When you're 3-9, all you can do is forget about the past, cope with the present and look forward to the future. That's what New York Jets Coach Joe Walton is doing these days. When all else fails, he goes back to the future.
The embattled coach, who hasn't had many positive things to talk about this season, was gushing Monday about how well his rookie defenders played Sunday in the 27-7 victory over Atlanta.
Walton spoke of "progress" and "encouraging signs" for the future. He sounded like a politician, promising happier times for his constituents. But in this campaign only one vote counts, and it belongs to owner Leon Hess, who will decide Walton's fate after the season.
In the meantime, Walton will continue to sell the future.
"We can't get too excited about one game, but they showed progress and aggressiveness," Walton said, referring to the improved play of linebacker Jeff Lageman and defensive ends Ron Stallworth and Dennis Byrd. "I hope we can build on that. They have a long way to go, but they're getting a great opportunity to play. That's the key."
It has been an inconsistent season for the rookie defensive players, but they all flashed signs of potential Sunday. Lageman was named the Jets' defensive player of the week by the coaching staff. The No. 1 pick recorded five solo tackles, two assists, one quarterback pressure and one tipped pass.
Stallworth, starting at right end for the injured Marty Lyons, enjoyed his best game -- two solos, two assists, two pressures and his first sack. Byrd, a pass rusher in the nickel package, had three solos, two pressures and shared a sack with Gerald Nichols.
Not bad at all, but let's not get carried away. Remember, it was only the Falcons, a 3-9 team with the worst rushing offense in the league and a line that has allowed a hefty total of 41 sacks.
Nonetheless, Walton was encouraged, particularly with Lageman's performance. "He was all over the field," Walton said. "He really played well. He had some pressure and he had some tackles. The key thing was the aggressiveness he played with. He chased all over the field, from sideline to sideline."
Lageman played the entire game, a total of 62 plays, including special teams. His playing time increased five weeks ago, when the Jets released Tim Cofield and made Lageman the right end on passing downs. Lageman said he has benefited from the full-time role.
"I'm glad I'm on the field the whole game," Lageman said. "It makes me feel better. And, if I don't get to the quarterback, I can still go downfield and make the tackle. I think that happened once or twice on Sunday. That's just my style. I'm not a super-incredible athlete like Al Toon, but the thing about me is that I never give up."
Despite the promising showing against the Falcons, it has been an uneven season for the rookies. They started slowly, particularly Stallworth and Byrd. Stallworth lost his starting job after three weeks and Byrd (2 1/2 sacks) didn't record a sack until the fifth game. Lageman (2 1/2 sacks) has improved against the run, but his pass rush still needs a lot of work. Ditto for the entire team. The Jets have only 19 sacks.
Much of the Jets' future is riding on these three players, and they know it. "I hope we can be the future," Lageman said. "We're not here to be the flops of the future. In the future, I don't want to read articles about how we're a bunch of flops."
Lageman, Byrd and Stallworth will be around next season, but will Walton be around to reap the dividends of his rookie crop? Rumors are swirling about his job status, but Walton said he was not concerned. "That's entirely in somebody else's hands," he said after the game. "I'm the coach right now and that's the way it is."