This is just too easy.
The head coach of the Jets, Rex Ryan, committed career suicide Saturday night in New Jersey. On the 52nd play of a preseason game, with 11:21 left in the fourth quarter (a point of the game when no starting player plays in August), behind an offensive line full of backups, when his opening-day quarterback appeared to have no idea he was going to play, with undrafted free agents Joseph Collins from Weber State and Ryan Spadola from Lehigh running down passes, Ryan inserted Mark Sanchez into the game.
“Why compete, period?” Ryan explained after Sanchez, leveled by Giants defensive tackle Marvin Austin on his ninth play in the game, went out with a shoulder injury. “We put him out there with guys. We’re there to win.”
Players get hurt in the preseason all the time. But this injury was so nonsensical that it defies any reasonable explanation. Ryan certainly knew after watching Geno Smith stink it up for three quarters (three interceptions to go with a safety in which Smith ran out the back of the end zone, a la Dan Orlovsky) that Sanchez was going to win the quarterback competition between him and Smith. The fourth quarter of a preseason game is no place to strut his manly stuff and repeat the silly mantra, “We’re there to win.” Marginally, yes you are. Marginally. Mostly you’re there in the second half of these games to survive, figure out the final five or six spots on your roster, and plot your practice squad. Now, assuming Sanchez is going to be out for a while, Ryan has invited his termination—which was likely anyway—by wasting a starting player and forcing Smith into the starting lineup before he’s ready. I spoke with a source close to the Jets’ coaching staff Sunday, and he said the atmosphere around the team was funereal Sunday.
The sad thing is, Ryan’s a good guy, a colorful character in a colorless league, and an imaginative defensive coach. But he signed his exit visa Saturday night. It’s all over but the 4-12 record. Next year, Ryan’s either going to be on a network set doing some pregame show, or coordinating some defense somewhere. The Adam Sandler movie star-turn? A souvenir of a time long past.
Imagine you’re a Jets PR or marketing person this morning—or, worse, a ticket-seller. Already you’ve got gobs of tickets to unload for this season. What do you sell this morning? Can the Jets do some ticket deal like six-for-the-price-of-one? Six: in honor of their needlessly fallen quarterback’s number, of course.
Five Things I Thought About the Jaguars
Observations from a third preseason game in Jacksonville:
1. Jacksonville’s optimistic about Blaine Gabbert being ready to play against Kansas City in the season opener, and maybe he can play 22 days after cracking a bone at the base of his thumb against the Jets last week. But I shook hands with Gabbert on the field before the game, and his right thumb is casted, with the cast due off, tentatively, four days before the opener. In a year when this franchise has to decide whether to take a first-round quarterback next May, it seems counter-productive to the biggest goal of this season (finding out if Gabbert’s the future) to rush him back.
2. The Jags are serious about wedging Denard Robinson into the game in as many as five spots—wide receiver, slot receiver, running back, quarterback and kick returner. That’s where he played Saturday night against the Eagles. Before the game, in GM David Caldwell’s office, it was evident how much the Jags want to see Robinson on the field this fall. On Caldwell’s magnetic team depth chart board, right next to the quarterbacks and running backs, was a category labeled “OW.” For “offensive weapon.” That’s the label Robinson gave himself after Jacksonville picked him in the fifth round last April. Robinson told me he wasn’t upset about being moved from quarterback. “As long as I get in the game, anywhere, I’m happy,” he said.
3. This team’s definitely a year, or more, away. I wonder if Justin Blackmon will be part of the 2014 Jags, and I asked Caldwell if he thought Blackmon would be a part of his team’s future. “That is our hope,” Caldwell said. Give the GM credit—he didn’t want to lie. I wouldn’t trust Blackmon after his track record of alcohol abuse. And to hear the Jaguars insiders talk glowingly about opening-day starters Cecil Shorts III and Ace Sanders—the Pedroia-sized Jag version of Tavon Austin—it’s clear that if they have to move on from Blackmon, the team will. But Blackmon showed against the Eagles—with his hands, quickness and length—that as a player he’s a key cog to a winning team. I know this makes too much sense, but my plaintive cry to Blackmon after three major alcohol incidents while driving in his 23-year-old life is this: Spend $40,000, or whatever it would take to hire a permanent driver. Stop driving. Just stop. You can hire a driver to be on call for you for a fraction of your $7.11 million 2012 signing bonus. Isn’t that worth the peace of mind when you’re one vehicular mistake away from ruining your NFL career?
4. Very impressed with the offensive imagination, which will be vital for the Jags to be competitive. Impressed, too, with rookie safety Johnathan Cyprien, a smart player and person.
5. I have no idea who’s going to rush the passer. I have no idea who’s going to cover Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne or Kenny Britt. There’s going to be tremendous pressure on the offense to stay close in shootouts, and though offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has been imaginative and resourceful, the Jags were 30th in scoring last year and return the same quarterbacks who struggled so mightily. Gus Bradley’s always been good at figuring ways to invent pressure, and he’d better be this year. This sets up to be one of the worst pass defenses in football this year.
The upshot of the NFL-ESPN tiff.
Earlier this month, talking to TV critics in Los Angeles, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer Dwayne Bray spoke glowingly of the relationship between ESPN and the PBS investigative-journalism show Frontline. ESPN partnered with this outside company, a rarity for a news organization with infinite resources such as ESPN, to work the story on concussions and head trauma in the NFL. That day, Bray told the TV critics: “We respect Frontline greatly. They respect us. And the NFL is going to have to understand that.”
Bray learned a hard lesson in the realities of the relationship between the NFL and Big TV on Thursday, a few days after commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Network president Steve Bornstein and two ESPN executives clashed over the reporting of the issue by ESPN and Frontline. The league believes the reporting of the story has been one-sided, showing team doctors often ignoring players’ best interests to return them to games when they weren’t physically fit to do so. The New York Times reported the lunch meeting “was combative” and the result was ESPN pulling out of the collaboration. “Disney folks [ESPN is owned by Disney] got involved and shut us down,” the newspaper quoted Bray as telling demoralized ESPN investigative staffers.
The project both sides were working on, a two-part documentary called “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” will still air on Oct. 8 and 15, just not without the ESPN imprimatur. But much of the reporting on the show was done by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, who have a book coming out about the league’s failings as a watchdog for scores of former players suffering from head trauma.
I’m told Goodell did not explicitly tell ESPN to get out of the relationship with Frontline. But, one source told me, “The impression ESPN got was the NFL, one of its most important business partners, was furious because it felt the full story about the concussion story wasn’t being told.” Did ESPN have to do anything? No. The network holds rights to NFL games through 2021, and the NFL had no leverage here. The only thing the NFL might have been able to do here is fudge with future ESPN schedules, though that’s not in anyone’s best interests, because the NFL wants the TV ratings to be as good as the networks want them to be. But the power of the partnerships the NFL forges is strong, and the league works ceaselessly on relationships and partnership-building. Whatever words Goodell spoke at this lunch were as important as the tenor of them. And the tenor was unmistakeably angry.
ESPN announced it was pulling out of the deal with Frontline. That, to me, set off the single biggest unintended consequence of this story, one that will injure the NFL rather than simply letting the concussion story play out on Frontline.
The NFL may be eventually fighting a multibillion-dollar case with retired players and their dependents over this very issue—that the league didn’t care enough, or at all, about the health of players when returning them to games after sustaining head trauma. And so it’s naïve to think the league shouldn’t be fighting for its reputation when stories are written or produced that the NFL feels are wrong or unbalanced. But look what’s happened here. Now that the story has broken that the league leaned hard on ESPN, the public has lashed back hard at the NFL for trying to curtail the network’s reporting—whether that’s exactly what happened or not. (And surely the league wanted the ESPN reporting to take a different tack.) So the result is going to be that the two Frontline stories will have far bigger ratings now. Think about it. You’re a football fan. You see the headlines about the NFL reportedly pressuring ESPN to report the concussions story differently, or not at all. You had no idea before this happened that any such documentary was even in the works. But now, admit it: You’re now might actually watch this two-part show. I would have anyway, but now it’s an urgent watch.
It’s unrealistic to think that if the NFL was so strident about its objections to the reporting, ESPN at a corporate level wasn’t going to do something to smooth things over. It’s also unrealistic to think in a news-gathering organization, this wasn’t going to get out. The NFL was going to see red over the Frontline documentary anyway. Now the burn will be worse, because thousands more people will watch it. Tens of thousands, probably.