Jets' Sergio Castillo began journey with a 4:22 a.m. bus and a vision

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A look at what's happening around the New York Jets:

1. Hollywood story: This is a historically bad season for the Jets, but it's a dream come true for kicker Sergio Castillo. That happens in sports. There's always a nugget in the muck.

An injury replacement for Sam Ficken, the 30-year-old Castillo -- cut eight times in four different leagues -- made his NFL debut on Oct. 25. It was the culmination of a six-year journey that began with predawn bus rides in San Antonio, Texas.

In 2014, after being cut by the Atlanta Falcons, Castillo took a job as a teacher's aide and rode a 4:22 a.m. bus to work every day. The trip was long (one hour, 24 minutes) and the bus was empty at that time of the morning, so he became friendly with the driver. He knew him as Mr. Fulton. Castillo always had a bag of footballs with him -- for after-school kicking practice -- and that sparked a conversation about his dream of becoming an NFL kicker.

The driver suggested a vision board. Castillo tried it, gluing four photos to cardboard -- four photos that reminded him of his ambitions in life. Two were family-related; one was a picture of him kicking; and the other was a picture of longtime Falcons kicker Matt Bryant, who didn't break into the NFL until he was 27. The photos have changed over the years, but the board stayed with him on his journey.

"That vision board kept feeding me mentally," Castillo told ESPN.

When Castillo learned that the bus drivers changed their routes every three months, it reinforced the belief that he and Mr. Fulton were brought together by destiny. Hard work played a role, too. He worked out daily in the school's weight room at 6:45 a.m., then kicked by himself after school. He kicked in the CFL, the Alliance of American Football and the XFL. He also battled back from an ACL tear in 2017.

Castillo had a contract with the CFL's British Columbia Lions when the season was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. That presented a choice: Receive a partial salary and health benefits from the Lions or opt out to chase his NFL dream. His fiancée, Adriana Cavazos-Loya, encouraged him to give the NFL one last shot. On Oct. 14, the Jets signed him to the practice squad as their "COVID kicker." A week later, he got the break of a lifetime when Ficken pulled a groin muscle.

"After my first field goal, I teared up a bit when I got to the sideline," Castillo said. "It was a long journey and there were a lot of emotions."

Ficken aggravated the injury last Sunday and landed on injured reserve, so Castillo -- 6-for-7 on field goals -- has the job for at least three more weeks. By the way, that vision board? It now includes a picture of a Jets logo.

2. End the terrible twos: The Jets haven't had much luck when it comes to drafting wide receivers, especially in the second round. In recent years, they whiffed on Devin Smith (2015) and Stephen Hill (2012). Further back there were Alex Van Dyke (1996), Ryan Yarborough (1994), Reggie Rembert (1990) and Ralph Clayton (1980). The last gem was Wesley Walker (1977), a member of the team's Ring of Honor.

Denzel Mims has a chance to break the slump.

In four games, the rookie from Baylor has demonstrated excellent body control, strong hands and an ability to win 50-50 balls -- something the Jets haven't had in a while. His stats don't jump off the page (13 catches for 217 yards), but keep in mind he plays for the 32nd-ranked offense.

There is one stat worth noting -- yards per route. With 103 pass routes, Mims is averaging 2.11 YPR -- 26th among wide receivers since Week 7, per ESPN Stats & Information research. Arizona Cardinals star DeAndre Hopkins is at 2.13 over that span, which means he's keeping good company.

"I haven't seen enough of him, but he's big and strong and he can go after it, and he's got some good hands," Walker said on ESPN's "Flight Deck" podcast. "He just needs to get some experience. ... The potential is there. You see the potential."

3. Big Mac still mentoring: I caught up with former Jets nose tackle Steve McLendon the other day, and I wasn't surprised to hear that he still keeps in touch with many players on the team. He said he talks to players before and after every game, offering words of encouragement during this difficult season. He might be gone, but he's still leading. That's so Steve.

McLendon's last game with the Jets was Oct. 18 against the Miami Dolphins, whom they face Sunday at MetLife Stadium. He found out before the game about his trade to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, yet he played anyway and took a car service from Miami to Tampa after the game. Most players would've bolted before the game. McLendon stayed and played.

"Everything was for the guys," he said. "I told them it was the last time we'd play together. I wanted them to understand, 'Why not have this one last ride?'"

Too bad there wasn't a happy ending. The Jets lost 24-0.

4. Big Ticket/hot ticket: Rookie Mekhi Becton is the leading vote-getter among AFC offensive tackles. That doesn't mean he's a lock for the Pro Bowl, but it's a good start. As Mike Sando of The Athletic noted, the Jets haven't had an offensive player make the Pro Bowl since 2015. That year, wide receiver Brandon Marshall was selected. Running back Chris Ivory played in the game, but he was an injury replacement.

5. Tired excuse: It's one of the ugliest stats of the year: The Jets lead the league with 11 roughing-the-passer penalties, according to NFLpenalties.com. The next-closest team at the start of Week 12 was the Baltimore Ravens (five).

Coach Adam Gase believes the Jets are still paying a price for the personal foul-fest against the Denver Broncos in Week 4.

"We're going to get two flags coming off the bus," he said, suggesting their reputation as a chippy team is influencing the officials.

There's probably some truth to that, but it shouldn't be used as an excuse two months later. Just stop it from happening and the officials won't look for it. Period.

6. Game of telephone: The playcalling dynamic between Gase and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains drew attention last Sunday, so it's worth an explanation. Loggains, who has been calling plays for the past four games, sends the play to Gase, who sends it to the quarterback. That might sound unnecessarily complicated, but the Kansas City Chiefs have a similar system with coach Andy Reid and coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

Gase acknowledged he does call some plays in two-minute and third-down situations, but he claimed it's mostly Loggains.

"The fact that we can work like that, I think that's unique and it's fun that we’re able to work like that," Gase said.

The offense perked up the past two games, but it will be tested by the Dolphins, whose blitz-heavy scheme causes problems for the Jets.

7. The last word: "Our issue is, we're improving, just not at the rate the rest of the league is." -- guard Greg Van Roten.