EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — C.J. Uzomah looked across the locker room and saw dozens of reporters surrounding Greg Zuerlein, the Jets kicker who had just missed a last-second field goal from 58 yards. Uzomah was not happy.
He stomped his feet, angrily threw his uniform in the laundry bin and shouted for anyone to hear: “That’s bulls—. I think I might say something.”
After he showered and sat down at his locker, he was still fuming.
The Jets just lost another heartbreaker, 20-17, to the Lions in a game that — heard this before? — they probably should have won. This is the same Jets team that started 5-2, back when hope felt everlasting. Now they’re 7-7, optimism fading, even if the standings say they still have a shot. How did they get here? Uzomah wants to make one thing clear: It’s not on one person, or two. Don’t blame Zach Wilson. Don’t blame the kicker.
Their problems are aplenty — and not very complicated.
“I think — I don’t want to say too much,” Uzomah said. “But it’s crazy because everything is going to fall on (Wilson). Everything is going to fall on Greg. … I’m like, why the hell is he up there (talking to media)?
“The quarterback is always going to get the brunt of it, and he knows that, but on the sideline we’re looking at the still frames (on a tablet) and I’m like: ‘Damn, I could’ve done this better.’ And I hear somebody else say: ‘Damn, I could’ve done this.’ All right. Well, an accumulation of those means we didn’t execute.”
The phrase of the day: Missed opportunities.
“We started 5-2 and now we’re 7-7,” wide receiver Garrett Wilson said. “It’s been a lot of missed opportunities throughout this season. Hopefully we can look back on it, be in the playoffs and feel a little better about it but we gotta earn that. Up to this point, we didn’t earn that. We started fast, and none of that matters when you don’t finish the way you’re supposed to.”
The Jets have lost five of seven games. Those five losses were by five, seven, five, eight and three points.
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Sunday, the problems started early, when Kalif Raymond returned a shoddy Braden Mann punt (with bad Jets coverage, too) 47 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
It was 10-10 at halftime, and Wilson had been heating up just before the break. On his 40-yard touchdown pass to Uzomah, he rolled to the left, then threw it across the field — 44 yards in the air, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The good vibes died when he threw an interception four plays into the third quarter, right into the arms of Lions cornerback Jerry Jacobs. It turned into a field goal at the other end.
“In that moment of going out there and throwing a bad interception, I gave up three points,” Wilson said. “I put our defense in a bad situation there and you see how those three points come back to bite us in the end. I have to take care of the football.”
In the fourth quarter — after another Wilson touchdown pass to Uzomah, this time from 1 yard out — the Jets had the Lions at fourth-and-one at the 49-yard line after the two-minute warning, with only one timeout remaining. If the Jets stopped Detroit, they probably would win the game.
The Jets anticipated a quarterback sneak — defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said that’s the look the Lions had shown all year. The Lions sent both of their wide receivers deep on the right side of the field. On play action, tight end Brock Wright blocked for a couple seconds, and the Jets defense fell for it. When he split out to run a route, he was all alone, most of the secondary on the opposite side of the field. Wright breezed to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown.
Made the Wright play on 4th down!#DETvsNYJ | ? CBS pic.twitter.com/RkLdogmS3S
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 18, 2022
“Obviously, we’re all devastated,” cornerback D.J. Reed said. “As a defense, we put that on us because we want to be in those situations. We have the top defense in the NFL, we put that on us, put that on our chest, we’ll take that to the chin.”
Rankins thought the Jets lost because of that play.
“It’s tough to stomach,” he said. “As a competitor, you’d rather a team methodically go down the field and earn every yard than just a big chunk play like that you’re not expecting. … You gotta force a team to earn it every step of the way.”
After the Wright touchdown, the Jets got the ball back with 1:49 remaining, armed with all three timeouts. On third-and-19, Wilson completed a 22-yard pass to Garrett Wilson — and Jets coach Robert Saleh didn’t call timeout. By the time Wilson’s next pass sailed over Braxton Berrios’ head, 58 seconds remained. It took a Wilson sack for Saleh to use his first timeout. An incompletion on third down brought it down to 14 seconds. Then on fourth-and-18, Wilson completed a miraculous throw — after dodging multiple defenders — down the field for 20 yards to Elijah Moore for a first down. Moore was tackled but called timeout with one second left.
WHAT A PLAY! WE HAVE A SHOT!#DETvsNYJ on CBS pic.twitter.com/XksCEMln4n
— New York Jets (@nyjets) December 18, 2022
The ever-reliable Zuerlein missed a 58-yard field goal, and so the game ended with one Jets timeout that never got used.
“I can probably look back at it and say we could’ve used one, for sure,” Saleh said. “But at the same time, when you have three timeouts, time is not an issue whether you use one there or not. But, yeah, I could always, in hindsight for me, call a timeout to settle the guys down.”
To Garrett Wilson’s point: It has been an issue all season. The two Patriots losses — Zach Wilson threw three interceptions in one, and for 77 yards in the other — particularly stung. But the Jets had the ball, with the chance to tie or go ahead, late in the losses to the Vikings and Bills too.
At the end of the season, the Jets might look up and find themselves last in the AFC East, a familiar spot. This time, though, it will sting a little more, considering how close they have been, loss after loss, to turning the corner. This is a talented team that hasn’t proven it’s ready for this moment, for this opportunity.
The Jets no longer “control their own destiny,” if they ever did in the first place.
“Everyone knows that we’ve got to win out,” Saleh said.
“We’re not idiots,” Rankins said. “We understand the way things shake out.”
This is not the sort of Jets team to fold. It’s not time to start thinking about the 2023 NFL Draft, not yet. They will fight for three more weeks; they’ve proven that much. That fight resumes quickly, on Thursday night at home against the Jaguars. But they have things bigger than the standings to overcome.
Their offensive line has been a problem in consecutive weeks. Sunday, the Lions defense pressured Zach Wilson 22 times, per TruMedia. He was sacked four times and hit five more. On defense, the Jets have forced one turnover — in Week 12 against the Bears — in their last five games, and didn’t sack Jared Goff a single time Sunday (though star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, suffering from a calf injury, didn’t play). The Jets have scored three points in the first quarter during this three-game losing streak. The Jets ran for 50 yards on 22 carries on Sunday, an average of 2.3 yards per carry.
And then there are the questions at quarterback. Wilson was solid in the first half — 8 of 14, 185 yards, one touchdown and a 125.6 rating — but then reverted back to the form that got him benched for Mike White a few weeks ago. In the second half, he completed 10 of 21 passes for 132 yards, one touchdown and one interception — which he shouldn’t have thrown. In the third quarter, he missed Garrett Wilson on a third-down play, and Wilson was visibly frustrated, throwing up his arms, dramatically unbuckling his helmet as he went to the sideline.
“I got to be better, man,” Zach Wilson said.
It is unlikely White, with his ribs injury suffered last week, will be cleared in time to play against the Jaguars. But Wilson didn’t show enough to convince anyone he deserves to keep the starting job when White is ready to return, either. The 6-8 Jaguars are no pushover. They just beat the Cowboys, a perceived Super Bowl contender, 40-34 in overtime, one week after dropping 36 points on the AFC South-leading Titans.
Ultimately, though, the Jets aren’t 7-7 because of Wilson, even if he’s played a heavy hand in some of their losses.
“We’re not executing. We’re not,” Uzomah said. “We have a 2-yard run and we’re looking at it like: ‘That should’ve been an explosive run, that could’ve been a touchdown.’ When I say we’re not executing, it’s that. It’s just that. We have (opportunities) out there.
“We didn’t play well enough,” he added. “We’re going to watch film and see that we left a lot of plays out there.”
(Photo of Zach Wilson: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)