A new beginning, a new lease on football life … a career, for crying out loud … the hope and optimism that accompany a new era in New York Jets football … can change in the blink of an eye.
One moment you can be the talk of your new training camp, showing left tackle Mekhi Becton all the moves in your arsenal, and then …
You can go to Green Bay for a joint practice against the Packers and hear a pop in your leg that no one ever wants to hear, in any sport. Kevin Durant, for one, can speak to that.
And then you have to be carted off the field for an MRI exam and all you can do — all your new Jets coaches and new teammates can do — is pray that the MRI waiting for you reveals that your Achilles is not torn, that your season has not ended before it had a chance to begin, and worst of all, that you might never be the same player again when you do return.
Alas, your prayers, the prayers of your coaches and teammates, were sadly not answered.
This isn’t the same as Vinny Testaverde rupturing his Achilles on Opening Day of the 1999 season. Bill Parcells’ Jets had lost the 1998 AFC Championship game in Denver, and were poised and primed for a Super season … until their veteran quarterback crumpled to the ground on a bright, sun-splashed September afternoon. Joe Klecko ruptured his patella tendon in Week 2 of the 1982 season in New England, but was able to return for the playoffs when the Walt Michaels Jets advanced to the infamous Mud Bowl AFC Championship loss in Miami.
Carl Lawson wasn’t going to lead the Robert Saleh Jets back to the playoffs this season with a rookie quarterback enduring the obligatory growing pains in a division harboring Josh Allen and the Bills, a vengeful Bill Belichick, and an emerging Dolphins team.
But it sure looked as if he was about to terrorize quarterbacks and help Quinnen Williams show New York what a relentless, predatory Saleh defensive line looks like and plays like.
The task for Saleh now, after he expresses empathy for a player he was so excited about, is to keep his chin up, which is his nature, and keep the spirits of his team up. And it wouldn’t be such a terrible idea for him to seek counsel from Joe Judge, who never let the Week 2 loss of Saquon Barkley rock the boat and throw the rest of his first season overboard.
It’s not as if Saleh doesn’t have experience with adversity — only last September, 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa was carted off the field at MetLife Stadium in Week 2 against the Jets with an ACL tear. Saleh, Kyle Shanahan’s defensive coordinator with San Francisco, also lost defensive tackle Solomon Thomas (torn ACL) that day (not that any of it helped the Adam Gase Jets).
Lawson — all 6-foot-2, 265 pounds of him — had been unblockable in training camp, an undersized force of nature who plays so much bigger than he is. Jets GM Joe Douglas gave Lawson a three-year, $45 million deal because his upside was irresistible — a 25-year-old football junkie with so many tools in his tool box and natural strength and speed to power whose best was yet to come. “When you turn on the tape of Carl Lawson,” Saleh said, “all he does is win.”
So here was this nightmare development on Thursday during what had been planned for months by Saleh and Packers coach Matt LaFleur, the best man at his wedding, as a dream exercise that would benefit both teams.
It began innocently enough, with Zach Wilson meeting his idol Aaron Rodgers and shooting the breeze with him, with LaFleur reuniting with Saleh and his kid brother Mike, the Jets’ offensive coordinator.
These calamities can happen anytime, anywhere. They can happen at practice, they can happen in the games. Lawson wasn’t going to play much in the preseason, and all 32 head coaches are wise to err on the side of caution when debating whether the risk of playing one of their key players at all is worth the reward.
Lawson felt unchained and unshackled in his new defense and couldn’t wait to be unleashed on quarterbacks. Saleh and Lawson were so optimistic that theirs was a match made in heaven … for each other, and for the inexperienced cornerbacks so reliant on the pass rush.
A shame that he couldn’t even make it to the regular season and get after Sam Darnold in Week 1. A shame it had to be interrupted by a day in hell first.
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