The New York Jets’ kicking woes prevented them from capitalizing on a fateful day
Tony Soprano’s distaste aside, “Remember when” is perhaps one of the most common forms of discussion hosted in the Sunday parking lots of not only MetLife Stadium but the arenas across the NFL.
These lands, transforming from parking lots into mini-cities on gridiron game days, are places where the sentence opener “I was there for … ” is often the precursor for something legendary and can be used as a form of determining one’s social status.
The topic takes on increased importance for long-suffering fans of the New York Jets, who, frankly, don’t have much material to work with thanks to a decade-long streak of futility that will likely celebrate its 11th birthday this winter. Whereas their compatriots across the country can talk about playoff appearances of the recent past and near future, Jets fans are mostly resigned to good memories marred by what happened next in the bigger picture.
For Jets fans, “I was there for … ” is a discussion made not to brag, but to stage de facto feats of strength amongst tailgaters. Every fan that had to endure Thanksgiving 2012 will be countered by another that had to witness Victor Cruz’s 99-yard dash to glory (and the Super Bowl) on Christmas Eve.
Even the team’s finest MetLife moment isn’t spared. Eric Decker’s overtime touchdown in the 2015 home finale against New England only delayed the inevitable fall out of the playoff picture the following week in Buffalo against Rex Ryan’s Bills.
Sunday’s Jet game against the Philadelphia Eagles had the makings of becoming one of those parking lot epics.
While relatively small in impact beyond the New Jersey Turnpike, a potential New York victory had two ingredients to make it a classic: for one thing, it would’ve been the Jets’ first win over Philadelphia in a 12-game series that dates back to 1973. If Zach Wilson, the latest prophet/deliverer of the Jets’ eternal rebuild, played a role in ending the streak, the game could’ve taken on a double meaning as the contest that served as Wison’s “turning point”.
Even those types of games have been hard for the Jets to earn. Sam Darnold might’ve had one when he matched Aaron Rodgers’ every move in a Festivus thriller against Green Bay in 2018 but that game lies mostly forgotten thanks to the Adam Gase era that came after.
But the opening stages of Sunday’s games hinted that the Jets could finally have their long-denied cheesesteak and eat it too. Individual 18-point first halves against Philadelphia are often reserved for the hardwood of Madison Square Garden, but Wilson was responsible for three first-half touchdowns – the first scores of his NFL career in the first half of a game.
In a serendipitous instance of metropolitan fan service, the first even went to Wilson’s fellow rookie Elijah Moore.
Alas, this, of course, is New York Jets football. Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, the ending will almost certainly place the protagonist on the wrong side of things by the time the credits roll.
Wilson accounted for literally all of the Jets’ scoring on Sunday – and that’s not a good thing.
It didn’t take long for the Jets to mar his offensive mastery, the first consistent sign that he might have a real professional future ahead. Yet another New York rookie, kicker Alex Kessman, made his NFL debut on Sunday. If one thought Wilson was working with a short leash, it’s gargantuan compared to Kessman’s early yank that will likely end his Jets career as quickly as it began.
Kessman missed each of the extra point attempts after Wilson’s first two touchdowns, instantly killing whatever momentum the team hoped to gain in a crucial interconference showdown. After Kessman missed the first two tries, the Jets went for two on what became their final score of the day (Wilson’s one-yard score to Ryan Griffin) but a pass intended for Jamison Crowder fell incomplete.
Jets head coach Robert Saleh didn’t spend much time on Kessman’s struggles in his postgame statements but heavily implied that his time in green was over. Kessman had already been filling in for Matt Ammendola, whose 12-week hold on the position ended after last week’s 21-14 win over Houston.
“We have someone else in the building,” Saleh said, per notes from the Jets. “We’ll just keep going until something works.”
To Saleh’s point, the Jets don’t have any other kickers on their active roster or practice squad but worked out several legs during their search for an Ammendola replacement.
Kessman’s misfires prevented the Jets (3-9) from keeping pace with the Eagles on an afternoon where the defense left much to be desired. What could’ve perhaps been a 21-21 tie going into the halftime locker room was instead a 24-18 deficit. Philadelphia (6-7) ironically used Jake Elliott’s field goals to win the game, as the tenured leg earned the final dozen points of a 33-18 triumph.
In Kessman’s defense, it obviously wasn’t his responsibility to stop an Eagles offense headlined by backup quarterback Gardner Minshew, nor was he part of a regressed metropolitan offensive effort that mustered only 73 second-half yards before a lengthy garbage time drive earned when all was lost.
But Kessman is nonetheless the latest casualty of the Jets’ cursed kicking tree that has sprouted in Florham Park since Pro Bowler Jason Myers absconded for Seattle after his historic 2018 season. Since his departure, the Jets have used six different kickers in the regular season, and that number seems poised to move to seven when the Jets take on the New Orleans Saints next Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
That’s a downright shocking statistic and is one of the Jets’ more unsung follies as they continue to hold the NFL’s longest active playoff drought. It’s getting to the point where post-Myers kickers in New York might be able to occupy one singular cursed jersey like the one Cleveland Browns fans erected for their pre-Baker Mayfield days at quarterback.
But comedy and coping at the kicker slot must give way to an uncomfortable truth: this is starting to hurt the Jets’ long-gestating plans on offense.
Acquiring a franchise quarterback is a lot like a parent bringing a puppy home: the purchases don’t begin or end with the youngster himself. A homeowner must prepare for the puppy’s arrival by also acquiring things like a leash, collar, food/water bowl, meals, puppy pads, a bed, etc. Other expenditures could include fencing and the services of a walker and/or training service.
When a new thrower comes, the general manager thus invests in other services: his receiving arsenal is restocked, as is the protection ahead of him. The areas of the game beyond the offense are no exception: the defense, for example, must make sure that the quarterback isn’t thrust into awkward situations to work through (i.e. large deficits and poor starting field position).
Special teams can likewise play a role in the quarterback’s NFL journey and maturation. Returners and punters once again play big roles in the field position battle (the former setting the quarterback up well while the latter removing pressure for failed drives) while the kicker can help ensure that most, if not all, possessions that enter opposing territory end in points.
Nothing builds a quarterback’s confidence in this league more than points. Combining points and confidence yields the most vital metric of all: wins.
Look no further than the point totals and the Jets’ results during Myers’ recording-breaking 2018 season. New York reached the 20-point plateau seven times (44% of games), earning a 4-3 record in those games. In the three seasons since then, they’ve done so on 16 occasions (36% of games), putting up a 10-6 record. The Jets are 2-26 otherwise.
As those stats indicate, the Jets haven’t had that reliability in the kicker spot for the past three seasons, and it’s starting to take a toll on what they’re trying to build on a long-suffering offense. Going into the locker room tied against an Eagles team at the cusp of NFC playoff contention would’ve been a nice little landmark for Wilson, especially in his second game from a sprained PCL injury that ate away at three games of his rookie season.
Kessman’s misses prevented that from happening.
If the Kessman situation feels familiar, that’s because it’s horrifyingly similar to what the Jets went through during one of the most important games of the Darnold era.
In the 2019 opener against Buffalo, preseason trade acquisition Kaare Vedvik was set to wield the Jets’ special teams banner after Myers left, but two crucial missed kicks – an extra point and a 45-yard field goal attempt after a Neville Hewitt interception – partly allowed the Buffalo Bills to escape East Rutherford with a 17-16 win.
Vedvik’s Jets career lasted a single contest, joining the likes of Kliff Kingsbury, Walt Michaels, and Raul Allegre to dress one game in green. Sam Ficken, Sergio Castillo, and Chase McLaughlin followed, with Ammedola and Kessman following this season.
The sad part is, the Jets had the right idea with Kessman, vis a vis helping Wilson: his collegiate percentage from deep, clocking in at a success rate of 66.7 from at least 50 yards out at Pittsburgh, is the best in NCAA history amongst kickers with at least 15 such tries.
A kicker’s position on a football team’s hierarchy – American football, anyway – is often debated.
While some have established themselves as beloved parts of winning programs (Justin Tucker’s jersey is perhaps the most popular amongst the visitors of Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium), the kicker spot is often used as comedic fodder. An Allstate spot from the new century features Dennis Haysbert comparing the kicker to car insurance because “no one cares who the kicker is until you need him.”
Laughs from the 2000 football farce “The Replacements” often spawn from Rhys Ifans’ Nigel Gruff, a chain-smoking, gambling-addicted Welsh footballer.
Alas for the Jets, there’s nothing funny about what’s going on here. For the sake of Wilson and the future of the offense, they must get this solved as soon as possible.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags