They threw away their playoff hopes, and they have absolutely no one to blame but themselves.
What was shocking was how ugly the implosion was. The meltdown in Miami finally ripped the cover off the simmering pot of discontent that had been the Jets locker room all year.
I had known since October that Santonio Holmes was dissatisfied with Brian Schottenheimer and the offensive line. Publicly criticizing everybody probably wasn't the right thing to do. Thing was, his criticism wasn't wrong. The passing game was suffering because they couldn't protect Mark Sanchez, and Holmes (although I think his motives were self-centered) pointed out that truth. The match was lit.
Here's where I think the slow burn of the fuse Holmes lit really picked up speed: Every game where Sanchez got flattened and they lost (look back—they're the same) and where he started forcing it and throwing picks just added to the unrest. Holmes’ discontent metastasized into a major locker room cancer.
I have a theory that people with exceptional skill can sometimes be difficult. Not necessarily because they're inherently jerks, but because they can see how good things can be and get enormously frustrated when things don't work out. Be that because they perceive the decision makers to be incompetent, or because everyone else isn't giving max effort—it drives them nuts. It's hard for them to stay quiet and content.
In no way am I excusing Holmes' detrimental behavior to the team, but I do kind of understand how it happened.
People with that kind of personality and a high-level skill set can be effectively managed, but it takes a very strong, very attentive leader to do it. Players like Holmes want two things: to be heard and to see results. Again, I'm not excusing his boorishness and horrible effect on team unity.
So, if you start with Holmes' dissatisfaction, how did it spiral so out of control?
The loss of veteran leadership and respected voices in the locker room cannot be underestimated. Who was there with a credible enough voice to speak up? And would anyone have listened?
Sanchez was in a tough spot. He was well aware of the protection problems. He paid the physical price. For a variety of reasons, he wasn’t really in a position to challenge Schotty and Bill Callahan. But something needed to happen behind the scenes to get the status quo changed. Instead, the coaches left the offense intact and Sanchez is lucky to have been able to walk away from Week 17 upright.
I worry he is much more seriously injured than we have been led to believe. One thing the entire team does respect now—there is no questioning his toughness and heart. Anyone with a pair of eyes could see the horrendous beating he took all year long.
Eventually, it got so bad that Rex Ryan challenged the offensive line to up their effort right before the late-November Buffalo game. Sanchez was relatively unscathed that week. But honestly, I credit that to the fact that Buffalo doesn't really have a pass rush that scares anybody. And sure enough three weeks later, Sanchez was pummeled again.
That’s when the Jets met the Eagles in Week 15. That game was an embarrassment. The Jets were not prepared at all. Sanchez got crushed, the defense got exposed and the Jets became even more desperate.
In my opinion, everything came to a head the following week, before the Giants game. The overconfident boasting by Rex only added motivational fuel to the Giants who didn't need more of it. This put undue pressure on his quarterback, who had been battling valiantly against terrible game plans and an o-line that exposed him over and over to vicious hits.
If you watched the Eagles and Giants games, notice what Sanchez did every time he went down: He'd get up slowly and immediately check his right arm and flex his right hand. You cannot play QB effectively when you are in constant fear that one wrong hit could mean the end of your season. It's a risk all QBs assume, but one is exponentially more aware of it when one is already injured.
This is where Schotty comes in. He had to have known how hurt Mark was. For me, the final straw was the 59 pass attempts called against the Giants. Not only did it jeopardize your only viable starting quarterback, but what happened to Rex's decree earlier in the season that the Jets would go back to ground and pound? Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck teed off, crushed Sanchez and the defense collapsed. Again.
I believe that is when everything went completely and irrevocably off the rails. The team no longer controlled its playoff destiny. They had to win at Miami and hope for a miracle. As has been well reported, Sanchez and Holmes got into it at a players-only meeting that Sanchez called that week and then Holmes was a no show for the follow-up meeting.
I thought that Schotty lost the support of the team starting around Week 4 of this year. But since then, I think the gulf in the locker room widened—exactly whose fault was this mess? And the unspoken question: Is Sanchez our guy or not? I hate to say that, because you couldn't ask for a more genuine, hard-working, heart-in-the-right-place guy than Sanchez.
But results matter.
I think a lot of people couldn't separate the team losing from Sanchez's personal performance, failing to understand that he was not the biggest, nor the only, issue facing the team.
So the question becomes, why did Rex let this terrible locker room unrest fester week after week? My theory is that he didn't have a clue what was going on. I don't know why Rex is so hands off on the offensive side of the ball, but that is going to have to change.
Is he intimidated? I know it is not his forte. He has said he doesn't want to call offensive plays. That's fine. But the head coach has to be a looming presence everywhere, if for no other reason than to instill accountability—and maybe a little fear.
Who was there to challenge Schotty's ghastly game plans that didn’t play to the strengths of his quarterback? Who was there to scream at Callahan and the o-line that they will all be out of a job if they couldn't keep Sanchez upright?
For me, the final straw was the Giants game. Rex could see the pass-happy play-calling and did nothing to stop it. Nothing. And then fumed about it in the postgame.
And just when I thought it couldn't get worse—there was Rex's cluelessness about the Holmes situation as it unfolded in the season finale. If it is true that Holmes had been moping and dogging it all during the Miami contest, Schotty should have brought it up to Rex at the half. But for Rex not to notice the fourth-quarter eruption in the huddle that preceded Holmes getting benched and still be oblivious about its cause after the game? That's a head coach that has lost control.
Rex's defiance after the Miami loss didn't play well. I can only imagine the uncomfortable plane ride home. On Monday, a chastened Rex acknowledged his role in this debacle of a season by admitting that he didn't have any idea of the terrible locker room dissent that ultimately caused his team's unravelling. That's so embarrassing to admit, that I actually believe him.
I still think Rex is a good coach, but the Jets have hit rock bottom in a very humiliating and public fashion. Ultimately, that is Ryan’s responsibility. This team is loaded with talent, but like any team effort, if the players can't stop the bickering and back stabbing and pull together as one, they will never win a championship.
As brutal as this implosion was to watch, if it leads to a massive housecleaning and complete attitude overhaul, the Jets will have every reason to think of themselves as playoff contenders next year.
Hopefully, watching the playoffs unfold without their participation will lend extra clarity and urgency to the vital task of rebuilding a Jets franchise that under Ryan's direction, up until this year, had been only looking up.