Keelan Cole had never before seen anything like what Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson pulled off Sunday, at least not from a teammate.
In terms of bars to clear, Cole’s praise of Wilson is probably closer to lifting a foot over the low bar. After all, the Jets wideout played four seasons in Jacksonville, catching passes from the likes of Blake Bortles, Chad Henne and Gardner Minshew.
Still, what he saw from Wilson in the Jets’ win over the Titans left him awestruck.
“That was a big step. I ain’t really never seen that in a quarterback, personally, on my team,” Cole said Wednesday at Jets practice.
The play that inspired Cole’s jaw to drop was a fourth-quarter scramble that bought Wilson time before he waved his most dangerous receiver, Corey Davis, to go deeper. Wilson, who had rolled to his right, let loose with a pass from his own 40-yard line that Davis caught while falling into the end zone.
Amid Wilson’s early-season struggles, Jets head coach Robert Saleh has preached to the rookie to be more “boring” — to take what defenses give rather than forcing anything. On that 53-yard touchdown pass to Davis, on which it appeared tight end Tyler Kroft was briefly open, Cole loved that his quarterback was not about to bore his fans or teammates.
“I don’t think you all understand how he set that up. There were two men running a route, and one was wide open — it wasn’t the one he threw it to,” said Cole, who has been a helpful presence in the slot and on the outside for Wilson this season. “But he took the chance, took control and made that play.”
The touchdown put the Jets up 24-17 in a game they won in overtime for their first victory of the year and the first of Wilson’s NFL career.
The development of Wilson’s mind is a work in progress that has to balance the exhilarating with the everyday. The pure talent Wilson displayed on that play offered a peek at his ceiling once he figures out that balance.
When Wilson needed to unleash a bomb to Cole in the third quarter, on a third-and-6 from the Jets’ 32, there was not much of a windup involved. When Wilson felt pressure and rolled out to his right, Cole said he knew to just keep running, that his quarterback would find time and possibly find him. Fifty-four yards downfield, he found Cole, setting up a field goal that gave the Jets their first lead of the game.
“He threw it 60 [yards],” said Cole, who caught three passes for 92 yards. “I wonder how far he throws it when he’s actually trying to throw it as far as he can.”
A lot can change in a week, especially with a 22-year-old quarterback who had been intercepted six times combined in losses to the Patriots and Broncos the previous two weeks. “Boring” is called for when “exciting” does not work.
But when the latter works, it is just one more dimension Wilson can use to help the Jets win.
Cole, a first-year Jet, said that the extra time teams can get together this season, after last year’s campaign was played in the throes of the pandemic, has allowed more chemistry in being able to pull off those impromptu plays that Wilson has a knack for.
“I wouldn’t say some of the off-schedule plays we had necessarily were [me] trying to do too much,” Wilson said after last Sunday’s victory. “That was just the part of the game that comes naturally to me, being able to do things off-schedule.
“I’m going to keep improving on taking the easy ones, reacting to what the defense gives me.”
It is Wilson’s arm that the Jets most valued in turning him into the No. 2 pick, but his legs have been active and quick enough to escape some collapsing pockets, allowing his creativity to shine.
Wilson only has 19 yards rushing thus far, but it’s possible he will do more than scramble around behind the line of scrimmage.
“One of these times he’s going to take off, and y’all going to be calling him Michael Vick,” Cole said as the Jets prepared for Sunday’s game in London against the Falcons. “I feel like he’s going to do some crazy stuff with his legs as the season goes on.”