FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — One of the wildest weeks in New York Jets history ended with a victory celebration and virtual message from coach Robert Saleh.
Minutes after Sunday’s 26-21 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Saleh appeared on a TV screen in the Jets’ locker room. He was on his laptop, 30 miles away from MetLife Stadium, cooped up in a hotel room in COVID-19 quarantine. This was Day 5 of his quarantine. Except for twice-a-day trips to the team facility to get tested and grab a to-go meal from the team cafeteria, he was confined to the room. It made for a lonely Christmas and a maddening game day, but he adapted 2021 style.
Just Zoom, baby!
“I’m so proud of everybody,” an animated Saleh told the team via Zoom. “I mean, it’s been hell in here watching this damn game, but that’s December football — whatever it freaking takes. Whatever it takes.”
That was the theme the entire week, not just the game: Whatever it takes.
• Late failures push Browns to brink
• Legs show Prescott could finally be back
• Jets cap stressful week with rewarding win
• Wheels come off for WFT in Dallas loss
• 49ers have simple postseason formula
• Pats D suddenly looking for answers
It was an extraordinary seven days. Because of a COVID-19 outbreak, the Jets made 33 transactions. With players testing positive every day and landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list, general manager Joe Douglas and the personnel department worked feverishly to fill out the roster. The Jets played the game with 20 players on the list, including seven starters.
They procured replacements via waivers, another team’s practice squad and an open tryout. Even then, they went into Sunday with 52 players on the active roster, three shy of the game-day max. They wound up playing three new players, all of whom had arrived only days earlier.
“There were times we’d be standing at practice and, all of a sudden, a trainer or staff member was coming to grab guys off the field because they tested positive,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said Monday. “Now your mind is going crazy, thinking, ‘Oh, man, I was just next to them.'”
This has been a tough season for the Jets (4-11), but they took pride in how they responded in the face of adversity. In a game that will be remembered for a scramble — Zach Wilson‘s 52-yard touchdown run — it actually took a week of scrambling to get to that point. Here’s a day-by-day look how it unfolded:
Monday, Dec. 20
A week earlier, the Jets decided to go virtual for meetings because two players had become ill with non-COVID illnesses. It was a proactive move, but it failed to stave off the outbreak. As Saleh noted, “We had a little bit of a COVID run this morning.” Five players were placed on the reserve list, including defensive end John Franklin-Myers and safety Sharrod Neasman.
Without Neasman, and with Elijah Riley dealing with a concussion from the day before, the Jets were in bad shape at safety.
Tuesday, Dec. 21
There was a gift on the waiver wire — well-traveled safety Will Parks, released by the Miami Dolphins. Safeties coach Marquand Manuel was familiar with Parks, having coached him last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, so they decided to pick him up. Parks wound up starting, playing 60 out of 70 snaps and making four tackles.
Meanwhile, two more players went on the COVID-19 list — guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and nickelback Michael Carter II. With the practice squad decimated by the virus — by week’s end, six players were on the list — they invited several players to the facility for workouts. A defensive lineman named Freedom Akinmoladun, with minimal NFL experience, was signed to the practice squad. He had no idea what was in store.
Wednesday, Dec. 22
At 11:15 a.m., Saleh called a staff meeting to inform his coaches he had tested positive. Tight ends coach Ron Middleton, a former NFL player and career assistant, was named interim coach. Saleh chose Middleton, 56, in part, because he didn’t want to burden one of his coordinators with the responsibility. Middleton is wise, tough and respected among players.
By noon, Middleton was on the practice field, breaking the news to the players. Things move fast in the NFL.
“I had like 45 minutes for it to soak in,” he said.
Saleh repaired to his quarantine at a nearby hotel, but continued to participate in the virtual meetings. Looking for advice, or perhaps a sympathetic ear, he reached out to Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, who has missed a game after testing positive in two different seasons. Stefanski’s message: Missing practice isn’t too bad, but game day will be “miserable.”
Oh, yes, they added four more players to the COVID-19 list, including Ashtyn Davis. Another safety down.
Thursday, Dec. 23
On Wednesday, Nacua was getting off the 49ers’ team bus at the airport, getting ready to fly to the Thursday night game at the Tennessee Titans, when he received the offer from the Jets to join their active roster. He changed flights and headed to New Jersey instead.
This was a strategic poach, based on his familiarity with the Jets’ system. (He played under Saleh last season in San Francisco.) Nacua wound up playing 10 defensive snaps in the game. Wearing No. 1, he was on the field for the Jaguars’ final three plays near the Jets’ goal line.
To get the new players up to speed, Manuel and defensive assistant Chip Vaughn held early-morning and late-night meetings with Parks and Nacua. As defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said, “I don’t know if that’s a violation of the NFLPA,” but it was a crash course in Jets Defense 101. Rookie Jason Pinnock, who would start alongside Parks, did a lot of cramming, too. He was drafted as a cornerback and was switched to safety only a few weeks ago. He had played 24 defensive snaps before Sunday.
“A lot of sleepless nights,” Ulbrich said.
Friday, Dec. 24
Saleh came to the realization he wasn’t going to be cleared in time for the game, so he announced they were proceeding with Middleton as the coach.
“I’ve always wanted to be a head coach, and I just appreciate Robert giving me this opportunity to get a taste of it,” Middleton said. “It’s been great.”
Saturday, Dec. 25
On Christmas Day, Saleh didn’t get to see his family in person.
“Missed Christmas with the kiddos, but they’re happy and that’s the most important thing,” said Saleh, who has seven children.
Saleh met virtually with Middleton and game-management specialist Matt Burke to discuss … well, the game-management plan. Burke is a former coach who, with the help of analytics, works from the coaches’ booth and guides Saleh through in-game decisions. The plan for Jacksonville was what you’d expect from a team already eliminated from the playoffs.
“As a staff, we said we would be aggressive, but not foolish,” Middleton said.
By day’s end, they elevated a season-high six players from the practice squad, giving them enough to dress for the game (48) and four inactives.
Matt LaFleur kept spoiling the game for Coach Saleh on Facetime 😂 pic.twitter.com/lEuIvLd3gl
— New York Jets (@nyjets) December 27, 2021
Sunday, Dec. 26
At 10:06 a.m., defensive tackle Quinnen Williams walked sluggishly into the stadium and toward the locker room. He was seen coughing as he approached the locker room door; he wasn’t wearing a facial covering. He was moving so slowly that a security guard asked if he was OK. A short time later, Williams, complaining of symptoms, tested positive. He was ruled out at 11:30 a.m., the capper to a wild week of COVID-19.
Akinmoladun, promoted to the active roster as an eleventh-hour replacement for Williams, played 18 defensive snaps in his Jets debut, nearly equaling his career total. And he made a tackle on his first play.
Playing with second- , third- and even fourth-stringers in some cases, the Jets were a physical team that amassed 273 rushing yards — the most by any team this season. On their goal-line stand in the final seconds, they fielded a defensive unit with seven backups. As planned, Middleton called an aggressive game, going for it five times on fourth down — tied for the most by a Jets team over the last 20 seasons.
“Team effort, team effort, team effort,” Middleton told the players after being presented a game ball by owner Woody Johnson.
Saleh called it a “weird” and “frustrating” experience to watch on TV, but he had the virtual company of a close friend, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur, whose team had played on Saturday night. They FaceTimed throughout the Jets-Jaguars game.
LaFleur’s TV feed was a few seconds ahead of Saleh’s, which allowed him to tip plays. That annoyed Saleh, who wanted to see the game unfold in real time. By the time tackle-eligible Conor McDermott made his improbable touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, LaFleur had stopped tipping.
“I’m yelling at him to stop telling me what’s happening,” Saleh said with a laugh. “I could tell something happened (on the McDermott touchdown) because he was like, ‘Oh!’ when he caught. We were laughing. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe that happened.’ It was a really cool moment.”
To culminate an exhausting, but fulfilling week.