When the New York Jets lined up for a game-winning kick in overtime Sunday, Buffalo’s plan of attack was simple.
“Just throw everything at them,” safety John Wendling said. “We just wanted to prevent them any way possible from getting that field goal. We thought the hop might be there.”
By “the hop,” Buffalo’s resident kamikaze on special teams is alluding to himself leaping over the line to swat a field goal attempt. He jumped. The Jets were ready. And it didn’t matter. Punter Steve Weatherford fumbled the snap, scrambled, panicked, cued the folly films, lofted the ball in desperation and Wendling picked it off.
The interception — which Wendling acknowledged as the play of career — stoned the Jets best shot in overtime. Buffalo (2-4) went on to win, 16-13, and a season on life support was reborn. A season littered with a zany billboard, zanier personnel decisions and successive heartbreaks enjoyed a reprieve in the Meadowlands. For once, joy. For once, the humble special-teamer Wendling was at forefront.
Considering Buffalo was in the midst of a don't-try-this-at-home, six-interception field day, Wendling had a feeling something bizarre was bound to happen with Jay Feely trotted onto the field for the 50-yard attempt.
“The way the game was going, you didn’t think it’d end with them kicking a field goal,” Wendling said. “We were playing our hearts out. We have a great football team. This has just been a tough season so far. Guys play hard and it’s one of those things. We needed a break our way and thought maybe this game was the time for that.”
The 6-foot-1 Wendling has tried to pogo over the offensive line before to Mutombo away field goal attempts — an X-factor New York obviously prepared for. When Wendling jumped, long snapper James Dearth stood up, undercut him and Wendling tumbled to the ground. As he fell, Wendling noticed chaos ensuing in New York’s backfield in the corner of his eye. He quickly got to his feet and the football was fluttering in the air.
No way Wendling would let this ball get away. He leapt again, caught the ball at its highest point and fell back to the ground. Kicker Jay Feely threw his arms up in disgust. Buffalo, with new life, pumped fists and slapped helmets in celebration. Wendling's one-man act on that one play changed the game Sunday.
”The punter kind of Hail Mary’d it up in the air and lucky enough I was in the right position to make a play on it,” Wendling said. “It was just a great play for everybody. Guys were able to pressure the holder into throwing it and our corners coming off the edge stopped them from getting off a decent play more than anything.”
Buffalo’s purge of picks wasn’t a coincidence. The ball-hawking reflects a growing mood in the locker room. Players are hungrier these days, Wendling hinted. They’re well aware that head coach Dick Jauron could be one sneeze away from unemployment.
Naturally, they’re taking responsibility. In the secondary, that means seizing every opportunity.
“Guys are enjoying what they’re doing and flying around,” Wendling said. “We just want to win football games for this organization and this coaching staff. I wouldn’t choose to play for any other team than these guys… We really want to win games for (Jauron). We want him as our head coach here. I don’t think there’s a guy in that locker room that would tell you differently.”
So on Sunday, Wendling did his part.
The third-year man hasn’t been liberated into the secondary yet — somewhat odd for a player with his concoction of athleticism, burst and physicality. But with Jairus Byrd and George Wilson emerging and regulars Donte Whitner and Bryan Scott getting healthier, there is no need for Wendling on defense right now. So on special teams, he’ll stay. Wendling is the first winger downfield to field punts and the ad-lib, momentum-changer every team craves in the forgotten third of the game.
That interception Sunday wasn’t about himself, Wendling says. He praised the blitzing cornerbacks, the good karma — most of all — Jauron. This timely pick was his contribution toward the larger win-one-for-the-gipper rally cry in the locker room.
“It was an emotional game,” Wendling said. “Everybody fought their heart out. It was one that we really wanted to do for Coach Jauron. It was just, ‘Coach, we have to try to get more of these for you.’ We want to keep this going.”
Buffalo can do exactly that this coming weekend against in Carolina.