FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 20: Zach Wilson #2 of the New York Jets looks to pass against the New England Patriots during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 20, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

All he had to do was say, “Yes.”

After a putrid performance against the New England Patriots on Sunday — and after a brutal and dramatic defeat that left many of his teammates devastated — New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson was asked in a press conference if he felt like he had let down the defense.

“No,” he answered. “No.”

Uh oh.

The correct answer, whether he believed it or not, was something along the lines of “Absolutely. I’m the quarterback, and it’s my job to play better. It starts with me.”

Instead, the struggling second-year quarterback punted — an unfortunate term for Jets fans at the moment — and became the NFL’s current poster child for lack of accountability.

On Wednesday, Wilson — the second overall pick in the 2021 draft — was benched. While coach Robert Saleh may have arrived at that decision solely based on his young quarterback’s poor play, it’s likely that Wilson’s clueless moment at the podium — and the subsequent reaction in the Jets’ locker room — did not help.

At the time of the question, Wilson had just completed nine of 22 passes for 77 yards, for an offense that gained a paltry 103 — including just two in the second half, an effort that Jets coach Robert Saleh likened to the excrement that emerges from a canine’s hindquarters.

Somehow, through all that stink, the Jets were tied 3-3 and seemingly headed for overtime when punter Braden Mann took the field with 26 seconds to go. Mann’s punt was fielded by Patriots rookie Marcus Jones, who took it 84 yards to the house for a 10-3 victory. So yeah, this defeat was on the Jets’ special teams, too.

Still, Wilson should have owned it. Three weeks earlier he threw three interceptions in a 22-17 defeat to the Patriots at MetLife Stadium, and Sunday’s flaccid effort was arguably worse. While Wilson won five of seven starts after returning from a knee injury that caused him to miss the first three regular-season games, most of that success wasn’t exactly quarterback-driven.

For example, Wilson has a 55.6 completion percentage — lowest among NFL starters — and has thrown just four touchdown passes. Current third-stringer Joe Flacco, who hasn’t played since Week 3, has thrown five.

Even before Wilson’s soon-to-be-notorious press-conference response became a thing, there were already signs of locker-room unrest. Rookie Garrett Wilson (no relation) and fellow wideout Denzel Mims were caught on camera displaying frustration after some of Wilson’s incompletions.

Afterward, Garrett Wilson vented to reporters without mentioning his quarterback by name: “This s--t’s sorry. We’re out here looking sorry, man. We know that we’re not sorry. So that’s why it really hurts. We know that we’re better than that. We can do more. We got to put some more trust in the receiver room. I feel like we can go up and make plays, do things.”

It’s one thing for a young receiver to lobby for more targets — that’s almost part of the job description. It’s quite another for a young franchise quarterback to be so tone-deaf.

By not even going through the motions of accepting responsibility for his poor performance, Wilson seemed to reinforce the pre-draft stigma that had been attached to his name, with all the accompanying adjectives: immature, entitled, cocky. Fair or otherwise — and yes, he’s only 23 — Wilson now must contend with the power of perception, as well as his on-the-field struggles. That’s especially true in New York, where every mini-controversy is amplified, and then amplified some more.

Because the Jets (6-4) are an unlikely playoff contender, Saleh knows he can’t afford to let a potentially toxic situation fester, even though the franchise has a lot invested in Wilson’s ultimate success. At this point, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be The Guy for the Jets over the long haul; in that sense, he has much in common with the rest of the celebrated QB Draft Class of 2021. That includes Davis Mills, who was benched Wednesday by Houston Texans coach Lovie Smith, who’ll now go with veteran Kyle Allen.

When we assess whether a young quarterback can handle the demands and pressures of the job, we’re always looking for clues — on or off the field. For example, this anecdote courtesy of Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer speaks to the emotional intelligence of Bears quarterback Justin Fields, the 11th overall pick in 2021.

Following Sunday’s narrow defeat to the Atlanta Falcons, a game which Fields gutted out despite a painful injury to his left (non-throwing) shoulder, the second-year quarterback apparently apologized to his teammates in the locker room, indicating that the defense had given the offense a chance to win the game, but that the offense hadn’t gotten it done. According to Breer, Fields’ defensive teammates stopped him before he finished his apology and told him they had his back.

Obviously, it helps that Fields has emerged as a potent playmaker this season; already, he’s one of the greatest runners ever to play the position. Over his last six games, he’s rushed for 640 yards on 80 carries, more yards than Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham or Lamar Jackson have ever produced over a similar stretch — as noted by NBC Sports’ Peter King.

However, among quarterbacks from that draft class, it isn’t just Fields who Wilson should be emulating. Before the San Francisco 49ers’ Trey Lance suffered a season-ending broken ankle in Week 2, I was struck by how much accountability the young passer displayed, even as he felt the pressure of Jimmy Garoppolo’s return.

When Lance, the third overall pick in the ’21 draft, was questioned after the Niners’ preseason finale in Houston about shaky offensive line play, he told reporters he had to do a better job of getting rid of the ball quickly.

Then, after a rough outing in the regular-season opener — a 19-10 defeat to the Bears in rainy Chicago — Lance stepped to the podium and took the blame while going out of his way to point out mistakes. Later, as we walked on the bus, I asked the 22-year-old QB if he was hard on himself by nature. “You’ve got to be,” he said. “That’s just kind of how this thing works.”

Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in 2021, displayed maturity and poise during interviews as a Jacksonville Jaguars rookie, even as the Urban Meyer fiasco played out. Mac Jones, selected 15th overall by the Patriots in that same draft, kept his cool at the podium earlier this season after coach Bill Belichick repeatedly refused to indicate that Jones would get his job back from rookie fourth-rounder Bailey Zappe after returning from an ankle injury.

When Jones was pulled for Zappe in the second quarter of a late-October defeat to the Bears — to the delight of the Gillette Stadium crowd — things got even murkier. Jones, however, stayed low-key and got his job back, and it’s likely that Belichick was impressed with the young quarterback’s handling of the situation.

Right now, the entire QB Class of ’21 is being tested. Eight of them were taken in the first three rounds of that draft, and not one — even Fields — has truly solidified himself as a top-shelf NFL starter.

Lawrence is the NFL’s 20th-ranked passer, and the Jags are 3-7.

Wilson is ranked 33rd, with more interceptions (five) than touchdown passes (four).

Lance, before getting hurt, had accuracy issues in the offseason and in training camp, prompting the Niners to bring back Garoppolo as a hedge. Though the Niners essentially used three first-round picks to draft him, Lance is far from a sure bet to be the team’s starter in 2023.

Fields, for all his rushing exploits, is the league’s 24th-ranked passer, and the Bears are 3-8.

Kyle Trask, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers second-round pick, is third on the depth chart and has yet to throw an NFL pass.

Kellen Mond, taken in the third round by the Minnesota Vikings, was cut before this season and is now a third-stringer for the Cleveland Browns — and Deshaun Watson’s impending return may provoke his release.

Mills, another third-rounder who became the Texans’ starter early last season, is the NFL’s 30th-ranked passer and has thrown a league-high 11 interceptions. The Texans (1-8-1) have the league’s worst record. It’s not shocking that Mills lost his job; it’s actually kind of surprising that it took this long.

Like Mills, Wilson will wait for another chance. As he assesses what went wrong, he shouldn’t ignore the public-facing element of his vocation. While on-the-field performance will play the biggest role in deciding his future — and that of everyone in the QB Class of ’21— it’s not the only important part of the job.

Wilson needs to be mindful of the scrutiny that comes with being a franchise quarterback and consider the way he’ll be judged as a leader, in the locker room and in the public realm.

Bottom line: If you have a bad day, own it. And if it might not have been your fault, own it anyway.

Friendship first

In a league in which coaches are programmed to play it safe with bland public personas, Philadelphia Eagles coach Nick Sirianni is a welcome outlier. After Philly (9-1) bounced back from its first defeat of the season and rallied to defeat the Colts 17-16 in Indianapolis on Sunday, Sirianni conspicuously stuck up for his buddy.

This s--- is for Frank Reich!” he yelled on the sideline, referring to the Colts’ recently fired hired coach — for whom Sirianni served as offensive coordinator from 2018 to 2020.

Asked to elaborate after the game, Sirianni didn’t back away from his sentiment, telling reporters, “You don’t want to know what I think, if he should be here or not, but you guys can probably imagine what I really think, and I love him. So, I got a little emotional about that.”

Hey, football is an emotional game. Keep it coming.

Message delivered (x2)

While the Eagles still have the NFC’s best record, two teams in the conference announced themselves as obvious contenders in Week 11 — the Dallas Cowboys, who manhandled the previously 8-1 Vikings in Minneapolis, and the 49ers, who unleashed their new-look, multi-faceted offense on the overmatched Arizona Cardinals in Mexico City on Monday night.

Asked after Dallas’ 40-3 victory if he believes his team is championship-caliber, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn’t flinch, telling reporters, “A resounding yes. Yes. Unequivocally yes. I think we've had adversity. We very easily could have some more adversity. … Yes, I think if we use the experience of what we're having in the season, then we're going to be playoff-ready. But I sure do think that what I see out here right now is the team like that you could go get a Super Bowl with."


Nov 20, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) celebrates a touchdown with running back Tony Pollard (20) during the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Similarly, many 49ers players have expressed confidence that they can go on the type of run they did during the second half of last season and in the playoffs — which included a first-round road victory over the Cowboys.

Given the way the Niners and Cowboys looked in their most recent outings, it’s easy to envision the two teams meeting in the NFC championship game in late January.

Still the one

When the Kansas City Chiefs traded away the NFL’s most dangerous deep threat, Tyreek Hill, to the Miami Dolphins last March, there was understandable concern that the NFL’s most explosive offense might fall off.

The 2022 Chiefs are still the Chiefs, however, and it’s not only because of Andy Reid’s schematic mastery and Patrick Mahomes’ unparalleled ability to sling it.

Tight end Travis Kelce, at age 33, is as amazing as ever — as we saw Sunday night, when Kelce’s third touchdown catch, a 17-yarder with 31 seconds remaining, provided the winning points in K.C.’s 30-27 road victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.

Afterward, Mahomes referred to Kelce as “the greatest tight end of all time.” It’s a statement that could certainly be debated, but the more Kelce puts this revamped passing attack on his back, the more sense it makes.

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