ARLINGTON, Texas — Zach Wilson was thrown to the wolves long before he had a clue about how to be an NFL quarterback. 

New York can be quick to remind you that a smile is often just a frown turned upside down on the wide-eyed face of a franchise. 

So Wilson was eaten alive, especially emotionally, chewed up and spit out during two years of hell when he stopped loving the game the way he did at BYU. 

Enter Aaron Rodgers. 

On Monday night, exit Aaron Rodgers. 

And now, look who’s back in the saddle against the Cowboys. 

Rodgers touched everyone in the building, no one more so than Wilson. For six invaluable months, Rodgers selflessly served as a Hall of Fame mentor for Wilson and poured every ounce of his vast quarterbacking knowledge and wisdom into him. Wilson was the happiest backup in football. 

Zach Wilson now gets a chance to take over as the Jets’ starter.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

This week at Dallas will be Wilson’s first real chance to change the narrative of his career and begin to author a redemptive story that will leave Rodgers cheering him on and beaming like a proud big brother. 

As much growth as Wilson has displayed, both on the field and in the locker room, by no means is he all grown up, and with Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs leading, coordinator Dan Quinn’s ravenous Cowboys defense, will likely be a bridge too far for him. 

No one should have expected miracles when Wilson was the second-overall draft pick in 2020, and no one should be expecting miracles now. He is not Aaron Rodgers. But maybe he can start to be the Zach Wilson about whom general manager Joe Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh dreamed when they decided to move on from Sam Darnold. 

“He’s starting to look like the Zach that I know, and starting to perform that way,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake told The Post. “I know one thing, with support and love and belief, that kid will flourish. I’ve seen him do that.” 

Jets fans haven’t seen him do that. 

“I know there’s a lot of people that are criticizing him. … I will just tell you, give the kid a chance, man. Give the kid a chance,” Sitake said. “He’s talented, he’s gifted. He needs some mentoring, and he needs the belief and trust, and I promise you he will deliver.” 

Rodgers, along with Nathaniel Hackett, the experienced offensive coordinator Wilson never had, have helped rebuild his confidence. 

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson #2 runs out of the pocket
Jets quarterback Zach Wilson runs out of the pocket against the Bills.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

“It’s always tough when you have these high expectations and you want more than anything to try to accomplish it,” Sitake said. “Maybe it takes you away from who you are and your identity.” 

Fox NFL analyst Mark Sanchez noticed a different Wilson during his training camp visit. 

“It’s a white-hot spotlight, and it can get warm,” Sanchez told The Post. “He was feeling that. He just seemed a little more relaxed. And then it ramped right back up again. Hopefully he enjoyed the break and he’s back ready to go.” 

Wilson has listened to teammates and coaches sing his praises and express their belief in him, but from this day on it will be on him to make sure that endures as more than mere lip service. 

“I like what his coaches are saying, I like what his teammates are saying,” Sitake said, “and if they’re saying the right things, I’m gonna be excited to see what he does on Sundays.” 

The defense will keep the Jets in every game. The question will be whether Wilson can. The Cowboys won’t be daring Rodgers to beat them. They will be daring Wilson to beat them. 

“I expect them to have a plan, and I know we have a plan too, man,” Garrett Wilson told The Post. “If they want to do that, I’m confident that Zach will handle that and will do it. I’m confident that whatever way they make us do it, we can do it, we can handle that.” 

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) throws a pass during practice in Florham Park, NJ.
Jets quarterback Zach Wilson throws a pass during practice in Florham Park, NJ.
Bill Kostroun/New York Post

Zach Wilson should have learned the hard way by now that playing hero ball is only for late-game desperation. 

“He’s so aggressive and so competitive that it’s hard sometimes in zone coverage for him to just check the ball down and move on to the next play when you don’t have a good play,” Sanchez said. “That judgment or discernment is the hardest thing to do at that position. It’s really just an impulse control thing … sometimes you gotta lose the battle to win the war.” 

It could be counterproductive for Hackett to advise Wilson to manage the game and rather than trying to not lose the game. “You can’t coach a quarterback like that,” Sanchez said. But situational reminders and making Wilson feel comfortable are critical. 

“At some point, he’s gonna have to win ‘em a couple of games,” Sanchez said. “I’m not just saying he can go 55 miles an hour in the center lane and just drive forever. At some point there’s gonna be traffic, open stretches of highway where he can turn on the gas a little bit. He’s gotta be the one to figure that out.” 

Wilson threw one touchdown and one interception in the Week 1 win.
Zach Wilson threw one touchdown and one interception in the Week 1 win.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Wilson’s college coach still believes that he one day will. 

“I’ve seen this kid prove a lot of people wrong,” Sitake said. 

Sunday, against all odds, would be a good day for Zach Wilson to begin to prove the Jets right.