Sauce Gardner and his fellow Jets, the young guns especially, seemed to take last week's home loss to the Dolphins hard. They could certainly use a pick-me-up this week, and perhaps they all got one with the return, in limited fashion, of Aaron Rodgers to the offense and the team.
"It's a blessing that we have him back around us," the Jets cornerback said after Thursday's practice about the inspiration that Rodgers says he wants to provide. "It's always good to have him around. As long as he's good, then I'm good and we're good. I heard that never happened before [returning to practice so soon after an Achilles tear]. It is pretty incredible. But I'm never surprised by him. He's one of those guys who always take care of rehab and puts the work in."
Gardner is another of those dedicated, determined dudes who want to play this game at the highest level. He showed that last season as the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in the making. This season hasn't unfolded as well as Sauce or the Jets had wanted so far, but he wasn't looking for excuses when asked after the game about the defense wearing down, especially the past two games against AFC East foes, or when he was queried today about he and his Green & White youth contingent being frustrated.
"I do get frustrated, at life in general," he said. "But it's never going to stop me from going out on the field and giving it everything I've got. No frustration that I have is going to carry on to the field or into the meeting room or the locker room."
Gardner gave no thought to the grinding effects of being on the field so long against the Bills and Dolphins and the possibly related drop in performance for the unit, but others, such as DL John Franklin-Myers, acknowledged that the tiring out of the defense might be a "thing."
"It is our job," JFM said. "You understand that sometimes you have to do a little more and sometimes the offense has to do a little more, special teams, whatever it maybe. So it is part of it, so you can't exactly complain for having to do your job."
But the fans and reporters have stayed with the wearing-down angle for a few weeks now. Can that effect be roughly measured?
Consider that since 1970, the Jets have played in 173 games in which they had 14 or fewer offensive plays than their opponents. Four of them have come this season, with the Bills win (minus-15) and the loss at Dallas (minus-37) starting the schedule and the games at Buffalo (minus-17) and vs. Miami (minus-14) most recent. In that large body of games, the Jets have won 50 and lost 123, a weak winning percentage of .289.
Time of possession is an even better indicator of the fatigue factor. Also since '70, in games in which possession time is available, the Jets have played 115 games in which they had less TOP than their opponents by 11 minutes or more. Their record in those games (including the Cowboys, Giants, Bills and Dolphins this season) is 14-101, an even lower .122 percentage.
The point is not to make an excuse for the Jets or their individual components, but to suggest that a return to complementary football could make a world of difference over the final month and a half of the regular season.
Just Rodgers returning to One Jets Drive is a way to return some balance to the equation. A-Rod has brought his "goodness" to the practice fields, and whether A-Rod plays in a game or not is immaterial to Gardner: "If he's healthy, he can do what he wants to do. If not, then I don't think it's the right thing to do."
See the top photos of the Jets during Thursday's practice of Falcons week.
The Rodgers factor seems to have pumped up QB Tim Boyle and the offense, better for them to attack their slumps in points, third-down conversions and explosion plays. That would help the defense in the possession area, as would a rededication to third-down defense, which allowed Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins to convert 11 of 16 opportunities.
And Gardner, who appears to be a homebody from Detroit and the University of Cincinnati, sounds like he'll get a personal boost from reuniting pre- and postgame with his college QB, Atlanta's Desmond Ridder.
"It'll be good to be able to share the field with Desmond," he said. "We've been texting back and forth for sure. He was my guy in college. That's a bond that's going to last forever."
But Gardner won't shed a tear if he can make Ridder's day miserable with more pass breakups and maybe even come up with his first interception of his second season. Indeed, it would be his first pick in 19 games if he can come up with it.
But more important for Sauce and his teammates are the big team goal. Just as Rodgers, also on Thursday, talked about deciding to return from his injury quicker than anyone thought possible, the Jets are taking the same approach to their impossible project of running the table. Instead of last year's six season-ending losses, can they win their last six and slip back into the AFC postseason picture?
"We have to make sure we take it one day at a time, one week at a time," Gardner said. "We feel like anything's possible."