If Jets linebacker Darron Lee looked particularly tormented over a couple of near-misses against the Panthers on Sunday, that's because, of course, he was.
"I could see the pot of gold from here," Lee told me after the 35-27 defeat. "I was so close, so close."
His first close call was a hustle play to try to dive and grab a Cam Newton pass for Greg Olsen, batted away by Buster Skrine, before it hit the MetLife turf. He got there a split-second too late to pluck the pick.
But the agony meter got turned way up late in the second period. Newton dropped back from the Panthers 24, looking for Christian McCaffrey over the middle. But the Jets defense had the perfect call as Demario Davis and Lee bracketed the dangerous rookie RB. Newton let the ball go and Lee was in perfect position to pick the ball off in stride. And had he done that, he likely would have continued around his right end untouched for an interception-return touchdown.
But Muhammad Wilkerson got his right hand in the air and the pass ricocheted off his forearm and then just a foot too far past Lee's outstretched hands, which then went to his helmet in a quick sign of the disappearing pot of gold.
The reaction was more than the second-year 'backer missing his first pro interception by inches.
"If I ever get a pick, I'm expected to score. That's why they brought me here. I'm expected to score," he explained. "I'm personally kicking myself in the butt because I know if I get my hands on that, that's actual points for us."
To be sure, that was one part of Lee's game that enticed the Jets into selecting him 20th overall in the 2016 draft out of Ohio State. As a Buckeyes freshman, he returned two fumbles for touchdowns, and as a super soph he took an interception 41 yards to the house.
But despite the anguish of Sunday's play that wasn't, he's now racking up other plays. He's second on the defense with three sacks and 86 tackles, and he unofficially leads the unit with 6.5 tackles for loss and also with 10.5 tackles for loss/no gain (including tackles at the LOS).
"You can see how close I am to just those big plays that can determine wins and losses, so I'm going to keep chugging away," said Lee, an engaging and optimistic fellow who knows talk is cheap but also is not afraid to put himself out there as one of the D's young leaders. "But now it's starting to be so natural and I'm so comfortable and relaxed, and it's a lot of fun. I just want to execute and make sure to turn all this hard work we're doing into W's."
Green & White fans are waiting to see the plays that translate into those wins. For instance, it's been a ridiculously long time since the Jets' last defensive score, Antonio Allen's INT-return TD against Tom Brady and the Patriots in 2013. A play like that, perhaps Sunday against Kansas City, could make a world of difference for these young Jets.
"Two thousand thirteen? It's been a while," Lee said softly, calmly, matter-of-factly, visualizing the end of the drought. "It's coming, it's coming ... and I'm going to get it."