EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the hunt for reasons why the New York Jets are 5-4 instead of the expected 2-7, it is easy to fly right by Nick Folk, if only because football coaches from Pop Warner on up are conditioned to do two things:
Protect the quarterback, and ignore the kicker.
Drive past any high school field in the fall and you'll see coaches running bone-jarring tackling drills between practice dummies and cones, and coaches on sleds barking at linemen to hit and drive, all while the kickers and punters are off to the side, working unsupervised on their non-contact craft.
This is why a majority of NFL veterans and die-hard fans don't see the likes of Nick Folk as real players, even if Folk is real enough to be the very best player the New York Jets employ.
"I don't get upset when people don't consider us players," Folk said after he scored 14 points in an improbable 26-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints. "They have a right to their own opinion. But I would just challenge them to go do it with the game on the line. You've got a 40-yard field goal, no time left, wind swirling, you have no idea which way the wind's blowing.
"Just go out there and try to make that field goal."
As it turned out Sunday, Folk didn't have to hit the kind of dramatic endgame winner he nailed to beat Tampa Bay (48 yards), Atlanta (43) and New England (42), not when a ferocious Jets defense got in Drew Brees' face enough to make life miserable for his fast-breaking offense.
Chris Ivory was quite the sight as he pounded away for 139 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, his dreads bouncing off him like would-be tacklers, and Geno Smith accounted for the one scoring play with his feet he couldn't make with his right arm. In fact, Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Mary Mornhinweg did everything possible to minimize the role the rookie played in the game. (There go those football coaches again, protecting the quarterback.)
They were able to do that because of Nick Folk, 4-for-4 on the day, 23-for-23 on the season. Folk made kicks of 39, 21, 47 and 45 yards while his counterpart, Garrett Hartley, missed an early 43-yarder that established an unsettling tone for his Saints.,
A 43-yarder the Nick Folk of 2013 would've made in his deepest sleep.
The Jets keep this man on a one-year contract, mind you, at a base wage of $715,000. He was given a lavish signing bonus of $65,000, and was asked in camp to beat out Billy Cundiff a year after he was asked to beat out Josh Brown.
This is the man most responsible for saving the Jets' season, the 178th player chosen (by the Dallas Cowboys) in the 2007 draft.
"I've been around some really good kickers in my day," Rex Ryan said, "but the year he's having has been absolutely phenomenal."
Truth is, so much went down inside MetLife Stadium that it would've been easy to lose Folk in the chaos. Rex Ryan was beating up on brother Rob, again. The Jets were running receivers out there that even Rex had barely heard of, never mind Rob, while a wideout on Rob's side, Nick Toon, son of Jets great Al Toon, all but gifted his father's former team 14 points.
On the other side of the ball, Quinton Coples delivered a crucial fourth-and-1 stop in the fourth quarter when Saints coach Sean Payton, who won a Super Bowl with an onside kick to open the second half, got too cute on an end-around handoff to a third-string tight end.
But even on a day when Hartley kicked one through from 55 yards out, Folk was the ultimate difference-maker in the second half, the Jet who twice turned it into a two-possession game from long distance, once on his 47-yarder into the wind.
"I personally enjoy the pressure," Folk said. "I was always the last guy to take penalties in soccer when I was growing up. I relish that role. I want to embrace the pressure and make it a part of me and use it to help me make the kick."
Nick has a brother who kicked at the University of Washington, and another who played soccer at UCLA. His father was a semi-pro soccer player, his mother a college ice hockey player, and his uncle an All-American pole vaulter at Harvard.
"A lot of people think we play for life and death, and we don't," Nick Folk said. "I also have a bunch of family members who are surgeons, and they play with life and death every day. So this is still a game to me, and I just try to go have fun and do my part."
His part? It's only been the biggest part of what could become a big New York story. Given that a closer in baseball is, in Folk's words, "the closest thing to what we do," it's fitting that the kicker has been to Ryan what Mariano Rivera was to Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.
"You have to have an aura to be able to do that," Folk said. "You have to be able to want to do it. Not everyone wants pressure like that on the line."
Folk is one pure swing of his right foot away from tying Jay Feely's franchise record of consecutive field goals made (Mike Vanderjagt holds the league record at 42 in a row), and from inching away from his second-half slumps of the past. Granted a reprieve in the New England game, when an illegal Patriots push nullified his missed 56-yarder, Folk said the idea of pitching a perfect game across 16 weeks "is the farthest thing from my mind." But he didn't discount his chances of pulling it off, either.
"You need everything to work in your favor," Folk said, "but yeah, it can be done."
And why not? Nick Folk is the best player on his team, after all.
"If someone wanted to say that or write that, fine," he said. "But I'm not going to say I am."
His actions have spoken louder than his words, anyway. The New York Jets might be 2-7 without Nick Folk, a kicker who right now is as real a football player as you'll find in the NFL.