- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York Jets reporter
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When a shaken Rex Ryan walked into the press room last Dec. 3 and began with, "We've got some terrible news," his tone was so grave that it sounded like he was going to deliver more than an injury announcement. But that's how much Jim Leonhard means to him, means to the New York Jets.
That day, Leonhard's right leg was practically snapped in two, the result of a horrific collision in practice. They had the New England Patriots in three days and, frankly, Ryan sounded beaten right there in the press room. Without his little general in the secondary, the Jets were embarrassed, 45-3.
Eventually, they overcame Leonhard's absence, making it all the way to the AFC Championship game.
One year later, the Jets find themselves in a similar predicament, Leonhard down for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. This time, they have virtually no margin for error, not in a tight wild-card race, but they also have a few things in their favor -- namely, a full week to adjust.
And a competent replacement, same one as last season -- Brodney Pool.
Life will go on.
If the Jets don't make the playoffs, it won't be because they didn't have Leonhard. He's a wonderful player, the defensive version of Wayne Chrebet, but he's not indispensable. They will miss his intangibles, especially his smarts and toughness, but the Jets can win with the Pool-Eric Smith safety tandem for the stretch run.
They did last season.
"He did a heck of a job last year, stepping in," cornerback Antonio Cromartie said Monday, referring to Pool. "Him and Smith had one of the best postseasons I've seen from any type of safety [tandem]."
Anybody who follows the Jets knows Leonhard's value, but you also know they have an uncanny ability to replace injured players. They've lost a bunch of key players in Ryan's two-plus seasons, but the only injury they couldn't solve was center Nick Mangold, who missed two games earlier this season with an ankle injury.
And a lot of that was because his backup was a here-today, gone-tomorrow player named Colin Baxter -- an awful job of roster management.
Pool is no Baxter. He has 64 career starts, including 12 last season, his first with the Jets. He got better down the stretch, as he got more comfortable with the defense. Look, we're not talking about Ed Reed here -- after all, they were prepared to let Pool walk away after last season as a free agent -- but he's capable of doing the job.
"We're fortunate to have Brodney, because Brodney is a guy that has man-cover skills and he has range," said Ryan, who was subdued after Sunday's win because he knew the severity of Leonhard's injury.
The Jets are a cornerback-based defense, and they have three good ones in Cromartie, Darrelle Revis and Kyle Wilson. As long as they stay healthy, the Jets will have a chance to compete against dangerous passing teams. They'll see one Sunday, when they face the Philadelphia Eagles.
Ryan sounded worried, referring to the Eagles' "incredible speed and athleticism." DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are explosive wide receivers, for sure, but the Jets have Revis and Cromartie. The following week, it'll be a similar challenge against Eli Manning & Co.
But the Jets have a sound defensive system and they're well-coached. Unlike last December, coordinator Mike Pettine won't have to make 11th-hour changes to the game plan.
The problem is depth. The Jets like to use three-safety packages in certain situations, and their third safety is a neophyte named Tracy Wilson, who was signed from the practice squad two weeks ago to replace safety Emanuel Cook. They plan to sign another backup.
A player like Cook would've come in handy, but they sent him packing without an explanation, curiously. (He was said to be coasting at practice one day.) Dwight Lowery would've helped, too, but they traded him in the preseason, claiming they had a surplus of safeties.
Assuming they don't suffer another injury at safety, the Jets will be fine. This isn't like they lost Mark Sanchez or Revis or David Harris -- and you can add another six or seven must-have players to that list. They lost some glue with Leonhard, but the whole thing isn't going to come apart.
"The one thing that will help us out a lot this year is, everybody knows everybody on the back end," Cromartie said. "This group has been together for two years. We know what to expect from each other. We can communicate without even communicating."
As Ryan likes to say, it's next man up.
If the Jets don't make the playoffs, it won't be because of Jim Leonhard.