The Punch and the Fallout
‘You don’t walk up to a man and punch him in the face.’ Those were the words of Jets coach Todd Bowles after a backup linebacker cold-cocked Geno Smith in the locker room, knocking out the QB for up to 10 weeks. Examining the repercussions of the surreal incident, plus reader mail
“We are really big on family and just doing things the right way. The way my dad raised me was to always respect others and don't step on anybody's toes.”
—Linebacker IK Enemkpali, formerly of the New York Jets, quoted by the Louisiana Tech athletic department in January 2014.
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — It is difficult to reconcile that quote with what happened in Florham Park, N.J., on Tuesday morning.
That was when the 6-1, 272-pound Enemkpali, as chiseled a player as the Jets employ, reared back and busted quarterback Geno Smith’s jaw in two places with one punch. According to multiple reports, the altercation occurred because Enemkpali laid out $600 for Smith to attend a July charity event of his, and Smith hadn’t paid him back for it when it turned out he couldn’t go.
Smith will be out for six to 10 weeks, according to the team. The starter now becomes itinerant quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick—and not insignificantly, that actually might be a good thing for the Jets. Fitzpatrick is well-experienced in first-year Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s offensive scheme, and Smith was still learning it. In fact, the Browns would rather have faced Smith in the season-opener. But that’s not a major consideration this morning. The fact that Smith got punched out—by a teammate, in his own locker room—and will miss two months … that’s the big deal.
If you’re rookie Jets coach Todd Bowles, you have to ask yourself: This ‘same old Jets’ thing was supposed to be a thing of the past when Rex Ryan left, but what in the world have I gotten myself into?
“It had nothing to do with football,” a chagrined Bowles said in the first of two briefings on a surreal day in Jetsland. “It was something very childish. He got cold-cocked, sucker-punched, whatever you want to call it, in the jaw. He has a broken jaw, fractured jaw.
“It's something we don't tolerate, something we can't stand. You don't walk up to a man and punch him in the face.”
For the first time in 39 years, apparently you do.
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Thirty-nine years later, the man who traded the last cold-cocker of a starting NFL quarterback had one question.
“Why didn’t anyone come to Geno Smith’s defense the way our guys came to Roger’s defense?” Gil Brandt wondered.
Interesting. Brandt was the Dallas Cowboys’ personnel director in 1976, when backup quarterback Clint Longley and future Hall of Fame starting quarterback Roger Staubach got into an altercation that forced the trade of Longley to San Diego.
More about that in a second. But—and this is significant—we don’t know enough about the one-punch fight between Smith and bit-player backup linebacker Enemkpali on Tuesday morning. We don’t know if there was enough time to break up a boiling situation, or if it happened so fast there was nothing anyone could do. But everyone around the league was wondering just that Tuesday night: How on God’s green earth could a starting NFL quarterback allow himself to get into a situation like this? And would any player on Andrew Luck’s team, or Tom Brady’s, or Russell Wilson’s, ever dream of laying his hands on that guy, regardless of what the dispute was about?
The details in the Cowboys story are a little fuzzy now. Brandt’s recollection differs from the memory of some Cowboy players in a Matt Mosley story for the Dallas Morning News a decade ago. Brandt recalls Longley and Staubach getting into a fight after a training-camp practice in California in 1976, Longley riding Staubach about it being time for him to retire (he was 34 in that training camp), and Staubach saying if he wanted to discuss it, they’d discuss it after practice on an adjacent field. They fought then, and later, in the team’s locker room in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Brandt recalls Longley trying to hit Staubach in the head with a folding chair—just like in the old days of professional wrestling. The players recalled the fight to Mosley, but not the chair. They say that Longley cheap-shotted Staubach when he wasn’t looking in the locker room.
This is not in dispute:
“After it happened,” Brandt said Tuesday night, “Tom Landry called. He wanted Longley traded immediately.” Brandt, within a day, had Longley dealt to San Diego.
Almost four decades later, in a training camp on the other side of the country, Enemkpali, a sixth-round pick of the team in 2014, was released by the Jets.
“I should have just walked away from the situation,” Enemkpali said in a statement.
I’ve covered the NFL since 1984. A few times over the years people have asked me what I know that they don’t know—or what I see behind the curtain that they cannot see. Often, I say it’s the simple fact that lots of people on teams in the NFL, even teams with supposed great chemistry, do not like each other. It is foolish to think that 90 men in the course of a hot summer month of practice, or 53 men once Labor Day comes and the final rosters are formed, all sing Kumbaya every day at practice.
“We almost had a fight at the end of practice today,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said Tuesday afternoon. “It happens. I use the phrase ‘competitive not combative.' We want to compete hard, we don’t want to brother-in-law each other, or just kind of do the dance and just get through plays. We want to compete but it just can’t cross the line and become combative. We’ve had our share of training camp fights, nothing crazy. These are big, prideful men who are competitive as heck. A lot of it comes down to the respect thing. If they feel they have been disrespected, you’ll see that’s when the fuse burns all the way down. I’ve been around teams that fought a lot, I’ve been around teams that handled it well. A lot of it is just the mix of personalities. Most coaches, though, will be like, no, no, no, break it up, but inside—I’ve seen a bad practice turn into a damn good one because of a fight. It can change it.”
I asked Pettine: “Is it a misconception that football teams are one big happy family?”
“That’s very much a misconception,” he said. “And to me, that’s part of our job as a staff, to manage it. You hope your staff, even, can be a happy family, and that’s rarely the case. I think we’re pretty close with that here, and that’s why I think it makes it easier to manage your players when you are all on the same page from a staff standpoint, but I don’t think you’ll ever have 90 guys that all get along. I think if you have 90 guys that all get along, you’re probably not going to be very good.”
You’re not going to be very good, either, when your quarterback is getting popped by a marginal player on the edge of the roster. Don’t draw many conclusions from the incident in New Jersey on Tuesday. Just this one: Geno Smith’s road to the long-term Jets starting job just got a lot bumpier.
Now for your email:
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WHAT ABOUT BLEDSOE/BRADY?
I would love to see how the Drew Bledsoe/Tom Brady tandem would compare—not to Montana/Young, but to Favre/Rodgers. While Drew did not win a Super Bowl, he did lead the Pats out of despair and to a Super Bowl that was eventually lost to Favre. And Brady is, well, Brady.
With all due respect to Bledsoe, he is not on the same plane with any of the four quarterbacks I used—Joe Montana, Steve Young, Favre, Rodgers. He was 63-60 as a regular-season quarterback, did not quarterback a Super Bowl victory, and his numbers, overall, are not nearly as good as Favre’s or Rodgers’. But Bledsoe/Brady certainly would have a case for inclusion in the top five back-to-back quarterback tandems.
Is it not surprising that the two QB combos you had mentioned basically had the second QB sitting behind the first QB for a longer than average duration?
Very good point. As my friend and longtime Packers beat man Bob McGinn has pointed out many times, Rodgers was ill-equipped to take the quarterback job in Green Bay when he was drafted in 2005. And he wasn’t ready in 2006, either. The fact he had three years as an apprentice is a huge reason why he has become such a premier player. Obviously, the same was true with Young being able to sit and learn behind Montana.
OPINIONS OF THE OTHER 31 TEAMS?
I am getting tired of Deflategate, but it also seems like a car wreck—I can't stop watching either. I feel that The MMQB has taken on the discussion from a slightly pro-Tom Brady perspective because of the apparent harshness of the penalty, and therefore Roger Goodell has been at the center of the criticism. But what about the other 31 teams in the league that Goodell represents? It seems to me from what little I've read that they generally support the penalties and suspensions. Brady, Kraft and New Englanders can all be incredulous, but it seems to me the rest of NFL supports at least the concept of the penalties and suspensions. Your thoughts?
—Steve Smith, Burlington, Wis.
In 2006, the NFL gave the Patriots a stern warning about not videotaping opposing teams’ defensive signals during games. When it happened again the next year, the league came down hard on the Patriots in the Spygate scandal. There was clear proof that the Patriots were guilty. My feeling in this case is very simple. If you are going to hand down one of the biggest sanctions in NFL history on a player and a team, there should be clear proof that it actually happened. In my opinion, I have not seen that clear proof. As far as the feelings of the other 31 teams, I do think that the majority of them are glad to see Goodell hold the line and come down hard on the Patriots. That is certainly the impression I have gotten from several club executives and/or owners since the penalties were announced.
• WHY IS DARYL HENLEY STILL IN PRISON? Victim of the Drug War’s harsh mandatory sentencing, as well as possible racial bias and entrapment, the onetime Rams star is 20 years into a 41-year jail term. It’s time the government consider whether he, like many non-violent offenders, has paid his dues and deserves a new chance
ANOTHER HALL OF FAME CATEGORY
Question about the Hall of Fame: There are not many people in this category, but people like Ozzie Newsome were selected based on their work on the playing field, and then have gone on to (arguably) Hall of Fame careers based on their work off the field, either as coaches, front office personnel (Newsome), broadcasters or possibly other areas. Is there any provision in the Hall of Fame rules for electors to "add" to the reasons that current Hall of Famers are there? I am thinking not in terms of taking away slots from the current year's candidates, but instead, having a quick vote either before or after the current year's nominees are considered to say that people such as Ozzie Newsome have achieved Hall of Fame worthiness in a second capacity. Your thoughts?
There is not such a provision in the bylaws. I believe Newsome, while one of the best GMs of his day, would still have to oversee a championship program for several more years before he would merit entry on his front-office exploits alone. I think what his current performance as a GM has done, however, is make him one of the most versatile Hall of Famers in history.
MARIOTA: THE TRIPLE THREAT
Would it be legal to drop kick an extra point from the 2-yard line? If so, Mariota could be a triple threat—run, pass or kick!
—Earl C. Jackson
If Titans kicker Ryan Succop was injured, there’s no reason why Mariota couldn’t serve as a substitute and attempt an extra-point. But it would be easier for Mariota to simply attempt a soccer-style kick from the 2-yard line. Drop kicks are still legal but only when the PAT snap comes from the 15-yard line.
You mentioned the possibility of accepting an offside penalty on the PAT and then going for two. Does the same theory apply when there is an offensive penalty on the two-point conversion? Instead of going for 2 from the 7, 12, or 17, could the offense change its mind and kick a PAT from the 20, 25, or 30?
CONCUSSION SPOTTER CONCERN
Quick question regarding play being stopped by the spotter. Will this be treated like an injury in the last two minutes of a game with timeouts being taken away and clock time being run if no timeouts remain? If not, I can see a desperate team/player/coach using it at end of games if time is running out.
There is no question that the potential for abuse is there. It is one of the first things I thought, too. I think the NFL is going to have to monitor the spotter and his actions very closely if there is any evidence that a player on the field has faked an injury. What I mean is this: The NFL needs to come down with a significant fine—I’m talking six figures—if there is legitimate evidence that a player has faked an injury by appearing woozy on the field. There is no excuse for that.
LIFE ON THE ROAD
What’s the road trip routine for you guys going between camps? Is it doing research for the next camp? Casual personal conversation? Or talking about scenarios for certain topics throughout the NFL? Also, I read the article about Peter in Runner’s World—where do you fit in a workout? Find a unique state park on the way and get in some trail running?
On your last point, the team has worked out twice, in Jacksonville and in Chicago, at local gyms. In addition, I ran on day three of the trip in Gastonia, N.C. I am hoping to run today in Pittsford, N.Y., if I have time in the afternoon before we watch the Bills practice. As for our routine, it is usually either Emily Kaplan or Kalyn Kahler driving and the other people in the van on laptops or tablets doing work (the van has WiFi). And so, we are able to not totally waste time while we from camp to camp. There is, however, some time-wasting. Robert Klemko has educated me on the meowing state trooper from the movie “Super Troopers,” and we have played that over and over again on YouTube until everyone except me is sick of it. But we are able to have some interesting discussions about journalism, football and life. It is helping keep me young.
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