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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets' final meltdown began last Wednesday in a classroom, where Santonio Holmes and Mark Sanchez exchanged pointed words in a quarterback-wide receivers meeting, team sources told ESPNNewYork.com.
Sanchez, in an attempt to rally the slumping offense, stood up before the entire group, announcing he wanted to meet after hours with the wide receivers for extra film study in preparation for the season finale against the Miami Dolphins.
Holmes showed up for the meeting, but stood in the back of the room and was "pouting the whole time," one source said. According to another source, Holmes said, "Why do I have to do this?"
Sanchez held the same meeting the following day, but Holmes was a no-show, sources said.
"I had a feeling it was going to explode," one source said.
It exploded in the final minutes of Sunday's 19-17 loss, which eliminated the Jets from playoff contention. Several players felt Holmes, held without a catch for the first time in his career, had quit on the team. Tackle Wayne Hunter called him out in the huddle and a heated exchange ensued.
Holmes was pulled from the game by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and he remained on the bench, alone, for the final 2½ minutes.
It was the breaking point in a season marked by locker-room turmoil. One player, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called Holmes a "cancer" and a "distraction." Another player described the Sanchez-Holmes relationship as distant, noting that Holmes didn't attend the Sanchez-organized passing camp in California during the lockout.
On Monday, Sanchez was asked several times about Holmes and chemistry issues on offense, and each time he declined to get into specifics.
"That kind of stuff, that's in-house stuff," he said. "It's personnel stuff. I'll have those conversations privately with different members of the organization, so that's not public information, in my opinion."
Holmes didn't speak to reporters during the team's clean-out day. He walked to his locker and left immediately, escorted by a team PR person.
The entire Holmes fiasco is embarrassing for the organization, particularly since Rex Ryan admitted after the game he had no idea Holmes had been benched.
After a day of "hearing the facts" from players and coaches, Ryan filled in some blanks. He confirmed that Schottenheimer made the decision, and he supported it, but he stayed clear of criticizing Holmes for his behavior.
Actually, Ryan started off by praising Holmes for his attributes before saying: "Are there some things we need to get corrected? Absolutely, and it's not just with him, but others as well, and myself," Ryan said, adding, "I believe Santonio will be back next year."
The Jets may have little choice. Holmes' 2012 salary ($7.75 million) is fully guaranteed. If he's on the roster on the second day of the waiver period (Feb. 8), $7.5 million of his $11 million salary in 2013 also becomes guaranteed. There would be severe financial and salary-cap implications for cutting or trading him.
Ryan refused to say that Holmes "quit" in the team.
"I think everybody does make mistakes," he said. "He's not perfect and nobody on my football team is perfect. I'm not perfect."
Holmes lost the respect of teammates starting as far back as October, when he publicly criticized Sanchez and the offensive line. It escalated into a war of words in the media with guard Brandon Moore.
On Monday, Moore didn't want to discuss Holmes, never mentioning him by name in response to questions. Interestingly, he referred to him by his uniform number -- 10.
"Football 101: You don't call out teammates," said guard Matt Slauson, recalling the October incident. "It destroys a team."
Three weeks ago, Holmes irked teammates with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting during a touchdown celebration -- when the Jets trailed by three touchdowns. Finally, it came to a head late in the fourth quarter in Miami.
One veteran player, irked by Holmes' demeanor, told him to "go home." One series later, Hunter lashed into Holmes, sparking the confrontation. Afterward, future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson ripped Holmes for his lack of fire and leadership.
Privately, some players applauded Tomlinson for going public, saying he acted as a quasi-spokesman.
On Monday, Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum were in serious damage control, trying to paint the team's chemistry problems with a broad brush instead of blaming Holmes. Of course, they didn't want to bash him, lest it hurt their ability to explore possible trades.
"I feel really good about him being here," Tannenbaum said. "He's done a lot of good things for us. Obviously, there are some bumps in the road we have to address, which we will in the offseason. But if you look at his body of work, I'm glad he's here ... He's a true game breaker."
A team breaker, some of his teammates might say.Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com.