- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York Jets reporter
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MIAMI -- Santonio Holmes quit on his teammates. They saw it in his eyes, his body language, and they called him out in the huddle, leading to an ugly exchange between him and right tackle Wayne Hunter.
With one last chance to save their season, Holmes turned Tone Time into Groan Time. The New York Jets' bust of a season ended with an on-the-field meltdown in the huddle, with players yelling and Holmes having to be restrained from going after Hunter.
This was ugly and embarrassing, even by Jets standards. Holmes was benched for the final two-plus minutes of their 19-17 loss Sunday to the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium -- one last example of a chemistry experiment gone bad.
The Jets were a volatile mix all season, dealing with locker-room turmoil, and the whole damn thing blew up in the crucible of a must-win. Turns out they wouldnt have made the playoffs anyway, but instead of going quietly, they behaved like a dysfunctional family.
"Is it disturbing? Its been disturbing for a while," guard Brandon Moore said later at his locker, suggesting that dissension has been rearing its ugly head for a lot longer than one bad afternoon in the Florida sunshine.
Pressed, Moore finally said, "I dont have anything more to say about Santonio."
He said plenty. Other teammates did, too, especially the most respected player in the locker room, future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, who unloaded on Holmes. He basically said that Holmes -- a captain, for crying out loud -- shut it down, mentally.
If the U.S. Army had captains like Holmes, we'd all be speaking Japanese.
Turns out the Jets have a lot more to worry about this offseason than fixing Mark Sanchez and finding a replacement for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who almost certainly will be fired or demoted. They have a serious locker-room issue -- or maybe its just a Holmes issue.
"Let me just say there were some guys in the huddle that were unhappy with Tone's demeanor," Tomlinson said. "When you have a group of guys fighting their butts off and one guy, for whatever reason, their demeanors not with them, you're going to get some guys to say something to him and tell him how they feel. That's what you got today."
Tomlinson wasn't finished.
"It's tough for guys to follow a captain that kind of behaves in that manner," he said. "The worst thing that can happen is when teammates start to question your passion. In that huddle, that's what you saw. Guys looked at his eyes and he didn't have fire in his eyes.
Guys were turned off by that. It was definitely boiling at that point. Guys had had enough."
In the culture of an NFL locker room, it doesn't get more stinging than that. Tomlinson's words weren't that different from what Moore said in October, when he questioned Holmes' leadership. That came in response to Holmes' criticisms of the offensive line. The tension subsided for a couple of months -- winning helped -- but it was always there, simmering.
Lets be honest: The Jets (8-8) played a horrible game and, even if Holmes had been in the lineup, they probably wouldn't have overcome a nine-point deficit in the final 2½ minutes. But that's not the point. The point is, Holmes bailed on his teammates at a time when they needed unity.
Why? Well, it probably had a lot to do with the fact that Holmes didn't catch a pass for the first time in his career, covering 95 games. He was "complaining the whole game," according to one player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
That led to the heated exchange in the huddle.
"Just a mess, a big mess," Moore said.
"I can't explain what that was about," Holmes said. "Emotions were running high on the field between two guys on the same team."
Patrick Turner said he was sent in by wide receivers coach Henry Ellard to replace Holmes. Players said it was Schottenheimer, in perhaps his final significant act, decided to yank Holmes. We know it wasn't Rex Ryan, who admitted he had no idea what was going on. He was so out of touch that he thought Holmes pulled himself out of the game. That, in itself, is troubling.
Clearly, Holmes was steamed that he was targeted only once in the game. Sound familiar? He finished the season with only 51 receptions for 654 yards and eight touchdowns, hardly what youd expect from a guy that signed a five-year, $45 million contract. One teammate, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Holmes has been "a pain in the ass" all season.
"It's Week 17, it shouldn't happen," Holmes said of his lack of involvement, also making it clear that he couldn't give a hoot if Schottenheimer gets canned.
A year ago, Holmes complained after the AFC Championship Game, calling out Schottenheimer for sitting him for a few plays early in the game. Knowing that, and knowing his reputation as a trouble maker in Pittsburgh, the Jets still rewarded Holmes with a fat contract. Ryan named him a captain, probably a decision he regrets.
Ryan fancies himself as the ultimate players' coach, capable of turning headaches into team players. Well, guess what? He failed. To make matters worse, he poisoned the chemistry by signing wide receiver Derrick Mason, a player he knew from Baltimore. Mason was so toxic that they had to ship him out before Halloween.
When Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum map out their offseason plan, they should place a greater emphasis on team chemistry. They should also find a way to trade Holmes. How many times do they need to be hit in the face with a skunk before they realize it stinks?
"We need to come together more," Slauson said. "We need younger players to step up and play a bigger role as far as leadership goes."
Tomlinson said the team, at times, lacked camaraderie and passion throughout the season, claiming, "When you dont have that, the product on the field suffers."
And it looks like this: A bunch of grown men, bickering in, of all places, the huddle. Hows that for irony?
Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum's chemistry experiment blew up in their face.