Follow The Leader

By Nicholas Brown
Jets Staff Writer
April 29th, 2004
Jets nation hopes Jonathan Vilma can bring the same magic to the Jets defense as he brought to the Hurricanes.
Jets nation hopes Jonathan Vilma can bring the same magic to the Jets defense as he brought to the Hurricanes.
As Jets fans watched their 21st ranked defense falter last season, there was one reoccurring scene that was particularly troubling. No, it wasn't Marvin Jones repeatedly getting bulldozed backward by pulling guards, and it wasn't the familiar sight of Aaron Beasley desperately lunging at the heels of wide receivers. Instead, it was the defense's collective body language after those and similar defensive breakdowns took place on the field. All too often, heads were hung, shoulders were slumped and hands were on hips. Seemingly without objection, disheartened defenders succumbed to such abuse from opposing offenses and then lifelessly lined up at the line of scrimmage to receive more punishment. The absence of accountability and lack of bravado on defense fatally undermined the 2003 team and fostered an environment that tolerated all of the hallmarks of a substandard defensive unit: mental lapses, missed tackles and emotionless play. Sadly, the most vocal leader that the Jets had on defense last year didn't even play for Ted Cottrell. Who can forget Chad Pennington passionately barking words of encouragement in the faces of his defensive teammates, while waiving a towel overhead in his cast-protected hand? It was an inspiring sight no doubt; but it was one that also made the leadership void on the defensive side of the ball even more excruciatingly obvious.

By default, Josh Evans proved to be the closest thing the Jets defense had to an on-field emotional catalyst. Regrettably, this is the same Josh Evans who also served an 8-game suspension after disappointing fans, coaches and teammates by inexplicably violating the NFL's substance abuse policy for a fourth time. While the Jets thanked Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for the NFL’s generous “Four Strikes and You’re In” policy, the marijuana-fragranced smoke signals that long foretold of the leadership deficiency on defense had finally engulfed the team in a five-alarm blaze.

It's certainly true that much of the defense’s failure last year was also attributable to the eroding skills of its starters. However, let’s not forget that the outstanding Jets team of 1998 had an even larger collection of aging veterans with declining abilities. The biggest difference? Aside from the presence of Bill Belichick, the 1998 defense was also blessed with two of the more outspoken and fiery competitors the game has seen in some time: Pepper Johnson and Bryan Cox. Good luck searching for either of these players’ respective counterparts on last year's unit. When was the last time that you saw Mo Lewis step up to run team practice, as Pepper Johnson did at Parcells' request when players were struggling? How often did you see Marvin Jones bring so much attitude and intensity to a stadium that he incited opposing fans to hurl snowballs and batteries at him from the stands? Dedicated and loyal players Marvin and Mo were. Leaders and motivators they were not.

Although they were late in acting, the Jets brass finally identified this fundamental flaw and took measures toward implementing a solution. The first remedy was the hiring of defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson, a coach who will replace the Cottrellian paternalistic attitude with a no-nonsense, hard-nosed approach. The second and more important step was adding a long-term defensive field general who will lead by example and demand the most of his teammates. For this, the Jets turned to the 2004 draft.

When one thinks of the modern NFL draft, it’s impossible to avoid conjuring an image of self-anointed draft guru, Mel Kiper, rattling off the vital statistics of every prospect from Penn State to Shakalaka State. For 15 mind-numbing hours of ESPN draft coverage, viewers watch in awe while Mel manages to dissect 40 times, 225-pound bench press repetitions, vertical leaps, shuttle drills and wingspans, without ever disturbing one strand of his impeccably coifed hair helmet. But there’s a cost to this type of analysis. Often overlooked by the Kiper-clones in their endless pursuit to quantify every aspect of a player’s profile is the importance of key intangible qualities such as leadership. But until science develops a stopwatch, barbell or yardstick capable of measuring a man's desire to carry others on his back and anchor his team, scouts should pay closer attention to the actual impact that a player has had on those around him. Because while speed, size and strength may never materialize into success in the NFL, leadership is an immutable trait that transcends all levels of competition. Fortunately, Terry Bradway realized this fact when making Jonathan Vilma his number one draft selection.

As a two-time captain of the Miami Hurricanes, Vilma was the backbone of his defense and the team's unquestioned heart and soul. "He brings the leadership to this team. A lot of people look up to him because he knows exactly what to do," standout defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. Hurricanes cornerback Kelly Jennings agreed. “People respect Jonathan so much that when he talks, people listen,” Jennings said. Current Jet and former Miami teammate Matt Walters added, “Jon always gets the job done. What better way to way to be a leader than to do the right thing on every snap?” What's particularly impressive about such remarks is the quality of the milk from which this cream rose -- an as astonishing 34 of Vilma's former teammates have since been drafted into the NFL, including 18 first round selections. Put simply, at Miami, the greatest NCAA players in the nation looked to one player to galvanize the team. And Jonathan Vilma delivered in spades.

Of course in addition to his leadership, Vilma also possesses the natural gifts that made him one the draft’s most highly sought after recruits: superlative instinctive play, remarkable speed to the ball, physical toughness and All-Academic intelligence. To the surprise of few, comparisons have already been drawn to Ray Lewis, another undersized middle linebacker from the University of Miami. Let’s stop right there for a reality check. There are few things in this world more frightening or ferocious than Ray Lewis. On a universal fear scale, Lewis likely falls somewhere between a pack of caged, rabid Harlem-trained pit bulls and Mike Tyson in his prime, circa 1989. So, as unfair as last year's parallels were between Dewayne Robertson and Warren Sapp, the Vilma-Lewis comparisons are even more preposterous. It’s important to recognize that Vilma's emergence as a team leader will require patience. Irrespective of his credentials, he's still a rookie linebacker who has at best a 50/50 shot of unseating Sam Cowart as a starter on opening day. Give him time. Before Vilma earns the respect of his veteran teammates, he must first earn his stripes in the league.

But truth be told, the timing could not be better for Vilma or the New York Jets. His arrival coincides with the mass exodus of aging veterans and the infusion of young, rudderless players that have yet to form an allegiance with present members of the team. After completing an aggressive offseason overhaul, the Jets front office has clearly set the stage for a passing of the torch. The only question remaining is which player will rise up to grab it, illuminating the way for his teammates and leading them to back on the path to victory? This much we know: that torch is Vilma’s for the taking.

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