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Jets brought quarantined Robert Saleh lots of joy on ‘weird’ gameday





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.”

Jets coach Robert Saleh had to watch Sunday’s win over the Jaguars from quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.
Bill Kostroun, N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg (2)

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.”

Conor McDermott catches a touchdown for the Jets
Getty Images

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.


Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death




Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence




Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers




Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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