CLEVELAND — To ignite a much-needed spark within his players, Todd Bowles offered the one thing he’s always been adept at delivering: blunt honesty.
It turned out to be just what the Jets needed at halftime.
“There’s no big speech to be made,” Bowles told reporters Sunday after their 31-28 comeback win over the Browns. “You’ve got to have a [expletive] attitude when you’re getting your [butt] kicked.”
There was no rage, no flipping of chairs and no histrionics behind closed doors, just plain truth from their coach. And there was one request his players had no choice but to heed.
“He just said, ‘Play with attitude. Don’t come back in here without a win,’ ” defensive tackle Steve McLendon said.
It wasn’t pretty, nor was it easy, but the Jets avoided being embarrassed by the Browns (0-8), the NFL’s only winless team. Behind big plays by Matt Forte and Quincy Enunwa, the Jets (3-5) rallied from a 20-7 halftime deficit, outscoring Cleveland 24-0 at one point. It was the largest halftime deficit they ever have overcome on the road. And for the first time this season, they won back-to-back games.
A lifeless half and lack of execution had forced Bowles to say his piece, and he wasn’t the only one. On one side of the room, Darrelle Revis also held court, encouraging defensive players to “just fight.” On the other, receivers coach Karl Dorrell implored someone on offense — anyone — to make a play.
“He asked us, ‘Who is going to step up?’ ” said Enunwa, who had four catches for 93 yards.
The young receiver obliged. Enunwa bounced back from some drops early in the game with a 24-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in the third quarter in which he broke four tackles. Forte (25 carries, 82 yards) followed with TD runs of 4 and 2 yards to put the Jets ahead for good.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (16-for-34, 228 yards, one TD, no INTs) also rebounded from a dreadful first half. A week after voicing frustration about the lack of faith shown to him by Jets brass, Fitzpatrick — with the help of Geno Smith’s season-ending knee injury — was given a chance to redeem himself against the hapless Browns. But he completed only 3 of 14 for 30 yards in the first half.
Benching him was never an option, said Bowles, who highlighted the team’s collective struggles. Fitzpatrick proved him right, completing 9 of 14 for 147 yards and a score in the third quarter. Perhaps more impressive, Fitzpatrick, who leads the NFL with four red-zone interceptions, didn’t throw a pick.
“It has nothing to do with Ryan,” Bowles said. “We didn’t play well as a team. Ryan doesn’t play defense and Ryan doesn’t block, catch or run. We had to play better as a team.”
After days of suspense, the Jets announced that Bryce Petty, not rookie Christian Hackenberg, would be their No. 2 quarterback Sunday. “Bryce has been here all year and has a little more experience, so we went that way,” Bowles said. “I thought Bryce was ahead of him, but Hack is not too far behind.”
The Jets almost were forced to turn to Petty minutes into the game. Trailing 7-0 with 10:15 left in the first quarter, Fitzpatrick took off running on a third-and-5 and was leveled by a helmet-to-helmet hit from Briean Boddy-Calhoun that knocked off his helmet and sent his chinstrap flying. Fitzpatrick immediately jumped to his feet, intent on returning to the field, but the Jets’ medical staff insisted on checking him out on the bench. For a moment, it appeared Petty would get a chance to run the offense. But after the Browns challenged the spot of Fitzpatrick’s 5-yard run, it was changed to a 4-yard gain on a review, leading to a punt.
“It is [frustrating],” Fitzpatrick said of having to come out of the game briefly, “but we as players understand why it is there. It’s there for our protection.”