12:37 pm Jan. 3, 2012
“Baggie day” is the unofficial name given to the afternoon on which N.F.L. teams are forced to clean out their lockers. For every team but the Super Bowl winner, it’s a sullen occasion marked at best by hope for next season and at worst, by uncertainty, blame allocation and bitter recrimination. Yesterday in Florham Park, N.J., the home of the New York Jets, it was the worst case.
Linebacker Bart Scott, whose future with the Jets has been the subject of speculation, reportedly gave the middle finger to a photographer, imploring him to take a picture—presumably of his finger. Cornerback Darrelle Revis zipped past reporters, declining to talk. And Santonio Holmes? No, he wouldn’t speak to reporters either.
Following cleanout, the Jets scheduled a 3 p.m. press conference inside the Atlantic Health Training Center in Florham Park, where a sweaty, seemingly nervous general manager Mike Tannenbaum and a frumpy, unshaven coach Rex Ryan proceeded to whitewash the season.
The presser began a half-hour late, as Tannenbaum thanked “all our players and coaches for their commitment this year” and then announced, preemptively, that beleaguered offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would return for yet another season.
“I really respect the job he’s done,” Tannenbaum said, before running down a rehearsed checklist of Schottenheimer’s supposed accomplishments, which, according to Tannenabum, include “working with three different quarterbacks” and “going to go two championship games.”
(Two of those quarterbacks—Chad Pennington and Brett Favre—played better once they left Schottenheimer, and Schottenheimer’s offenses lost both the championship games in which he coached, scoring less than 20 points in each of them.)
The next topic was Santonio Holmes, who effectively stopped trying in the Jets’ final game of the season and who, in the preceding 12 hours, had been rebuked by teammates on the field, benched by coaches in the season’s most critical moment, publicly reproved by football elder statesman LaDainian Tomlinson for besmirching the captaincy, called a quitter by one anonymous teammate, and described by another anonymous Jet as a “ten-year-old” and “a cancer.”
Ryan defended Holmes, and admonished his critics.
“He’s been a tremendous player for us,” Ryan said. “He’s won a ton of games for this franchise … and he’s been a good teammate.”
It’s understandable that Ryan and Tannenbaum didn’t want to use a press conference as a platform from which to deride and devalue a player who remains under contract for four more seasons at tens of millions of dollars. But there was a way to avoid that without praising Holmes and effectively throwing a pie into the face of a team that he had abandoned and left for dead just 24 hours earlier. And more importantly, there was a way to accomplish that without flushing organizational credibility down the toilet.
So, for the record: The Jets organization has absolute confidence in a coordinator whose offenses have had an average rank of 20th in the league over six seasons, and thinks Santonio Holmes, who earlier this year badmouthed the Jets’ offensive line to reporters, is a “good teammate.”
Ten minutes into the press conference, Ryan yielded to the general manager. Speaking like an embattled Supreme Court nominee whose goal it was to waste as much of the allotted question time as possible without actually answering any questions, Tannenbaum repeatedly—and as though by design—digressed into tautological doubletalk that bore little perceptible relationship to the questions asked. It was all about having to work harder and do better and, of course, be more consistent.
“These aren’t headline situations, but you know, when the Marcus Dixons play the way they do, and the Patrick Turners [play the way they do], there’s a big sense of fulfillment when those guys come along and help you win,” Tannenbaum said.
Less than 24 hours after missing the playoffs in a season in which the head coach guaranteed a Super Bowl win, the general manager sat before the press corps, speaking to a crestfallen fan base, and described the success of Marcus Dixon and Patrick Turner as creating “a big sense of fulfillment.”
One suspects that the people who forked over extortionate sums for personal seat licenses didn’t share Tannenbaum’s sense of fulfillment at Patrick Turner’s eight-catch season after the team went 8-8.
Then, 24 minutes into the 30-minute presser, a reporter asked Tannenbaum whether, since they planned to retain Schottenheimer, Holmes, and Sanchez, it meant that there would not be a large-scale overhaul in the wake of the season-ending loss to the Dolphins. Tannenbaum said he preferred to build from within.
“I think the great part about the N.F.L. is that there are so many unwritten stories,” he said. “Look at the Giants and Victor Cruz. He came out of nowhere after they didn’t re-sign receiver X or Y, and our locker room is filled with those types of guys.”
Victor Cruz is an undrafted minimum-salary player who just racked up more than 1,500 yards for the Jets’ crosstown rival; Tannenbaum chose to bring him up during the same press conference in which he was defending Santonio Holmes, who managed all of 654 yards after signing a $45 million contract a few months ago.
If the Jets really do have “a locker room full” of guys like Victor Cruz, it’s probably time that they break them out, seeing as how Victor Cruz had nearly as many yards by himself (1,536) as Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Kerley did, combined (1,580).
But Tannenbaum doubled down.
“Look at the strides some of our young players have made,” he said, answering a question about the team’s lack of depth. “I think in some cases, we didn’t go a good enough job with depth at certain positions, but where I think pro football is evolving is, from a salary-cap standpoint, some of your better players are going to get a lion’s share of the pie, but that doesn’t mean the players toward the minimum can’t be contributors. And again, that’s where the Caleb Schlauderaffs of the world, and Vlad [Ducasse] coming along, and Austin Howard. And we have a lot of guys that maybe aren’t household names, but they’re getting better—Josh Baker, I think has a chance to be a real good contributor for us. And that’s because we’ve done a real good job in the personnel department of undrafted free agents.”
At the 28-minute mark, Rod Boone of Newsday asked Tannenbaum whether he would consider bringing in a veteran quarterback to push Mark Sanchez next year. Tannenbaum’s response was: “You know, we’ll look at that, but we also like the guys we have here. The Kevin O’Connells. the Greg McElroys. Mark Brunell has helped us, as well. So we’ll look, but I don’t want to discount the guys we already have under contract.”
O’Connell was cut by Bill Belichick from his second N.F.L. training camp in 2009, just one year after being a third-round draft pick. Following that unceremonious release in New England, he signed with the Lions, who traded him to the Jets five days later for a seventh-round draft pick. The Jets cut him in August 2010, then re-signed him, then cut him again in July 2011. Then he went to the quarterback-strapped Dolphins, and they cut him, too.
Greg McElroy is the brainy and likeable former seventh-round pick who has the guts and guile but not the arm to be a serviceable N.F.L. quarterback.
Brunell, 41, is retiring.
Declining to make rash concessions to the demands of an emotional fan base is one thing; but repeating empty talking points (Schottenheimer works hard; Sanchez is developing; Holmes is a good citizen) at a press conference called to answer question about a disaster of a season is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who cares about the team.
Ryan, in particular, has gotten away with his share of question-begging back when his teams were overachieving. But now, it’s just trash-talking. The longer the Jets’ P.R. strategy is to deny that anything’s wrong, the greater that backlash will be if and when they’re finally forced to concede that the course they’ve chosen hasn’t worked. By then, no one will believe anything they have to say, anyway.