Big win but bigger worries for Jets

J. David Goodman contributed reporting.

The New York Jets wanted to celebrate but could not, at least not the way they wanted.

They wanted to smile but did not, at least not as wide. They wanted to crow about all the touchdowns they scored and all the turnovers they forced, their second-half dominance in a 31-10 season-opening victory against Cleveland, but they did not, at least not much.

In the Jets’ locker room late Sunday afternoon, concern and uncertainty prevailed over excitement and enthusiasm.

They were delighted that they won their season-opening game but troubled by the sight of the rookie outside linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin strapped to a spinal board and carted off the field, toward an ambulance waiting to ferry him to a Manhattan hospital.

When running back Chris Ivory saw him, he said, Mauldin’s eyes had rolled to the back of his head. When safety Calvin Pryor, who played with Mauldin at Louisville, saw him, he said, Mauldin was breathing and had a pulse but was not “really responding.” When coach Todd Bowles saw him, he said, Mauldin had “very little” movement.

MetLife Stadium fell silent and stayed silent for about five minutes as medical personnel attended to Mauldin. The New Jersey State Police escorted the ambulance carrying Mauldin to the George Washington Bridge, where the Port Authority Police continued the escort to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, according to Joe Pentangelo, public information officer for the state police.

About 3 hours after the game, the Jets announced that Mauldin had suffered a concussion but no injuries to his neck. He was awake and had feeling in all of his extremities, the team said.

“Until you can find out what happened,” Bowles said before Mauldin’s status was updated, “I’m very worried about him.”

The same anxiety pertained to cornerback Antonio Cromartie, an integral piece of the Jets’ revamped secondary, who suffered what appeared to be a serious left knee injury in the second quarter without engaging in contact and is scheduled for a magnetic resonance imaging test Monday. The Jets regrouped and thrived without Cromartie, as his replacement, Marcus Williams, grabbed an interception that led to a touchdown.

They were more shaken by what happened to Mauldin, on a play early in the fourth quarter. The Jets were leading by 24-10, in the middle of a 24-point binge, with 13 minutes 5 seconds remaining when Muhammad Wilkerson sacked Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel — playing only because the starter, Josh McCown, was knocked out with a concussion — and forced a fumble that Darrelle Revis scooped up.

As Manziel was jerked down by Wilkerson, Mauldin, joining the play from behind, dived in.

With all three players on the ground, Trevor Reilly lunged into the commotion, though it is unclear when, exactly, Mauldin got hurt. What is known is that Mauldin tried to get up but fell to the ground and lay there motionless.

“I just saw him get weak,” Ivory said.

“I was really scared,” Brandon Marshall said.

“I didn’t know what it was, but it didn’t look good,” linebacker Calvin Pace said.

When play resumed, Bowles redirected his focus to finishing guiding the Jets to his first victory as coach. But he also thought about his roommate at Temple and one of his close friends, Anthony Young, who in 1986 suffered a career-ending spinal injury before what was to be his second season with the Indianapolis Colts.

“He never played again,” Bowles said.

There is hope now that Mauldin will, and also Cromartie, but the Jets just do not know when. The Jets signed Cromartie in March as part of their grand makeover, with Bowles expecting him and Revis to lock down one-on-one coverage outside while the eight-man front unsettles and disrupts the quarterback.

With Cromartie out, they can still do this — and will, in all likelihood — but will have to adjust. Bowles praised Williams, calling him one of his favorite players.

For years, the practice fields at the Jets’ complex have absorbed the footfalls of hundreds of players, and with them the hopes of an imbalanced team. There were days when quarterbacks fired beautiful passes and receivers grabbed one-handed touchdowns, but these practices, by and large, are ruled by the defense.

It was so under their previous coach, Rex Ryan, whose unit felt pressure to perform flawlessly to counter the Jets’ struggling offense. But in training camp, Pace looked around those fields and took account of the talent he was now forced to contend with.

“That right there showed me that they’re for real,” Pace said.

The unveiling of the new Jets — and improved Jets, supposedly — featured a remarkably competent performance by Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, a position that has displayed little that was remarkable or competent for some time. It accentuated the skills of Marshall, who thrived in the red zone — catching one touchdown and, in that same area, forcing a fumble on an interception return. It also saluted a defense that accomplished the heretofore alien task of creating turnovers, not just one but five — yes, five — after forcing 13 all of last season.

Whenever the Jets took away the ball in past years, they seemed to punt it back or turn it over or figure out some inspired way to sabotage themselves. On the first day of the Bowles era — of the Fitzpatrick era, as well — the Jets converted those turnovers into 21 points.

“Man, I’m so happy, seriously,” Pace said. He added, “It’s good to have a complement on the other side.”

The flashiest new addition is Marshall, who provided what Revis and Bowles considered the pivotal play of the game — without even making a catch. With Cleveland leading by 7-0, Tashaun Gipson intercepted Fitzpatrick deep in Browns territory. Marshall, the intended receiver, recovered to strip the ball and give the Jets possession at their 9. Two plays later, Chris Ivory rumbled into the end zone for his first of two touchdowns.

“He plays offense, he plays defense, he plays aggressive,” Bowles said of Marshall.

Said Gipson, “I’ve never had a receiver try to attempt the strip.”

Marshall surprised his teammates, too. On the Jets’ first series after halftime, Marshall screamed at the coaches, he said, for removing him. He wanted on the field, he wanted the ball, and he told Fitzpatrick as much. Matched in one-on-one coverage against Joe Haden, Marshall hauled in a perfect fade.

“That makes my job easy, to have a player like that, as competitive as he is, to go make that play,” said Fitzpatrick, who completed 15 of 24 passes for 179 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. “I think we understand each other.”