Matt Forte spoke barely above a whisper in a corner of the Jets’ locker room, but he might as well have been using a megaphone after delivering a massive second-guess after Sunday’s 25-20 loss to the reigning NFC champion Falcons at MetLife Stadium.
It was the third straight game in which the Jets failed to hold a fourth-quarter lead against a quality opponent, but unlike previous losses to the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots and Dolphins, Forte delivered an unmistakable message that offensive coordinator John Morton’s play calls were central to the Jets’ inability to close out the game.
On a day when windy and rainy conditions made you think the Jets’ best plan of attack was to try to pound the Falcons’ defense with the run, Morton flipped the script and went heavy with the pass, virtually ignoring the running game. And especially Forte, who had only four carries for seven yards.
“Definitely surprised by that, because we knew the weather was going to be like this, and it continued to rain the entire game,” Forte said. “I felt like we only ran the ball maybe 20 times. That should have been at least one person getting 20 carries with the way the weather was. I thought we were going to grind them out on the ground, but it turned out not to be that way.”
Forte even suggested the original plan was to run the ball more and that there was no need to speak directly to Morton, who calls plays from upstairs in the coaches’ booth at the press level.
“Everybody knows that that was the game plan and that’s what we wanted to do,” Forte said. “I don’t have to get on a headset and tell somebody how to do their job.”
Morton was unavailable for comment because coordinators don’t talk with the media after games. Coach Todd Bowles addressed the media before Forte made his comments.
Forte was especially frustrated that he didn’t get more opportunities. “I’m obviously biased, because I’m a running back, but raining like that, you would think that we would run the ball more than we did,” he said. “I only had four carries this game, so I don’t think we ran the ball enough, with the weather being the way it was. I think that kind of hurt us. It’s unfortunate. It hurts. That’s three games [including the Patriots and Dolphins] where we feel like we should have won.”
It was an unusual rebuke delivered by a highly respected veteran, and on a mostly young team that has preached togetherness, Forte’s diatribe — soft-spoken as it was — stood in stark contrast with the other players in the locker room stressing the need not to splinter.
It almost makes you wonder if Forte’s criticism was truly spontaneous or perhaps more calculated. With Tuesday’s trade deadline approaching, might Forte’s criticism of Morton have been designed to force the team to part ways with him?
Forte’s repeated criticism of Morton might require Bowles to intercede at some level. Bowles has done a good job of keeping his team together this year, especially after difficult losses, but to have one of the most highly visible veteran players openly second-guess a coordinator is a bad look, at the very least.
Whether it rises to the level of trading him, perhaps to a potential playoff team, remains to be seen. That would be a bit of a surprise, considering the Jets have expressed no issue with Forte in the past. In fact, Bowles is a low-key personality who might look at Sunday’s remarks as little more than postgame frustration.
Whatever the case, Forte’s criticism of Morton, a first-year play-caller who most recently worked on the Saints’ staff, was startling nonetheless.
“When you got a wet ball out there, it’s raining, if I was a coordinator, yeah, I would probably [run the ball more],” Forte said. “Raining like that, you would think that we would run it more than we did. But every game is different and he’s calling the plays and he has to call what he sees out there and go from there. We have to execute the plays no matter what he calls.”
Forte said that perhaps Morton’s background working with Saints quarterback Drew Brees makes him more inclined to pass the ball. In Sunday’s game, Jets quarterback Josh McCown had a solid game, going 26-for-33 for 257 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 119.3 rating.
“He’s more of a pass type of guy coming from New Orleans, where they’re in a dome and you got Drew Brees and of course they’re going to throw the ball,” Forte said. “You got to analyze your team and see what your guys do best, and if we’re running the ball on these days or whatever, maybe it shouldn’t be 65-35 [percent] pass to run. You can’t go out there and think that particular formula or percentage is going to work every single time, because games are different.”
With the Jets 3-5 heading into Thursday night’s prime-time game against the Bills at MetLife Stadium, their season is hanging in the balance. Forte’s criticism only adds to the pressure, perhaps to the point that the trade deadline might create an unexpected escape hatch.