In the 60+ year history of the Titans/Jets franchise, there has seldom been a week with more tumult, more comings and goings, more uncertainty -- and finally more optimism than the week that culminated with the Green & White's 26-21 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday.
The Jets overcame staggering odds with 20 players on the NFL's reserve/Covid-19 list -- in addition to head coach Robert Saleh-- including seven starters. As players went down, either injured or ill, general manager Joe Douglas and his staff were pressed into action, completing 33 transactions in a bid to get healthy bodies on the field.
Good News, Bad News
After the 31-24 loss at Miami, the Jets on Monday expelled a collective sigh of relief when rookie S Elijah Riley was placed in the concussion protocol. Though that's hardly something to celebrate, consider that Riley, a West Point grad, had been taken off the field on a stretcher at Miami after lying motionless on the turf for what seemed like an hour.
"All the scans checked out good," Saleh said. "It was a scary concussion. He will make a full recovery. He's sore, but his playing career is not in jeopardy. He has an opportunity to get back this year."
That's pretty much the beginning and the end of the good news as the Jets began preparations for their Week 16 game against Jacksonville and the No. 1 overall draft pick, QB Trevor Lawrence.
In nearly the same breath as Saleh announced Riley's chances to return to play, he said that TE Ryan Griffinwould miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, and that DL John Franklin-Myersand Tanzel Smart; WR Vyncint Smith; and S Sharrod Neasman had all tested positive for the coronavirus. They joined DT Folorunso Fatukasi and LB Noah Dawkins, who were already on the Covid list.
The Jets, out of caution, continued to meet virtually -- a plan put in place when a couple of players came down with non-Covid illnesses, among them backup QB Mike White who first had Covid then came down with the flu.
No Numbers in Safeties Room
With Riley and Neasman sidelined, the already sparsely populated safeties' room -- a group already minus veterans Lamarcus Joyner and Marcus Maye -- was in dire need of an infusion of talent.
On Tuesday, after scanning the waiver wire and with an endorsement from safeties coach Marquand Manuel, the Jets acquired Will Parks, who had been released by the Dolphins. Parks and Manuel had been together last season in Philadelphia. Parks ended up as a starter against Jacksonville.
There was no respite from the Jets' Covid surge as two rookie starters -- LG Alijah Vera-Tucker and CB Michael Carter II-- were sidelined by the virus, which spread from the senior roster to the practice squad. And with Franklin-Myers, Fatukasi and Smart still questionable for the Jaguars game, the Jets signed a DL by the name of Freedom Akinmoladun, who had been with three other teams (the Giants, Cincinnati and Tennessee) without having ever taken a snap.
Misery Loves Company
Time seemed to stop on Wednesday before noon when Saleh brought together his coaches and informed them that he had tested positive for the virus and would, most likely, not be available to run the game on Sunday. To avoid upsetting the rhythm of the Jets' top coordinators -- OC Mike LaFleur and DC Jeff Ulbrich-- Saleh selected TE coach Ron Middleton to serve in an interim capacity. Middleton informed the players ("I had like 45 minutes for it to soak in") before their walk-through.
"We were all shocked," said LB C.J. Mosley, who opted-out of the 2020 season because of coronavirus concerns.
"We talked briefly last week when he was not feeling well," Middleton said of Saleh. "He informed me that if something did happen he wanted me to fill in for him. I've known him a long time. I'm not going to get into his train of thought about why he chose me, he'd be better able to answer.
Saleh ended up sequestered at a hotel close to the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center, participating in the virtual meetings. He reached out to Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski earlier in the week, asking how he dealt with not being on the sideline after testing positive and watching Cleveland's game from his man cave.
"He said everything is going to be fine, it's all virtual anyway," Saleh said. "You're going to miss practice, but Sunday is going to be miserable. So I'm looking for misery."
And to hammer home the misery theme, yet another safety, Ashtyn Davis, entered the Covid protocol -- along with three other players.
Reinforcements at Safety
Thursday ... Another day, another two players on the Covid list -- backup QB Joe Flacco and RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. A true sense of irony where LDT, a medical school grad, was concerned: He opted out of the 2020 season with the Chiefs to work in a health-care facility in his native Montreal and also sat on the NFL's Covid task force.
To address the thin safeties room, the Jets plucked Kai Nacua off San Francisco's practice squad, largely because he is familiar with the system employed by Saleh when he was the 49ers defensive coordinator. As Nacua was about to board the 49ers' plane for a trip to Tennessee to play the Titans he received word that the Jets were offering him a spot on the active roster.
"It's an enormous challenge for this defensive coaching staff and for these players as well," Ulbrich said. "When you got guys that, not only have they not taken reps as a Jet, but they also just got here within 48 hours, so it's a lot of sleepless nights for these coaches and players just trying to get caught up. And then for me, to really step back and evaluate what is fair to ask of them for Sunday, what can they really grasp and own and play fast with. So, we're trying to find that balance now."
Ulbrich, desperate for at least one familiar face at safety, decided to shift rookie Jason Pinnock, who was drafted out of Pittsburgh as a cornerback, to safety.
"Here's a guy who's got the body, the length, size, all that to play safety, now it's just a matter of getting him up to speed as far as all the technique is concerned," Ulbrich said.
See the Top Practice Images Leading Up to the Sunday's Game Against Jacksonville
Special teams ace Justin Hardee and WR Jeff Smith complete the Covid protocol and are returned to the active roster.
Saleh, however, is ruled out of leading the Jets on Sunday against the Jaguars.
"Ron has been in this league a very long time, obviously we want everyone doing their jobs," Saleh said on Friday. "Ron knows this league; he's an unbelievable man, in terms of philosophy and talking with him to bounce ideas off. He's been through the ringer. Plenty of guys on the staff qualify, I just chose Ron."
Middleton said: "I'm finally going to get a taste of it. I am very much so looking forward to this. Early in my career, that was the goal [to be a head coach], but as you age your goals change, you take different paths. I've always wanted to be a head coach and I just appreciate Robert giving me this opportunity."
Merry Christmas (Sort Of)
It's doubtful that Saleh spent his day staring at the Yule Log online. That said, he wasn't home with his family, stuck in limbo in New Jersey.
After Sunday's game he said: "I missed Christmas with the kiddos, but they're happy and that's the important thing."
As kickoff neared against Jacksonville, the Jets added six players from the practice squad to the active roster, with 48 set to play and 4 inactives, 1 player short of the normal 53-man roster.
The Grinch has not left the building.
More than an hour before kickoff, DT Quinnen Williams returned positive test for Covid. His absence gave Akinmoladun a chance to see the field, playing 18 snaps on defense and making a tackle on his first play.
The offensive line, minus AVT and LDT, started Dan Feeney at LG and Greg Van Roten at RG. RB Michael Carter, back after missing three games with a high-ankle sprain, logged his first 100-yard game rushing as a pro and Wilson scored on a dazzling 52-yard scramble that set a franchise record for a quarterback. The team amassed 273 rushing yards, the most of any NFL team this season.
Middleton, sticking to the aggressive game plan, went for it five times on fourth down, converting three times. Braxton Berrios padded his stats with a 102-yard kickoff return for a TD and the defense was able to withstand Jacksonville's last-gasp attempt to win the game.
"We were going to be aggressive, but we weren't going to be foolish," Middleton said. "Every time we went for it on fourth down it was discussed. Our game analysis guy, Matt Burke, was given information and all the decisions were based on that information. The staff was going to be aggressive, but again, not foolish."
One of the best highlights of the game was Wilson's TD pass to tackle-eligible Conor McDermott.
"I was on FaceTime with [Green Bay head coach] Matt Lafleur," Saleh said. "We were watching the game at the same time, but his feet was somehow 5 seconds ahead of me. I'm yelling at him to stop telling me what's happening. I could tell something happened because he was like 'Oh,' when he caught it. We were laughing. I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe that happened.' It was a really cool moment."
And the moment even got better during a victorious postgame celebration as Ambassador Woody Johnson delivered a game ball to Middleton and Saleh joined the raucous room over Microsoft Teams. A fitting end to a week for the ages.