Earlier in the season, it was fun to joke with Sauce Gardner about how interceptions just seemed to be eluding the hands of the Jets' supremely talented cornerback. But with Game 15 against the Commanders ahead, Gardner still has no picks.
Might that fact affect some other top corner? Sure. But Gardner gives no hint that the zero under the "I" on his 2023 statistical spreadsheet is bothering him. Except that maybe he's getting more focused than usual.
"He's got some picks throughout the year," Gardner said after Thursday's practice of Washington QB Sam Howell, who may be the starter Sunday at MetLife Stadium and leads the NFL with 15 picks thrown. Then the player who wears No. 1 added about getting INT No. 1: "I look forward to it every week. If the opportunity presents itself, I'm going to be grateful for it."
Gardner had the numbers and the honors as a first-round Jets rookie in 2022. He led the NFL with 20 pass defenses and added his first two pro picks, at home against division foes Miami and Buffalo. Then the awards season arrived and he was named AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, All-Pro by several outlets and a Pro Bowl starter for the AFC (on the seven-player units in the newly instituted Pro Bowl flag football game).
This season hasn't been as bountiful by certain measures. He's got 10 PDs, which lead the Jets but are far off the NFL lead of 22 by the 49ers' Charvarius Ward. What's happened is that Gardner has entered the Darrelle Revis phase of his career even sooner than did Revis, the recently minted Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Revis started decorating his island nation in 2009, his third season in the NFL. That year he notched 31 pass defenses — still the most by any NFL player in a season since PDs began to be rigorously charted league-wide in 1994. Six of those PDs were interceptions. One of those INTs was a pick-six that started the Jets to a home win over the Panthers.
The next year, Revis had 10 PDs, no TDs and no INTs. Sounds like an off year. In reality, opposing offenses just stopped trying to fly into and out of the Revis Island airport.
"Some of the great players in this league, people just avoid them," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "Those players can get bored. I haven't felt that from Sauce, to tell you the truth. He likes to talk, he's always got great energy, he's always engaged. I haven't seen that. But it's something that could happen to a guy like himself that people avoid him at all costs."
Gardner has the air of a top-flight corner who simply won't allow himself to get bored.
"I'm always motivated. I've got a lot of other reasons to be motivated [besides interceptions]," he said. "It's a blessing that I get to be here in this building, with my brothers practicing, in the NFL, playing on Sunday. These are our blessings, our dreams. I never take it for granted."
But Gardner did notice another interesting statistic that gets compiled these days by Next Gen Stats. He was on the Hard Rock Stadium field on Sunday for 56 of the Jets' 61 defensive snaps, for all of Miami's 29 dropbacks. And he wasn't targeted as the nearest defender by QB Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins. Not once.
"It happens," he said. "It happened last week, and it happened last year when we played the Lions."
He was right, of course. Those two games with at least 20 coverage snaps and zero targets are tied for the most in the NFL in the last two seasons, and he's in the top 10 among outside corners since '22 in lowest target and completion rates and yards allowed/snap.
Are all those stats a sign of respect for Sauce?
"I guess you could say that," he said. "I don't really know what's going through their heads when they're targeting me and when they're not targeting me. I wouldn't know."
What Gardner does know is that he loves his team, he loves his teammates and he loves his job. And he's not worried about it but he knows his numbers as well as his reputation will continue to grow. So does Jets head coach Robert Saleh.
"I told Sauce that they come in bunches," Saleh said this week. "As soon as he gets one, they're going to start to flow."