New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is in the process of conducting a clinic on how to lose a locker room.
His refusal to take the blame for a shoddy performance last week in which the Jets’ offense gained 2 yards in the second half of a 10-3 loss to New England – he’s averaged 163.4 yards in his last five games, with three games below 150 yards — was followed by his benching on Wednesday and subsequent reaction, as reported by Jets coach Robert Saleh: “why me?”
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Wilson later apologized to his teammates but contrast his tumultuous season with how the other three quarterbacks from the first round of the 2021 draft who are playing (Trey Lance of San Francisco is out for the season) are handling adversity — and success:
• Chicago’s Justin Fields tried to play late in Sunday’s game with an injured shoulder in a 27-24 loss to Atlanta, then went around the locker room to his defensive teammates and began apologizing for not bringing the team all the way back.
According to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated, Fields’ teammates stopped him early in that process and told him he had nothing for which to apologize.
• New England’s Mac Jones, a Bolles graduate, suffered a high ankle sprain earlier in the season. His teammates took note of how he attacked his rehabilitation program and got back on the field in less than a month, and the Patriots have gone 3-1 since his return, with the only loss coming to the Bears and Fields.
“Mac is a dog, man … he’s an ultimate competitor,” said New England wide receiver Jakobi Meyers.
“He’s a warrior,” added running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
Lawrence: ‘Never about me’
Then there’s the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence, who has had good games and bad in a 3-7 season, has made magnificent plays and made inexplicable mistakes, but has established a pattern.
The good plays require someone to block and someone to catch the ball, and he’s quick to spread the credit around.
The bad plays are on him.
Football is a team game.
“It’s never about me,” he said on Wednesday after the Jaguars practiced for the Baltimore Ravens (7-3), who come to TIAA Bank Field on Sunday (1 pm, CBS). “I think that’s the main thing I’ve tried to keep in mind.”
There have been some difficult moments for Lawrence, who was 96-4 at Cartersville (Ga.) High School and Clemson, but is 6-20 as a starter in the NFL.
This season, the Jaguars lost games to Houston and Denver after he threw interceptions inside the 10. He fumbled four times against Philadelphia. And last season was an ordeal from start to finish, as he threw 17 interceptions to only 12 touchdown passes and had eight games with a passer rating of less than 70.
But with seven games remaining, there is much more optimism among the Jaguars coaching staff and Lawrence that he might be on the way to figuring out the NFL. Lawrence has thrown for 2,334 yards, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions, a .652 completion percentage and an 89.7 passer rating – every number better than last season at this time.
In the last two games, he has not committed a turnover, has thrown for 494 yards and three touchdowns, has completed .760 of his passes and had a 108.54 passer rating.
Offensive coordinator Press Taylor said Lawrence is forcing the issue less and less.
“He’s kind of just taking what the defense gives them … that’s really the biggest thing,” he said. “Understand the plan really well, understand the situation, putting the ball in play, giving our guys opportunities. That gives our guys the opportunity to get the ball in space and create afterwards, that gives the line the trust that when we call pass the ball is going to get out of his hand … than that just overall builds the overall trust, that chemistry as a unit.”
Chemistry is a goal for any NFL team. The Jaguars are playing for Lawrence because they know he’s showing one of the finest qualities any leader can have: responsibility.
“It’s not just for a game … it’s play-by-play,” said wide receiver Christian Kirk. “Something happens during the game and he feels it’s on him. He’ll be the first one to come up to you and say, ‘I’ll get the ball down, or I’ll be better on that play.’ To have a quarterback like that is very reassuring … for everybody on this team to have a leader who’s going to take accountability when he’s not at his best.”
Tight end Evan Engram said Pederson has established a culture of players taking ownership and Lawrence epitomizes that.
“The identity of this team is to be accountable for ourselves and our work,” he said. “[Quarterback] is definitely one of the most important positions on the team and he’s very accountable for himself and that makes him a better player too.”
Lawrence said he really doesn’t know another way and credits his family first, then coaches such as Joey King at Cartersville, Dabo Swinney at Clemson and the Jaguars’ Doug Pederson.
“I’ve really had good people in my ear, good voices,” Lawrence said. “Obviously my family…my parents did a great job of raising me and teaching me. I think it all goes back to humility.”
Early attention helped
Lawrence said it was fortunate in a way that he was such as heralded quarterback in high school and college because he learned how to deal with the spotlight and recognize the double-edged sword of being a star quarterback: they get most of the credit and most of the blame.
For some young athletes, it can be too much, too fast.
But as former Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew, now with the Eagles, said earlier this season that Lawrence has never let success and praise go to his head.
“He’s been told how good he is his whole life,” Minshew said before the Jaguars played the Eagles. “He doesn’t carry that around with him.”
Instead, Lawrence tries to temper the platitudes with the notion that there is always room for improvement.
“I’ve tried to put everything on me,” he said. “I’d rather take too much of the blame. There are always things you can do better.”
And one game after another, Lawrence manned up in front of the media – after manning up with his teammates.
Following the game against Denver, when he threw an interception from the 1-yard line on first-and-goal, then another one late in the game: “Obviously I’m pretty upset and frustrated and disappointed in myself and the way I finished the game … I’ve got to look in the mirror and I’ve got to play better.”
After the Houston game, when he threw an interception on second-and-goal from the 7: “I just forced it. It was just a bad decision. That’s one you just throw away, maybe try to run it in, live to play another down.”
And after the Eagles game, when he had four fumbles: “I would start by saying I have to play better. Our defense gave us a chance to win it at the end of the game. I’m just p—d I let those guys down and just had too many turnovers. Obviously, it starts with me. All of them were me today so no one else to blame there. To let those guys down it’s disappointing.”
Team has taken a cue
While Lawrence didn’t have very many of those games in high school and college, he grasped the routine.
“I think that was something I had to learn early in my career,” he said. “Just standing up in front of cameras and reporters and media more than most people, even starting with my senior year in high school. Sometimes I’m probably pretty boring… like a broken record. But I think that’s the best way to be.”
Kirk said Lawrence’s mentality in accepting the accolades with humility and quick to take the blame for mistakes will serve him well throughout his career – and it’s an attitude that has filtered down to the rest of the team.
“The standard has been set,” he said. “That’s the way we interact with each other. Whether it’s him coming to us and saying, ‘hey, my bad… that’s all me. I’m gonna get that right.’ For us as receivers [after a drop or missed block], we’re the first ones to come to him, ‘hey, we’re gonna get that right.’ From day one the communication with him has been amazing. That’s what it comes down to, communication and maturity.”
Contact Garry Smits at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GSmitter