Jets coach Rex Ryan said Monday that he and special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff both felt like Jim Leonhard should be returning punts in place of rookie Jeremy Kerley. But when a testy Westhoff came to the podium on Thursday to discuss a season that has included six turnovers on returns -- including four in the past four games -- well, not so fast.
“Am I ruling Jeremy out as a returner? Absolutely not," Westhoff said.
Westhoff felt like the punt Kerley muffed wasn’t his fault. He said technically it wasn’t even a muff.
“He’s the only innocent person on that whole play,” Westhoff said. “Deion Sanders couldn’t have caught that ball, 'cause he had a guy thrown right into his lap. Their guy made a very good play. We had a guy who didn’t execute an assignment the way we hoped to and he got knocked back into him and he had no chance to catch the ball and it’s a shame. The absolute, singularly most frustrating play we had in a long time because we had it called exactly right, 10 guys executed exceptionally well. I think if he catches the punt he’s going to run for a touchdown.”
The botched block on the play was cornerback Kyle Wilson's fault.
So, if Kerley isn’t to blame for the turnover, then why did he lose the starting job over the play? Westhoff said that he and Ryan are going with Leonhard as a punt returner as Kerley recovers from a knee injury and the Jets' own window for errors quickly closes. But he doesn't think Kerley’s days as a Jets returner are over.
“No one that I’ve been around works any harder,” Westhoff said.
Earlier Thursday, Ryan made a point of saying that Leonhard was the returner going forward. The coach and his coordinator appear to be on different pages in the way they discussed the issue.
“The thing about Jimmy is we know how consistent he is,” Ryan said. “I think Kerley's going to be one of those guys. I really do. But right now with the way the winds are, the weather changes and all that kind of stuff, I just have a lot of faith in Jim Leonhard. I know he can get it done.”
Westhoff, who is highly regarded as one of the most innovative special teams coaches in the history of the game, is not used to having his unit perform so poorly. Some of the strain appeared to show during his news conference, which wasn’t quite as laid back and free-flowing as those earlier this season.
Leonhard for his part was told earlier in the year, after coming back from a career-threatening broken leg, that he wouldn’t have to pull hazardous duty at the return spot anymore. Leonhard said he didn’t believe it at the time, and that his wife let Ryan hear about it when he was moved back into the role.
“I told Jimmy coming off the injury, '[We] probably won't need you,' and all that stuff,” Ryan said. “I think I told his wife that. I promised her,” Ryan said. “I had to go about it and say, ‘Hey, have your wife call me.' It's one of those things.”
The Jets have also had to call up cornerback Antonio Cromartie to back up Joe McKnight. McKnight has a hyperextended elbow, and if he is unable to play special teams on Sunday against the Chiefs the job will again fall to the starter.
Leonhard and Cromartie downplayed the difficulty of starting on defense and playing special teams.
“It’s not a burden at all, it doesn’t take a toll on your body, it doesn’t really do anything,” Cromartie said. “It’s not really a lot of energy because as soon as the kickoff is returned we have the offense on the field, we get to take a break and go from there.”
Leonhard said everyone involved with the unit wants to have it be once again a strength for the Jets.
“Absolutely, we have high standards around here and we’ve done extremely well in a lot of areas,” Leonhard said. “To continue turning the ball over, obviously, you can’t have that because it will hurt you, and it has hurt us. In order to get to where we want, we can’t let that continue to happen.”