Jets acting head coach Ron Middleton reacts during the third...

Jets acting head coach Ron Middleton reacts during the third quarter against the Jaguars at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Ron Middleton once ran a practice as the associate head coach at Duke, and that was it for being in charge of a football team — until Wednesday with the Jets, when Robert Saleh tested positive for COVID-19.

Middleton had always wanted to be a head coach, and Saleh picked his tight ends coach to play the part. Middleton ran three practices and the walk-through.

Saleh said Friday that he felt good, but he wasn’t cleared Saturday to work against Jacksonville on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Middleton would have to take the game, too.

The Jets also had 20 players, including six on the practice squad, on the reserve/ COVID-19 list. But Middleton’s big day turned out OK. He became a 26-21 winner as the acting head coach when the Jaguars couldn’t convert on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the closing seconds.

Then he received a nifty souvenir — a game ball.

"I thought it was truly a team effort," Middleton said. " . . . Just a culmination of the week. Everybody being professional and going about their job with all of the adversity. It was an awesome win."

Middleton certainly didn’t run a conservative empire on this day. The Jets went for it on fourth down five times, converting three on their way to improving to 4-11.

That included a fourth-and-goal from the 1 when Zach Wilson found lineman Conor McDermott in the end zone to help the Jets take a 23-15 lead with 9:16 left.

"We were going to be aggressive, but we weren’t going to be foolish," Middleton said. "Every time we went for it on fourth down, it was discussed. Our game analysis person, Matt Burke, was giving information. All of the decisions were based on that information."

After playing as a tight end for five teams across 10 NFL seasons, Middleton entered coaching in 1997.

His head-coaching debut came against the team that employed him the previous eight seasons, primarily as a tight ends coach.

"It was exactly what we got from him all year," Wilson said. "The passion, the energy, what he brings to the table, guys respect. He did a great job just stepping up, just doing his thing. It wasn’t forced."

This chance to fill in for Saleh has given Middleton a new behind-the-scenes view.

"I’ve done seminars and symposiums getting you ready to be a head coach," Middleton said. "The biggest thing I’ve taken from this experience is the people around me. The PR guys prepping me for these interviews. Scar [Steve Scarnecchia], the head coach’s assistant, with notes and having you in the right place at the right time.

"Just bear with me here — it’s like a duck on water. Everything looks real smooth, but under the water, it’s a lot of [paddling], if you will. To me, that’s the biggest thing I have gotten out of it is the appreciation for those guys behind the scenes that make things look as smooth as they do."

More Jets