AFC East: Sheldon Richardson
Now, with the Jets reporting to training camp Wednesday in Cortland, New York, for Year 2 of the Ryan-John Idzik era, we start to learn a lot more about the other half of the leadership tandem, the quiet man who prefers to stay out of the spotlight.
This is Idzik's time.
Idzik's predecessors, Terry Bradway in 2001 and Mike Tannenbaum in 2006, reached the postseason in their first seasons as GMs. Go back further, and you will remember that Bill Parcells made it to the AFC Championship Game in his second year as the GM/coach.
Even though Idzik is operating on a long-term plan, evidenced by his emphasis on the draft and his deliberate approach in free agency, an 0-for-2 start wouldn't look good on his résumé. He shouldn't be on the New York Mets' Sandy Alderson timeline, meaning he has to move faster than a glacier. It's just the way of the NFL.
Idzik has been around long enough to put his stamp on the team. He signed, re-signed and drafted most of the projected starters. In fact, only seven starters can be considered true holdovers from the previous administration: D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Muhammad Wilkerson, David Harris, Damon Harrison, Quinton Coples and Demario Davis.
It's easy to notice they're the best guys on the team, Tannenbaum guys. Idzik needs to get some of his guys on that list. He already has Sheldon Richardson. By the end of the season, the list of top homegrowns should also include Geno Smith, Dee Milliner and Calvin Pryor. If Smith and Milliner are missing, the Jets will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season, which won’t bode well for Ryan's job security.
Idzik has the Jets pointed in the right direction, and the strides they made last season can't be dismissed. But let's be honest: They overachieved. They were one of the softest 8-8 teams in history, and you can look it up. Their point differential was minus-97, the largest since the 1970 merger for any team with at least eight wins.
The talent base should be improved this season, especially with the additions of Eric Decker and Chris Johnson. Decker was Idzik's one big splurge in free agency, his one Tannenbaum-like move. Johnson and Michael Vick will be one-and-done players, worthwhile Band-Aids who won't ruin the master plan if they fizzle. The offseason proved, once again, that Idzik won't deviate from his script no matter how much salary-cap room he has at his disposal. For the record, there's about $22 million as of today.
Idzik is doing it the right way, avoiding the temptation of the quick fix. That will pay off in the long run, but there will be problems along the way. For instance: Failing to sign a top cornerback in free agency was a mistake that could be exposed early in the season, when they face several elite quarterbacks. The cornerback issue will be exacerbated if Milliner fails to develop as hoped.
The Jets believe Milliner, drafted ninth overall, will be a special player, basing much of their opinion on his strong finish. The same theory can be applied to the quarterback situation with Smith. They're placing a lot of weight on those last four games, and that can be dangerous when you consider the competition. They beat three also-rans, three teams with mediocre (at best) quarterbacks: the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.
Now, after seven months of positive mojo, the Jets can prove it wasn't a mirage. If Idzik's investments mirror the stock market, they'll be a playoff team. If it goes the other way, he'll hear the criticism, good and loud. The honeymoon is over. This is Idzik's time.
On the first day of the New York Jets' offseason program, the outspoken second-year defensive tackle declared, "I feel like you haven't seen the best Sheldon Richardson can play."
“Causing more turnovers on defense,” he said, explaining his second-year goal. “I had a lot of plays around the ball last year, but I felt like I could’ve made a lot more turnovers than what I did. We all felt that way, though.”
Asked if he sees himself as more than a 3.5-sack defensive tackle, Richardson responded with his favorite expression.
"Most deeeefinitely," he said, holding the 'e' longer for emphasis. "Most definitely. That’s not even close to what I have, as far as standards for myself.”
Stand and deliver: Reiterating what he said last month at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla., Rex Ryan dropped the "D" word.
"Like I said, it’s time to deliver. We need to deliver," he said. "I'm not going to get into the specifics about what we're delivering, but I know what our fans expect and they're going to get everything we have." He said the Jets have a "great nucleus," adding that he expects to build on the foundation that was set last year.
Dee's time: This is a huge offseason for cornerback Dee Milliner. First of all, as a second-year player, it's his first full offseason in the NFL. It also will be a healthy offseason, something that wasn't the case last year. A pre-draft shoulder surgery caused him to miss the two minicamps and spring practice sessions, putting him way behind. It showed, as Milliner struggled through most of the season. This year, he's being counted on to be the No. 1 corner.
“I think that’s important, that he has a good offseason," Ryan said. "Obviously, he really couldn’t train his body the way you would want to, almost for the entire season. I think it’ll be big for him, just to get confidence, to make sure that he’s physically well. I think that’ll really help. It would help any player, but I think in his case, being here for the [OTAs], for all that kind of stuff will be great.”
He was asked every which way about the possibility of a Revis trade, and Idzik did more dancing than a Rockette.
On Thursday, Idzik was reminded of last year's Revis frenzy. He smiled.
"Who?" he asked, playfully.
Idzik could afford to joke. Yes, he traded one of the best cornerbacks in football, incurring criticism, but he turned the draft-pick compensation into Sheldon Richardson. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
"Who" did well in his new home, making the Pro Bowl and making $16 million from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The New York Jets defensive tackle, in an interview Tuesday with SportsNet New York's Jeane Coakley, said he shared a house with Sam during the 2012 season. He described Sam as a good person and a good teammate even though he seemed burdened by his then secret.
Sam came out to teammates last August, withholding his public declaration until Sunday. The former All-American defensive end is trying to become the first openly gay player in NFL history. Many project him as a potential middle-round pick in the May draft.
Richardson acknowledged there could be an adjustment period for the NFL team that drafts him.
He said Sam "most definitely" has a place in an NFL locker room "unless your team is immature minded. If guys can't get past that then, I mean, it's just crazy. Of course, it might be weird at first if you aren't used to it, 'cause like I said, with me living with him, it was a little bit unusual at first. But it's stuff you look past."
Richardson said Sam never revealed his sexual orientation to him.
"He didn't, but you knew," Richardson said. "You saw him."
Richardson called Sam a "regular guy. Has his own sexuality. Didn't take nothing from him. He was a great teammate, a great person. Everything you wanted out of him, you got out of him. ... I promise you, his sexuality has nothing to do with him playing on the football field. He is a completely different person. He put this face on: No smiles, serious business. He's a killer."
They played together only two seasons at Missouri, 2011 and 2012. Richardson arrived as a junior college transfer and declared for the NFL draft after the '12 season, capturing NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Richardson said Sam is "my guy, my homeboy."
SNY interviewed Richardson in Houston, coincidentally not far from Sam's hometown of Hitchcock, Texas. Richardson is there training with teammate Muhammad Wilkerson.
1. Not yet, Geno: Hoping to get a sense of how non-Jets personnel feel about Geno Smith, I interviewed 10 experts throughout the week -- talent evaluators, analysts and former players-turned-analysts. The overwheleming consensus: He hasn't done enough to be anointed the Jets' franchise quarterback, although many believe he deserves another shot with a better supporting cast.
"I don't think you just hand him the job," CBS' Rich Gannon said. "I think you make it a competitive situation. They have to get better at that position. They need more depth and talent there, and I anticipate that will happen this offseason."
A longtime personnel man mentioned two weaknesses and raised a question about Smith, saying: His body is "too soft," he must do a better job of processing information and, "Does he love football or does he like football?" In professional football, there's a huge difference.
Bart Scott said "you can't get a fair assessment" of Smith because of the lack of weapons on offense. He suggested acquiring Matt Schaub, who many believe will be released by the Houston Texans. Schaub is "somebody who can compete and steady the ship, a bridge if Geno isn't ready yet. If not, you move on and draft somebody else."
Former New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said, "I don't think he's done enough to secure the job. I think he's done some good things, but he's done a lot of bad things, too, so I wouldn't bank on Geno Smith. He's a guy that can be promising -- he has a lot of potential -- but potential gets coaches fired."
Tony Richardson said the Jets should sign a veteran and create a competition, with Smith having "the upper hand" at the outset. Smith used up his slack last season, according to Richardson, who said "Jets fans went through the growing pains and now it's time to win football games. The best guy should be the starter, period."
Anthony Becht believes the Jets should be patient with Smith because of his physical talent. He said it was "a humbling year" for Smith, starting with his unexpected slide in the draft. The adversity, Becht said, will fuel Smith's motivation. "You stick with the guy," he said. "People are afraid to take the time and develop talent. Sometimes they don't come right out of the box."
2a. Temple of doom: Wilkerson played two years at Temple with Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton -- aka Pot Roast. Wilkerson was the young pup, Knighton the upperclassman. Knighton knew Wilkersom was something special. "He was actually my backup," Pot Roast said. "He's a great player. The whole time I was at Temple, I was hoping he wasn't going to start over me."
3. Spy Games: The acrimony between the Jets and New England Patriots runs so deep that, before the AFC Championship Game was played, the Patriots were squawking about the prospect of having to practice at the Jets' facility during the run-up to the Super Bowl. In fact, they wanted to practice at Rutgers instead of the Jets. It turned out to be a moot point, obviously. Both the Jets and Giants, concerned about the possibility of hosting division rivals for the week, actually asked the league if they could trade places -- NFC team at the Jets, AFC at the Giants. That request was denied. As it turned out, the Jets and Broncos hit it off. The Jets found the Broncos to be terrific guests.
4. Give my regards to Bradway: Only two players from Terry Bradway's final draft as the Jets' GM (2005) remain active in the league -- kicker Mike Nugent (Cincinnati Bengals) and tight end Joel Dreessen (Broncos). Dreessen played one season with the Jets and was cut by Eric Mangini in 2006. He never forgot it. In 2010, as a member of the Texans, he caught four passes for 106 yards and a touchdown against the Jets. When he scored, he fired the football at a Jets logo on the wall behind the end zone. "That was one of my most liberating moments," Dreessen told me. "That was a really cool moment for me."
5. Trade winds: The Jets should be monitoring the Larry Fitzgerald contract situation in Arizona. If it falls apart, the Jets should swoop in to see if he'd be available in a trade. Even though he turns 31 in August, Fitzgerald would be a perfect fit for the receiver-needy Jets -- at the right price, of course. He told several media outlets this week at the Super Bowl that he's willing to restructure his contract, which has an $18 million cap charge in 2014. Stay tuned.
Every time Rex Ryan does an interview (and he did plenty this week) and is asked about his recent contract extension, it sounds like he's trying to convince everyone (maybe even himself) that he's happy with the outcome. Just my two cents.
7. Speaking the same language: After listening to the Seattle Seahawks for a week, it's amazing how much their players and coaches emphasize competition. Sound familiar? Idzik, a former Seahawks executive, preaches the same gospel. It's rooted in the Pete Carroll philosophy. In fact, Carroll takes it to the extreme with "Competition Wednesday." Every Wednesday, the first-team offense competes against the first-team defense in an unscripted practice -- highly unusual in the NFL. Not even the Jets go that far. But, hey, it's a copy-cat league. If the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, you might see a "Competition Wednesday" or two popping up around the NFL.
8. No Ordinary Joe: Talked to a couple of Hall of Fame voters this week who can't believe Joe Klecko never garners serious consideration for the Hall. It's hard to believe, isn't it? All he did was make the Pro Bowl at three different positions on the defensive line.
10. An Ode to Peyton: Heard this anecdote about Peyton Manning a few years ago, and it bears repeating on Super Bowl Sunday. In 1998, Manning and Ryan Leaf were projected as the top two picks in the draft. The Chargers, picking second, wanted to interview both prospects. They sent an abbreviated version of their playbook to each and asked them to learn the offense before the interview. As a reward and a test, the coaches stapled a $20 bill to the last page -- a clever way to determine if they'd read the entire book. Leaf arrived for his interview and never mentioned anything about the $20. Clearly, he didn't know it was there. Manning showed up and immediately thanked the coaches for the $20. And there you have it. Unfortunately for the Chargers, they never got a shot at Manning, who went No. 1 overall.
New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was named the Associated Press' NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, edging out Alonso. Richardson will be awarded his trophy at the NFL's annual honors show Saturday night in New York City.
Alonso was awarded the Pro Football Writers of America's version of the award last month, but it's the AP's honors that the NFL recognizes each year.
Richardson finished with 78 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and one forced fumble in 16 games (15 starts). Alonso played in every defensive snap and finished third in the NFL with 159 tackles. He also snagged four interceptions, all of which came in the first four weeks of the season.
This may have been a case where voters felt Richardson played at a more consistent level over the course of the season. Some could argue that Alonso's play-making statistics tailed off after a fast start in September, when he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month.
Scott's heat-of-the-moment reaction, in an on-field interview with ESPN's Sal Paolantonio, is worthy of the trash-talking Hall of Fame. It's worth a replay:
Scott: "To all the non-believers! To all the non-believers, especially you, Tom Jackson. Way to have our back, Keyshawn [Johnson]. Anybody can be beat!"
Paolantonio: "So how did that just feel?"
Scott: "It felt great. Poetic justice. We know we were a much better team than we came up and represented ourselves [on Dec. 7, a 45-3 loss]. We were pissed off. We were ready to come back and show what type of defense, what type of team this was, what type of character we had. We take a lot of slack. People gave us no chance, like we barely made the playoffs. We're a good football team."
Paolantonio: "It looks like this team played with anger all day. Why, Bart?"
Scott: "For all you non-believers, disrespect us, talk crap about the defense. We're the third-best defense in the league. All we hear about is their defense [the Patriots]. They can't stop a nosebleed, 25th in the league and we're the ones that get disrespected."
Paolantonio: "Congratulations. See you in Pittsburgh."
Scott: "Can't wait!"
Times have changed. Once known for their loose lips, the Jets have toned it down, including the bombastic Rex Ryan. The culture is different because general manager John Idzik, hired last January, frowns upon trash talking. There's a sense of paranoia, as people in the organization -- players and non-players -- are afraid to speak their mind. They still have some in-game trash talkers, most notably guard Willie Colon, and they still have a few players that provide juicy quotes to the media (namely defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson), but it's not the way it used to be.
On a scale of red (not allowed), yellow (within reason) and green (go for it), Ryan's approach has changed from green to a red/yellow combo.
Only one Jets player -- defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson -- was named to the Pro Football Writers of America all-rookie team, which was announced Tuesday.
Richardson didn't win the PFWA's Defensive Rookie of the Year. That honor went to Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, an ominous sign for Richardson. Because many of the PFWA voters also vote for the Associated Press awards, it's quite possible that Alonso will edge Richardson for the same award. The AP awards will be announced on the eve of the Super Bowl.
Here is the entire PFWA all-rookie team. The Detroit Lions led the way with three all-rookie selections, while four other teams placed two players apiece on the squad.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. posted his NFL all-rookie team , along with his picks for offensive and defensive rookies of the year. Most notably, he selected Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso over New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson as the top rookie on defense.
Alonso and Richardson are thought to be the top candidates for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, presented by the Associated Press.
Kiper's take: "If this were purely on per-play impact, I think Sheldon Richardson could back up his case as the best rookie overall, but I give Alonso a slight edge here based on his total impact. Alonso was third in the NFL in tackles and, perhaps just as impressive, was one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, a significant bonus. Because of his ability to cover, Alonso never came off the field; he played nearly 1,200 snaps. Richardson might be a better player, but I give the season edge to Alonso."
Kiper placed two Jets on his all-rookie team -- Richardson and fullback Tommy Bohanon. Rex Ryan wouldn't agree with this list, as Kiper didn't include cornerback Dee Milliner. Obviously biased, Ryan believes Milliner was the top rookie cornerback. Kiper opted for Desmond Trufant of the Atlanta Falcons and Logan Ryan of the New England Patriots. For what it's worth, ProFootballFocus -- a stats-based web site -- ranked Trufant, Logan and Milliner as the No. 7-, No. 29- and No. 53-rated cornerbacks, respectively, based on at least 50-percent play time.
Preseason power ranking: 32
Biggest surprise: The rookies. The New York Jets played most of the season with five rookie starters -- cornerback Dee Milliner, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, quarterback Geno Smith, guard Brian Winters and fullback Tommy Bohanon. The Jets figured to be a young team because of how the roster was purged last offseason, but you didn't think they'd be this young. The five draft picks combined for 65 starts. Their performances ranged from exceptional (Richardson) to inconsistent (Smith) to shoddy (Winters), but coach Rex Ryan -- perhaps on orders from general manager John Idzik -- stuck with them through difficult stretches. The growing pains hurt, but all five were ascending by the end of the season.
Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Antonio Cromartie was supposed to anchor the rebuilt secondary, but he regressed from a Pro Bowl year in 2012. A season-long hip injury obviously factored into his performance, but it didn't cause him to miss any games. He surrendered far too many big plays, exacerbating the absence of Darrelle Revis, who was traded last offseason. Instead of shutting down the opponents' No. 1 receiver, as he did on a consistent basis in '12, Cromartie struggled along with Milliner. Unable to rely on his corners to supply tight man-to-man coverage, Ryan was forced to adjust, taking a more passive approach with regard to blitzing.
Biggest need: Playmakers on offense. We're talking about wide receivers and tight ends, but mainly wide receivers. The Jets had only two pass plays more than 50 yards, and they came in the same game. Without a game-breaking element on the perimeter, the offense faced a steady diet of eight-man fronts and consistent blitzing. Stephen Hill didn't take that big step in Year 2, as the organization had hoped. Santonio Holmes is a goner, so now New York must find a No. 1 receiver through the draft or free agency. Actually, the Jets could pluck one from each because, yes, the need is that glaring.
Team MVP: Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson was the best player on the dominant side of the ball, so we're picking him over running back Chris Ivory, whose physical running sparked the offense late in the season. Wilkerson recorded a career-high 10.5 sacks and, although he wasn't selected to the Pro Bowl (an injustice), he established himself as one of the better defensive linemen in the league. He faced double-teams and often rushed from an interior position, hurting his ability to produce gaudy stats. His steady, blue-collar approach set a tone for the run defense, which dominated for most of the season. Wilkerson was voted MVP by his teammates, which says something. The Jets will try to lock him up to a long-term deal before next season.
The players have spoken. The media have spoken. The embattled Ryan (41-38) has received a groundswell of support.
"It's not like 'Survivor,' where I'm trying to get their vote or something like that," Ryan cracked.
In an attempt to motivate the Jets (7-8), who were eliminated in Week 15, Ryan has made this game a referendum on their entire season. He's playing the "team-on-the-rise" card, hoping to validate his opinion with a season-ending win. Funny, but he's never ended a season with a victory. There were playoff losses in 2009 and 2010, and three-game losing streaks to close the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Ryan might not be coaching for his job -- upper management probably has made a decision -- but he could be coaching for his next job. The Dolphins (8-7) need a win, and some help, to claim a wild-card berth. Kickoff is 1 p.m. ET at Sun Life Stadium. What to watch for:
1. Manufactured motivation: With no shot at the playoffs, the Jets have lowered their sights, trying to accomplish mini-goals. An 8-8 record would mean avoiding their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1995-96, the Rich Kotite years. A win would provide a small measure of satisfaction after a brutal season on the road; the Jets are 1-6 away from home, including four losses by at least 16 points. A victory also would ruin the Dolphins' playoff hopes, giving Ryan some redemption against a mediocre division rival that has tormented him. He's 3-6 against the Dolphins.
2. Which Geno will show up?: Geno Smith was terrible against the Dolphins in Week 13, resulting in a halftime benching -- the lowpoint of his up-and-down rookie season. Since then, he has played reasonably well, producing six touchdowns (four passing, two rushing) and only two interceptions. The Dolphins' defense is always a tough matchup for the Jets, so this won't be easy. If Smith can finish with another encouraging performance, it could impact how the front office tackles the quarterback situation in the offseason. It certainly would reduce the need to pick a quarterback in the first or second round of the draft. It also would reinforce the belief that Smith is developing in Marty Mornhinweg's system.
3. Many farewells: Several starters could be playing in their final game with the Jets. The top unrestricted free agents are RT Austin Howard, OLB Calvin Pace, TE Jeff Cumberland, RG Willie Colon and PK Nick Folk. Potential salary-cap casualties include CB Antonio Cromartie ($14.98 million cap charge in 2014) and WR Santonio Holmes ($10.75 million), an absolute goner after another injury-plagued season. S Ed Reed and TE Kellen Winslow, one-year rentals, also will be bidding adieu after this game. Turnover is part of the NFL, but it will hit hard for the Jets as they enter phase II of John Idzik's rebuilding program.
4. Keep an eye on the kids: Smith has been the focal point of the rookie class, but it's important that others finish on a positive note, especially CB Dee Milliner. The oft-criticized first-round pick is coming off his best game, and now he faces another challenge. Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline are trying to become the first Dolphins receiving tandem since Mark Clayton and Mark Duper (1991) to record 1,000-yard seasons. Milliner got roughed up in the previous matchup, as did Cromartie, so this will be a good test to gauge improvement. Struggling LG Brian Winters is in the same boat as Milliner. If Winters plays well, the Jets should be able to run against the Dolphins' 25th-ranked rush defense.
5. What happened to the 'Sons'?: Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are the main building blocks in the front seven, but their sack production has gone south in recent weeks. In fact, they've combined for only a half-sack over the past four games. They should feast on Ryan Tannehill, the most-sacked quarterback in the league -- 58 sacks. He was overwhelmed last week by the Buffalo Bills, who killed the Dolphins with DB blitzes from the slot. Tannehill (knee) showed up on the injury report and was seen limping in practice throughout the week. His beleaguered offensive line could have a new starter, with Nate Garner likely to replace rookie Sam Brenner at left guard. It should add up to a big day by the Jets, but we also thought that last time and they barely got a hand on Tannehill.
Stats: Leads the team with a career-high 10.5 sacks.
Analysis: Wilkerson felt he deserved to make it last season, but he still lacked name recognition. That shouldn't be an issue this time, as his national profile has grown. He's the best player on the team and he deserves the Pro Bowl, but there's no guarantee because defensive end is a deep position. In reality, Wilkerson plays as much tackle as he does end, making it harder to accumulate gaudy stats, but he's listed as an end.
Stats: Tied for second in field-goal percentage (93.9), having made 31 of 33.
Analysis: You could make an argument that Folk is the Jets' MVP even though Wilkerson won the award. He has been money from Week 1, his only misses coming from 48 yards (heavy wind) and 49 (hit the upright). The problem is that several kickers also are having career years, namely Justin Tucker of Baltimore and Matt Prater of Denver.
Stats: A career-high 10 sacks.
Analysis: This has been a renaissance year for Pace, 33, who spent a few months on the NFL scrap heap last offseason after being dumped by the Jets. He's no longer an every-down player, but the slightly reduced role has helped his stamina. He plays the "Sam" outside-linebacker position in the defense, as opposed to the rush linebacker, so he doesn't get as many pass-rushing opportunities as Quinton Coples. But he has made the most of his chances.
Stats: 3.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss.
Analysis: He won't make it as a rookie, but Richardson set a nice foundation. He's one of the leading candidates for NFL defensive rookie of the year. His sack production has tailed off, but he's still excellent against the run. And, oh yeah, he can run with the ball, too.
Stats: Anchors the league's sixth-ranked rushing offense.
Analysis: It's not often a four-time Pro Bowl selection flies under the radar, but that has been the case with Mangold. Flanked by a rookie left guard and a rookie quarterback, Mangold has provided leadership and stability for an offense in transition. The Jets average 5.16 yards per attempt on runs up the middle, second-best in the league, according to the NFL.
Stats: Only two sacks allowed, tied for the league lead among right tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
Analysis: Howard, in his second year as a starter, is one of the most improved players on the team. Good timing, too, because he will be an unrestricted free agent. When the Jets need yards on the ground, they run behind Howard. They have 82 rushes behind right tackle, the second-highest total in the league, per the NFL.
Stats: A team-high 86 solo tackles (according to coaches' tape).
Analysis: The Jets are ranked third in run defense, and that doesn't happen unless the "Mike" linebacker is having a good year. Harris dropped weight last offseason, improving his quickness and pass-coverage ability. He has seven tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Everybody loves Rex.
Day after day, testimonials are delivered from various precincts in the New York Jets' locker room. On Wednesday, they came from Antonio Cromartie, Calvin Pace, Sheldon Richardson and Santonio Holmes, who said he wants to ride off with Rex Ryan into the NFL sunset.
Ryan is a players' coach, a genuinely likeable man, so it's not surprising to hear so many players speak out on his behalf as he awaits his fate. How much will their support help his cause?
Not at all.
This isn't the NBA, folks. This isn't a league where a star player can get a coach hired or fired. In the NFL, the rich men in the owner's box make these decisions. If owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik believe the Jets will be better off in the long run without the popular Ryan, he's a goner.
It's a bottom-line business, and there will be a half-empty MetLife Stadium on Sunday as the Jets face the Cleveland Browns in a meaningless and unattractive game. This makes three straight seasons out of the playoffs, and it's hard to imagine Idzik -- joined with Ryan in a shotgun marriage -- inviting him back. Johnson, easily swayed, probably will side with his GM, forgetting about all those games Ryan won for him in 2009 and 2010.
If anything, the players like Ryan too much. Remember, this isn't a popularity contest. You think every player in the New England Patriots' locker room adores Bill Belichick? A prominent Jets player once told me he hated playing for Bill Parcells, but he reluctantly admitted that he played his best under Parcells.
"Rex is a keeper," Richardson said. "The guys love him. No matter what people speculate about him -- he might not be liked by other coaches in the league and other people -- but if he's on your side, you most definitely have a fighter."
Cromartie said it would be "a different defense" without Ryan, and Pace echoed that sentiment, saying, "I don't really want to envision that." They're loyal soldiers. They've made a lot of money playing for Ryan. They've won a lot of games, too.
On Wednesday, Ryan appeared uncomfortable answering questions about the future. When asked if quarterback Geno Smith would benefit from another season under offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, Ryan squirmed, saying he doesn't want to look beyond Sunday.
Ryan was all business in the team meeting, according to players. He expressed disappointment at being mathematically eliminated Monday night on Justin Tucker's 61-yard field goal ("A kick in the head," he told reporters), but Ryan quickly shifted back into Rex Mode. He talked about taking it out on the Browns and finishing strong, getting to 8-8. There was no dark cloud.
"If he's been told something or he kind of feels it, he's doing an incredible job of not letting the guys know," receiver David Nelson said. "There was no feeling on anxiety or tension of apprehension from him.
"From what I gather, he's ready to get ready for next year. If there's any kind of situation where he doesn't think he's going to be the man, he doesn't know and we don't know."
Richardson said he'd be "upset" if Ryan is fired, and he can't imagine why Idzik would make that move.
"With him and Idzik, their relationship is top-notch," the rookie defensive lineman said. "They're genuine. They're honest with each other. John is around all the time, so he sees how the team draws to [Ryan] and how much we respect him. I don't see [his ouster] happening."
Ryan has done an admirable job with this team, winning six games with a rebuilt defense and a talent-deprived offense. He hasn't won a championship, but he knows how to win. If it were up to the players, he'd be the landslide choice.
But this isn't a democracy. Only two votes count, and the results will be known in 12 days.
“I've got a couple more [years],” Pace said, “[if] somebody wants me. But just focus on these last two and whatever happens after that happens.”
He was released last February by the team, when keeping him would have meant a prohibitive $11.6 million cap charge at the end of a six-year, $42 million deal signed in 2008. In April, the Jets re-signed Pace on a one-year deal.
“This is what they envisioned for me to be doing,” Pace said. “My role before this year was a lot more, a lot more on my plate. This year we’re doing a little more four-man rush so that helps me out a lot, but whatever they ask me to do is what I do.”
Pace has been playing this season behind a defensive front with a lot of potential, something that has made his job easier.
“When I’m behind a guy like Muhammad [Wilkerson] or Sheldon [Richardson], it’s easier because these guys draw a certain amount of attention,” Pace said. “They’re not really looking for the old man to go in there and make a play.”
Richardson said he’d like to see Pace stick around a little longer.
“Most definitely want to see him on the same sideline as me. I've helped him get a lot of his nine sacks. If he didn't want to give me the credit, I’ll most definitely take it myself," Richardson said, laughing. "Nah, but it’s been great. He helped me with the playbook a lot, as far as dropping in coverage, what he would do in some situations. He’s been everything he needed to be as a vet, look up to him, talk to him, everything.”
The Jets will have to make a decision on the veteran during the offseason, one way or another.
Lining up in the backfield behind quarterback Geno Smith, Richardson ran the ball on consecutive plays from the Carolina 2-yard line. He gained a yard each time, which was good enough in the end for the rookie defensive lineman's first NFL touchdown.
Running back? Check.
But that was a long time ago. He admitted that he wasn’t surprised to get the chance Sunday, because the Jets “practiced it a few times” last week. And when he didn’t get into the end zone on his first attempt (although both he and coach Rex Ryan thought he did), there was no question he was going to get another attempt.
Not in Richardson’s mind. Not in Ryan’s. Not in offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s.
“Marty wanted it in there, so I told him to give it back to me. He had already relayed the call,” Richardson said. “I thought I scored the first time. But [the officials] needed to be reassured, so I did it again.”
Ryan added: “We’ve been working on it and thinking they shouldn’t be able to deny that guy down there, and we just kept running it. We thought we scored the first time, but we were a little short. And I’m like, ‘Well, we’ll just run it again.’ And that’s what we did.”
The touchdown with 3:04 remaining in the third quarter drew the Jets to within 16-13, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie later admitted the unconventional score brought smiles to the faces of Richardson’s defensive teammates on the sideline.
“He looked good. That’s just something that we practiced,” Cromartie said. “We knew it was going to happen if we got down there to the goal line. We practiced it with him, giving him the ball. We got him his touchdown and he pulled us to within three.”
Even in the wake of the disappointing loss, Cromartie couldn’t help grinning at the thought of Richardson doing a fine William “The Refrigerator” Perry imitation. When asked if he would be able to take down a guy Richardson’s size in a similar situation, Cromartie was candidly honest.
“No, man. I don’t ever want to try to tackle a 300-pound person like that,” said Cromartie, who is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds.
Richardson was in no jovial mood after the loss, despite his offensive heroics. He said he knew of Perry and that it “was cool” to be mentioned in the same breath as the former Chicago Bears defensive tackle who occasionally ran the football back in the day. But he admitted that none of that really mattered under Sunday’s circumstances.
“It was a touchdown. But it means nothing. We lost,” Richardson said.