It has been a long time -- 20 months to be exact -- since Carl Lawson last stepped on an NFL field for a regular-season game. The burly defensive end signed in free agency by the Jets missed the entire 2021 season after he ruptured an Achilles tendon in a preseason joint practice at Green Bay.
Against Baltimore at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Lawson will close the book on that difficult time in his professional, and personal life, when No. 58 lines up with the Jets' revamped defensive line across from Ravens' QB Lamar Jackson.
"He is very much a unicorn in a lot of ways," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said on Thursday. "I know I've spoken about this before, but it's a guy that when you look on paper you look for, when pass rushers you look for length, you look for speed, you look for great bend and that, and he might not necessarily check those boxes on paper, but then all of a sudden you watch the tape you see this guy that just wins consistently and affects quarterbacks and plays at such a high clip. Yeah, he's a hard one for me because he doesn't, as I said, he doesn't check those boxes, but he checks all the boxes as far as affecting quarterbacks, sacks, playing the run well, all those things. So, he's a unicorn, he is."
Through his four seasons in Cincinnati (2017-20) Lawson, who is from Alpharetta, GA, had a total of 20 sacks and 83 QB hits. He logged 8.5 sacks as a rookie, and had 5.5 sacks in 2020, with career highs in QB hits (32) and solo tackles (18) in his final season with the Bengals.
But to say that Sunday's game has special significance to Lawson, and his family, would be a soaring understatement. He said part of his excitement ahead of his real Jets debut will be the presence of his father, Carl Sr., who is making the trip to North Jersey from Georgia.
"My dad hasn't seen me play in a long time," Lawson said on Thursday. "It's a real big emotion that way."
Carl Sr. played fullback in college for Georgia Tech more than 30 years ago. During the coronavirus pandemic Carl Sr., who earlier had a kidney transplant, came down with Covid-19 and spent more than two months in the hospital.
"My Dad's a big part of my life," Lawson said. "My Mom's coming up, too. But you never know. I thought I was going to lose him a while ago right around the time after I signed my contract. I was like, 'Dang, he wouldn't even get to see me play as a Jet.' It was really, really bad. He was in the hospital forever. There were some days you just didn't know. I really want him to come watch me play for that particular reason."
"I think that's why it's important to me because you never know when your last opportunity for anything is. He wants to come watch me play, that's why it's important."
Lawson, like many of the Jets starters on offense and defense, saw limited playing time in the preseason as head coach Robert Saleh made a concerted effort to keep his players healthy He took only 7 snaps in the preseason finale against the Giants but is clearly a key cog in Ulbrich's defense.
"I mean he is absolutely impossible to replicate," UIlbrich said. "He brings not only pass rush and he brings skill, but also brings this toughness and this strain and this effort and this mindset that absolutely rubs off on other people. So we missed him last year, we're excited to have him back, we really are, and I know he's excited, too."
See the top practice images leading up to the first game of the 2022 season against the Baltimore Ravens.
Last season, Lawson stayed around the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center lending his insight and analysis to his teammates, watching tape and offering advice and perspective gained over his four NFL seasons. It was hard being a spectator, he's said, but Lawson never felt sorry for himself.
"I really would feel bad about my circumstances if I didn't give it my all," he said. "When I look back at it, I'm going to do everything I can do and I'm doing everything I can do. So I'm never truly disappointed."
It's difficult to know how his emotions will play out on the field, but Lawson said his focus and concentration will be on the matter at hand.
"I'm going to be focused on the game," he said. "I'm not going to be like, 'Where is Pops at?' I'll know he's got everything coordinated."