It's 'next man up' when Jets' vets exit

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On Thursday, it was goodbye to Jerricho Cotchery, one of the most respected players in the locker room. On Friday, Damien Woody -- fired five months ago by the New York Jets -- came back for a day to say goodbye to football.

In a span of 24 hours, the Jets got a heavy dose of NFL reality. In pro football, there's no forever, only farewells. The Jets have endured quite a few over the past year or so, a bunch of team leaders out the door. You can say it's cold, it's heartless, it's whatever, but it's life in the revolving-door league.

"When it's all said and done, it doesn't really matter that you're gone," said guard Brandon Moore, one of the wise heads in the locker room. "Guys keep moving and coaches don't mention your name anymore. You're like a ship passing through the night. You were here, and now you're gone. The beat goes on."

He's right.

Once the initial shock and anger subside, players invariably fall back into line and return to the business of trying to win football games. You will hear and read about the leadership void in the Jets' locker room, how the team will suffer without the likes of Cotchery, Woody, Tony Richardson, Kris Jenkins and maybe Shaun Ellis, who's floating in free-agent limbo.

But they will survive. The Jets will make it through this transition period because their leadership structure is built around the coach and the quarterback.

Rex Ryan is the star, the face of the franchise, and he sets the tone with his larger-than-life, who-cares-what-anybody-thinks personality. It will be that way as long as he's the coach. He's the leader.

Mark Sanchez is entering his third year and, from all indications, he has taken control of the offense. If this were his first or second year, then maybe you're talking about a potential issue. But he's ready to be what the quarterback should be.

"This guy is the real deal," Woody said at his retirement news conference. "Trust me when I tell you that."

The Jets will miss the departed because they brought experience and strong intangibles into the huddle and the meeting rooms, and you need that kind of stability on a team with so many -- how can we put this? -- diverse personalities.

But they still have LaDainian Tomlinson and Bart Scott, and a group of middle-aged veterans -- starting with the Core Four -- that should be ready to blossom into leadership roles. It's all cyclical, old guys grooming young guys who develop into old guys.

"This is the league, it's what we're in now," Ryan said. "Sometimes you can't keep everybody. Sometimes guys are moving on for bigger paydays, sometimes they choose to leave. Other times, it's time for guys to leave. That's just the way the game is. That's the cold, hard facts about this."

Of all the goners, Cotchery will be missed the most. At 29, he still has good years ahead of him. He was like a second quarterback on the field, often telling teammates where to line up and what to do. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer once wondered why Cotchery always seemed to be the last out of the huddle; it was because he was being the traffic cop.

"When I think about the Jets, I think about him," Moore said. "Before all the all-stars came, he was here, making plays. We won a lot of games with him."

But the front office made a value judgment, deciding Cotchery isn't a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver anymore. They saw him as a No. 2½, and that wasn't good enough for Cotchery, who asked out.

The Jets obliged, a questionable business move in light of the Derrick Mason uncertainty. They gave Cotchery his freedom without having secured his replacement, and now they're in a poor negotiating position. If Mason blows them off and signs elsewhere, the Jets will be wiping egg off their face.

In the big picture, the Jets will be fine. Their foundation won't crumble. The old warriors will be missed, but as Moore said, there wasn't a pity party in the team meeting. As Ryan likes to say, "Next man up."