COVID may have held Robert Saleh hostage in his hotel room on Sunday, but the gamut of emotions he experienced in solitude ultimately gave way to the thrill of victory. And of all the reasons that kept a smile frozen on his healthier face the day after, it was the growth he saw in Zach Wilson, whose fate is inextricably tied to his, that had to be the most meaningful.
“He made some remarkable throws yesterday,” Saleh said Monday. “We’re not gonna flesh out the gaudy passing numbers, but that third-down throw that he had to [Braxton] Berrios, I’ll argue with [OC Mike] LaFleur that that was probably the best throw he’s made all season in terms of tempo, had the six-man pressure in his face, ripped the ball knowing that he was gonna get hit, put it exactly where Berrios needed to catch it to protect himself from the safety. I mean, it was awesome.”
Although Wilson’s 52-yard TD run against the Jaguars was the eye-opener, It was the third-and-9 throw in crunch time to get the Jets in position for the field goal that gave them their 26-21 lead that had Saleh gushing. Because those are the kind of throws any would-be big-time quarterback must make.
“It was a clutch throw, a clutch catch and a critical down to keep the chains moving.” Saleh said. “Zach’s decision-making has been fantastic. His off-schedule stuff, he’s starting to look natural. Shoot, he finally pump-faked a defender and ran around him for a big chunk of yards to just show the natural playmaking ability where he finally looked a little bit loose [Sunday] in terms of running with a purpose, not running just to run. He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there. Like I said, he’s in a great headspace.
“It’s gonna be fun to watch him grow … continue to grow.”
And it was fun to watch Riverboat Ron Middleton, his handpicked interim head coach, win his NFL debut — with a goal-line stand from the 1-yard line, no less.
“I thought he did a great job,” Saleh said. “I heard he did a wonderful job at halftime, thought he did a great job upholding the game plan with being aggressive, loved the fake field goal … loved all of it. Obviously a couple of them didn’t work, and like I told him after the game, I said, ‘Hey if it works, you’re good; if it doesn’t work, I’m gonna question you (laugh).’ But I thought he did a great job.”
The unsuccessful fake field goal had been incorporated into the game plan Tuesday before Saleh fell ill.
“I thought he did a great job keeping energy on the sideline, keeping everybody engaged,” Saleh said. “When he gets a W, you’re the man, so it was awesome.”
If there was any singular moment that could have had his hotel room neighbors complaining to the front desk about noise, it was tackle-eligible Conor McGovern’s 1-yard TD catch.
“I was Face-Timing with [Packers head coach and best friend] Matt LaFleur,” Saleh said, “and we were watching the game at the same time, but he was like five seconds ahead of me. So I’m yelling at him to stop telling me what’s happening. I could tell something happened ’cause he was like ‘Ohhh!’ When he caught it, it was just laughing and like, ‘Ohmigod, I can’t believe that happened.’ But it was a really cool moment.”
Rising star rookie running back Michael Carter rushed for a career-high 118 of the Jets’ 273 rushing yards — all the more stunning considering that prized rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker was on the COVID list and left tackle Mekhi Becton almost certainly won’t return until next season following a frustratingly glacial recovery from September knee surgery.
“I loved the way Mike LaFleur called the game,” Saleh said. “If we need Ron Middleton in Mike’s ear to yell at ’em to run the ball more, shoot, I’ll be more than happy to give ’em the headset when offense is up. … Michael Carter, I mean he’s such a special talent. The first tackler never brings him down. If the O-line blocks it for 5, he’s finding a way to get 8, 9 and 10. Tevin Coleman was running his butt off, O-line was blocking, scheme was awesome. It felt like just watching it, there was a lot of space for the guys to run through. When they cut to the sideline from the TV, you could see GVR [Greg Van Roten], the O-line was having a blast on the sideline. … They were all engaged, the O-line looked like they into it, which they should … the way a new line of scrimmage was being created, just all of it was pretty damn impressive.”
His COVID-20 Jets fought off the adversity Saleh warned is inevitable in every NFL season.
“For them, it’s exactly what I think of professional players, they had a professional week of practice. They went about their business the way they needed to, and then to jump on the field and play together and to play with the effort, and the violence, especially on our offensive line, that was a real cool thing to see,” Saleh said. “And it’s a testament to this group, and it’s a testament to [GM] Joe Douglas and the men that he’s brought into this locker room. It’s a youthful group, it’s an exciting group, and it’s definitely something to build off of.”
Saleh expects to be cleared any day now — just in time for his team to face Tom Brady.
“My numbers have been trending up for a couple of days so hopefully I can get back here over the next day or two,” he said.
The joy on his face was evident when he popped up on Zoom in the postgame locker room.
“It was frustrating. One, obviously not being there, seemed like an awesome game, the guys played their absolute butts off,” Saleh said. “But at the same time, it was awesome to see the ending. It was a weird experience but at the end of the day, it was a cool experience because we won.”
Now go beat TB12.