL career never really took off. The Panthers trade is seen as a chance for him to resurrect his career after two head coaches in three seasons with the Jets, being caught on microphone saying he was “seeing ghosts” in a 2019 week 7 Monday Night Football loss to the New England Patriots. He threw for 8,097 yards, 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions during his spell with the Jets but failed to convince the franchise to keep him on as they went out and got Wilson. 

There are plenty of people on both sides of the Sam Darnold fence. Some feel his struggles were fully on him, whereas others feel that he will succeed now that he is playing under a promising head coach in Matt Rhule in Carolina. It is safe to say we will see the real Darnold in Charlotte, whether that is good or bad. 

Can Wilson Succeed?

Zach Wilson. Can he finally be the guy to turn the organization around? The Jets have certainly gone out to protect their new guy, by taking guard Alijah Vera-Tucker in the 2021 NFL Draft at fourteenth overall. There is plenty who feel he has bust potential, with only one of his three college seasons seeing more than 12 touchdowns thrown. In 2020, he recorded 33 touchdowns and just three interceptions. This is a great season and he certainly impressed in the combine, was that just a one-off? 

The NFL will be the true test of that and the fact he was second overall will bring its own pressure, especially in a city such as New York. Wilson’s personality appears a lot more reserved than many of the other players taken in the first round, with the Utah native needing to quickly adjust to the change of lifestyle in the big apple. 

His arm looks excellent and he looks able to scramble and make plays in a similar fashion to Patrick Mahomes. Comparing him to the Chiefs superstar is the last thing I want to do for an NFL rookie, but it is hard to ignore the similarity in his college tape. 

The Jets have struggled for too long and need something to ignite the fire back into this organization. Can it be Wilson?

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