By Matt Citak
Prior to the season starting, many expected the New York Jets to be one of the worst, if not the worst, teams in the NFL. That may still be the case, but after Sunday’s surprisingly dominating 20-6 victory over the Miami Dolphins, some are left to wonder whether or not the Jets will actually secure one of the top picks in next year’s draft.
While most Jets fans are supportive of the “Tank For Darnold” campaign, in hopes that the team will continue to lose so it can draft Sam Darnold of USC with the top pick, New York’s players certainly seemed relieved to pick up the first win of the season.
“It was really nice to pick up [the win] this past Sunday,” said Jets running back Matt Forte in an exclusive interview with CBS Local. “We had two road games in a row to start the season. We improved this week from those two past weeks where on offense, we’ve been moving the ball a lot better. [We’ve had] less penalties, less mental errors. We executed better and I think that’s the point: for us to continue to be in the place to win ball games, to play defense like our defense played, and also to control the clock with the ball, running it and converting on third downs.”
When Forte signed with the Jets in March 2016, the team had high hopes for the upcoming season. New York was coming off a shocking 10-6 season in which they came incredibly close to sneaking into the playoffs. However the team fell back down to earth last season, finishing with a disappointing 5-11 record.
Heading into the 2017 season, the outlook for the year could not have been gloomier for the Jets. Sports books in Las Vegas were listing the team’s over/under win total at 4.5, and almost every expert around the country believed the under was a guarantee. But for the running back partaking in his 10th NFL season, the media’s expectations for the team could not matter less.
“It doesn’t affect me at all, personally. That’s the message we echo throughout the team and the organization, because no matter what anybody types or writes about you in the media, that doesn’t mean that’s what you are in real life, or as a football team,” Forte said. “So us in the locker room, we know what kind of football team and what kind of talent we have. We had to go out in camp and put the work in throughout the preseason and now throughout the season, to prove people wrong. Not only just for that, but for ourselves so we can go out there and win games. Nobody was picking us [this season]. We don’t care who’s picking us to win or to not win any games. That’s the message we relate throughout the locker room, that a big part of this game is being mentally tough. You have to be mentally tough to block out the media and what they say about you, especially when it’s negative.”
The biggest factor into New York’s low win-total prediction was the exile of many of the team’s veteran players throughout the offseason. The Jets decided to part ways with players such as Nick Mangold, Eric Decker, Brandon Marshall, Darrelle Revis, David Harris, Breno Giacomini and others in an attempt to get younger (and possibly as an indirect way of tanking).
Following that trend, it seemed possible that Forte could have been the next veteran player to be handed a pink slip. However even with that cloud somewhat hanging over his head, the veteran back never let that thought concern him. But that’s not to say he wasn’t a little disappointed to see some of his teammates from last year go.
“No I never wondered if I would be the next one to go,” said the 10th-year running back out of Tulane. “I wasn’t worried about it in that aspect because this is a business and it has a business side to it. That’s kind of some of the things that the fans don’t get to experience, so they don’t understand that part. When a player chooses the best scenario or the best situation for himself, [the fans] get mad at the player because, ‘Oh he’s not loyal.’ But at the same time, when the team chooses what’s best for them, whatever they think that might be, and they’re not loyal to the player, [the fans] don’t have a problem with it. It’s backwards. So I was upset a little bit because I felt we could have used those guys. Especially David Harris at linebacker with Demario [Davis] being back, too. I felt like we could have used him. But also I felt like we could have used Eric [Decker]. With having a lot of young receivers, he would have been one of those veteran guys in there.”
It should come as no surprise that after the departure of so many veteran players, the Jets now sport one of the youngest rosters in the entire league. Forte, who turns 32 in December, is the second-oldest player on New York’s 53-man roster, trailing only starting quarterback Josh McCown (who turned 38 in July). In fact, Forte, McCown, and defensive tackle Steve McLendon (31) are the only three players on the Jets above 30 years old. It’s no wonder that those three veterans, along with the newly acquired wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, serve as some of the leaders for this young Jets team.
“Now we have Jermaine Kearse. He’s a veteran guy who’s been in playoff games, a Super Bowl, and won a Super Bowl and has a lot of experience that he can pass on to those young guys in the receiver room,” said Forte. “Me being one of the longest-tenured guys there, as well as Josh McCown and Jermaine Kearse on offense, we have a lot of veteran leadership right there. We can display what we know to the younger guys and they can go from there. On defense there’s a ton of guys. Steve McLendon who’s been in the league nine years. “Big Cat” Leonard [Williams] is not a rookie anymore. He’s got a lot of experience, made a Pro Bowl. Mo Wilkerson. Our d-line is full of veteran guys. And Demario [Davis] I think is in his sixth or seventh year. We’ve got a lot of veteran leadership, as well as young guys, but it’s a good mix.”
Forte has looked solid thus far in his second season with the Jets. Despite carrying the ball only 23 times, the running back has picked up 94 yards (4.1 yards per carry) while catching six receptions for 58 yards. Those numbers would have been even higher had he not been forced out of Sunday’s win with a toe injury, which has since been diagnosed as turf toe. While he wouldn’t go as far as guaranteeing he would be on the field come Sunday, Forte did say the injury was improving.
“I’m doing well. I’m walking better today than after the game,” the veteran back said regarding his toe injury. “I’ve been getting treatment on it. I got x-rays on it, they came back negative. I didn’t break my toe or anything. It’s just a turf toe injury, which is one of those nagging things that you’ve got to deal with as a player. But I’ve had it before. I think it was my rookie year I had it on my right foot. I haven’t had any residual problems with it once it healed. So I’m looking forward to healing fast so I can get back on the field.”
The Jets could use their veteran running back this weekend as they welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars and their poor rushing defense to the Meadowlands on Sunday. Whether or not Forte can suit up, you can expect this young Jets team to put up a fight against the Jaguars. The fans may not like it, but this team will be fighting hard for every win this season.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.