It wasn't long ago that Justin McCareins looked as if he was locked in Eric Mangini's doghouse with the key having been thrown away.
McCareins, you might recall, was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list for the first day of training camp for failing to pass a pre-camp running test.
The Jets' receiver, who appears to be in outstanding shape, was, in effect, Mangini's first public show of discipline. Whether he was a pawn used by Mangini to make a point to the team or not is not the issue.
The issue is McCareins, who subsequently lost his starting receiver job to Jerricho Cotchery and has since even seemingly fallen to the fourth receiver role on the team behind Tim Dwight, could easily have made himself a distraction by complaining or simply mailed it in.
As the story has turned out, he's done anything but that.
Instead, McCareins has quietly become somewhat of an inspiration to the team, declining to complain despite a dearth of playing time compared to what he's been accustomed to, continuing to work as hard as he always has and _ get this _ last week volunteering to play special teams.
"(McCareins) came to the coaches, came to Mike (Westhoff, the special teams coach) and said, 'I want to start playing on special teams, I want to contribute there,' '' Mangini said. "We gave him the opportunity during the week to work on the teams and played him in the game because of what he did during practice.
"Then,'' Mangini went on, admiration in his voice for the very man he made an example out of just four months ago, "Justin McCareins goes out and makes two tackles on the kickoff team. He hasn't played on special teams for three years. He seeks out the chance to play, does a great job in practice, goes in the game, has two tackles.
"I think that was just an outstanding not only effort on his part but just shows all the things we're looking for from the players, where everybody is trying to contribute in whatever way they can.''
Mangini went on to call McCareins "a great example of what we're looking for organizationally.''
McCareins, who came to the Jets in a 2004 trade with the Tennessee Titans for a second-round draft pick, caught 56 passes and had four touchdowns for the Jets in 2004 and had 43 catches for two touchdowns last season.
He entered this season having started all 32 games as a Jet.
Enter Mangini, who had eyes for Cotchery as an opposing coach while in new England.
Cotchery had a superb winter and was named the offseason "MVP'' by Mangini. He then he followed that with a very good training camp and preseason and unseated McCareins from the start for the starting job alongside Laveranues Coles.
McCareins enters Sunday's game in Green Bay with 12 receptions for 172 yards and a touchdown. He's fifth on the team I receptions behind Coles, Cotchery, tight end Chris Baker and Dwight.
Yet you haven't heard a peep out of him in the way of a complaint or a trade demand or anything of the sort.
And now this: A highly-paid veteran, who's been a starter for most of his carerer, asking onto special teams.
This is unheard of.
Most players of McCareins' stature run for the hills at the thought of special teams.
"That takes a lot of nerve,'' Baker said. "Special teams can get kind of hazardous. For him to want to help the team in that way says a lot about him. It shows how much he cares about the team. A lot of players (in that position) would have packed it in.''
Baker, who toiled as a backup for his first three seasons, said he feels the pain McCareins has been in not playing as much as he wants to.
"I look at the position he's in and I can relate to it,'' Baker said. "He has taken it pretty well. He's still one of the hardest-working guys on the team. He wanted to be more involved.''
Players, many of whom didn't know of McCareins' volunteering onto specials until after the Texans game, during which he had two solo tackles in kickoff coverage, have noticed.
"Oh yeah, everyone noticed,'' Jets' safety Erik Coleman said. "Everyone saw No. 81 going down there. For him to give that much effort and to care so much you were kind of rooting for him to make a play.''
Veteran left guard Pete Kendall called McCareins' move "far from typical'' of a lot of players in the league.
"That's a hard thing to go through as a professional,'' Kendall said of losing a starting job. "As a guy who's been a starter in the league for years, you figure you're going to stay a starter until you age.''
That, of course, isn't the case and definitely not so with Mangini.
Coleman, who lockers right next to McCareins, called the volunteer move "big time.''
"He's a true team player and he wanted to help the team any way he could,'' Coleman said. "He saw he could make some plays on special teams. He didn't just go out there and play; he went out there and made plays. That really helped the team. Maybe it'll motivate someone else to want to step up and do more.''
After the second of McCareins' kick coverage tackles, one of the first players to congratulate him on the sideline was safety Kerry Rhodes, who along with a number of his teammates were fired up by the veteran receiver's plays.
"Justin McCareins, that's my guy,'' Rhodes said. "He's a guy willing to do anything for the team. He's not getting as much as he wants to at receiver I wouldn't think. He's been a guy that's caught a lot of balls in this league, and for him to come out and want to play special teams to help the team win shows how much he cares about this team.
"He was teasing me all (last) week that he was going to make some plays and he did.''
INSIDER EXTRA PONTS
Another teammate the Jets can draw some inspiration from is rookie Anthony Schlegel, a third-round draft pick who was inexplicably on the inactive list for the first nine weeks of the season before finally working his way into uniform on game day two games ago.
Last Sunday against the Texans, Schlegel leveled Houston returner Dexter Wynn in his tracks with the hit of the game, a hit that must have relieved nine weeks of frustration.
"It was fun; it was a great hit,'' Schlegel said. "That's why you practice so hard, to get opportunities to make plays like that in the game. When you get an opportunity like that you've got to show that you belong.''
Schlegel, throughout his inactive period, always took the high road and never complained. In fact, Mangini always had positive things to say about him, never dogging him for being unable to crack the lineup.
Finally, through hard work in practice, Schlegel found his niche on special teams.
"I'm a rookie,'' he said. "You've got to understand your role and practice as hard as you can.''
He did, and he was rewarded accordingly with playing time and has taken advantage of it.
A young player named Joe Kowalewski is another player quietly making the most of his opportunities. His opportunities, however, can only come on the practice field because the former Syracuse tight end is on the practice squad.
Whenever the Jets win, Mangini names a top offensive, defensive, special teams and practice player of the week.
This past week, Mangini named Kowalewski the "practice player of the week'' for looks he gave to the starters leading into the game against the Texans.
"He gave us a real nice look,'' Mangini said. "He plays tight end on the show team, but also works some on defense as well. He's a high motor guy, really knows only one speed. You always know a practice player is doing his job when he can frustrate the defense, and they're angry throughout practice because of the tempo that he's setting.
"Joe consistently makes people angry.''
MARK CANNIZZARO FAN CHAT THIS THURSDAY!
You are not going to want to miss this!
Be sure to log on to Jets Insider.com on Thursday (Nov 30) at 8:00 PM for a live online fan chat session with Jets Writer Mark Cannizzaro. Mark will take your questions and talk about all the doings at Weeb Ewbank Hall leading up to the Jets - Packers game this Sunday.
Chat is open to everyone!