Zach Wilson showed he can move New York’s offense as a backup quarterback, but the Jets kicked off the Rodgers Era with a 21-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night in the Hall of Fame Game.
Wilson, whose struggles as a starter the past two seasons sent the Jets on a QB quest that eventually got them Rodgers via trade from Green Bay in April, had some positive moments during his three series.
On his 24th birthday, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft was 3 of 5 passing for 65 yards. Wilson set up the game’s first score with a 57-yard completion to wide receiver Malik Taylor — on a play suggested by Rodgers.
“Great call by Aaron Rodgers,” Wilson said smiling. “I have to give him a shoutout there. We were backed up then and took the shot downfield. Malik’s done great job all camp and I wanted to get a ball to him.”
Jets coach Robert Saleh was pleased with Wilson’s performance.
“Zach did a good job, he was poised and looked comfortable in the pocket,” he said. “It’s just rebuilding that confidence and swag we (saw) during the draft process. No setbacks. It’s all about confidence with him.”
It was a battle of rookies and reserves as both teams rested their starters in the NFL’s inaugural game of 2023.
There was a notable opening-night glitch as a power outage in Tom Benson Stadium caused about a 20-minute delay between the third and fourth quarters.
Browns rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson rallied the Browns with a pair of second-half touchdowns. Thompson-Robinson, a fifth-round pick, threw a 22-yard TD pass to Austin Watkins Jr. with 9:33 left to put Cleveland ahead.
Thompson-Robinson also threw a block that sprung Demetric Felton, his former UCLA teammate, for a 10-yard TD run.
“It was awesome,” Felton said. “It felt like it was back at UCLA. It was cool.”
Thompson-Robinson said he was happy to lend a shoulder.
“All instincts,” he said. “I’m out there playing as hard as I can for my teammates. I seen Felt was going to cut back and kind of how the hole was going to open up and all he had was one person to be back sideways was the corner. So I figured I’d stick my nose up there real quick.”
Rodgers was a high-profile spectator.
The four-time MVP watched from the sideline wearing black Jets gear and a headset, giving him more the look of an assistant coach than star quarterback. On Wednesday, Rodgers toured the Hall of Fame and got an up-close view of a place where he’ll one day be enshrined.
Before that, he’s supposed to return New York’s franchise to glory.
The 39-year-old is not expected to play this preseason — he hasn’t since 2018 — and said earlier this week that upcoming joint practices against Tampa Bay and Carolina will help him prepare for the Sept. 11 season opener against Buffalo.
The Browns sat quarterback Deshaun Watson, who like Rodgers, is expected to do big things in his second year with Cleveland.
Watson went 3-3 after returning from his 11-game suspension in 2022 for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy after he was accused by two dozen women of sexual harassment and assault during massage therapy sessions while he played for Houston.
Kellen Mond started for the Browns and played the first half, going 7 of 12 for 49 yards with a TD pass and an interception. Thompson-Robinson finished 8 of 11 for 82 yards.
As both teams formed a tunnel near midfield, this year’s Hall of Fame class was introduced before the opening kickoff.
Of course, the biggest ovation went to former Browns tackle Joe Thomas, who waved to the thousands of Cleveland fans packing Tom Benson Stadium.
New inductee DeMarcus Ware sang the national anthem.
Both teams got a look at their respective massive tackles.
New York’s Mekhi Becton played for the first time since the 2021 season opener. It has been a long road back for the 6-foot-7 Becton, who underwent multiple surgeries on his right knee. He slimmed down to 350 pounds after once tipping the scales at 400.
Cleveland rookie Dawand Jones, just a tad bigger than Becton at 6-8, 374, held his own while playing the entire game.
More than two dozen Hall of Famers, most wearing their signature gold jackets, attended a tribute earlier in the day for legendary Browns running back Jim Brown, who died in May.
Brown was remembered for his football accomplishments, and much more.
Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis delivered the most impassioned remarks about Brown, who became his mentor.
“He became a father to the fatherless, gave hope when there wasn’t hope,” said Lewis. “I’ve never met a greater person.”
The Browns wore “32” decals — Brown’s number — on their helmets for the first time.
Jets: LB Hamsah Nasirildeen (neck) left after being hurt on New York’s first defensive series and didn’t return. … CB Brandin Echols (hip) and LB Chazz Surratt (hamstring) were both ruled out after halftime. Surratt’s interception in the first half set up New York’s TD. … LB Maalik Hall left in the fourth with an undisclosed injury.
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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