Florham Park, N.J.– It started as just another casual day at practice for the New York Jets, but then the unexpected happened.
During team-drills Jim Leonhard and Patrick Turner collided into each other and unfortunately, for Turner, Leonhard and the Jets, Turner got the best of Jim Leonhard’s shin.
Yesterday, Jetsinsider’s Matt Waters reported, that Rex Ryan wasn’t aware of the extent of the injury at the time, but said, “We have got some terrible news,” he began. “Jim Leonhard won’t play this week. Had a- he’s got a shin that is severe. I don’t know the extent of the injury right now. But he’s, you know, he’s obviously out this week… a huge blow to us.”
Terrible news would become horrific news just a few hours later as it was been reported by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that, “New York Jets safety Jim Leonhard suffered a broken leg in a practice collision and is likely done for the season.”
Today the Jets announced that Leonhard was indeed placed on the injured reserve list and will be out for the season with a fractured right tibia.
To many fans, fans that like to watch the games but don’t follow everything about the teams during the week by reading every article and watching or listening to every television or audio sports news possible, the loss of the 5’8″ safety may not seem all that devastating.
If only it were that simple.
This injury will send a ripple effect through this defense and it’s hard to determine just how damaging it will be. It’s not like it’s impossible for the Jets to overcome the injury, but there isn’t a single area of the defense that won’t feel the effects of his absence. Thing’s are going to change for every defensive player they have.
There’s no need to sugar-coat it, you’ve heard it said about him before, but that’s because it’s true, Leonhard is the quarterback of this Jets defense. Every defense in the league has someone who is their defensive QB, the defensive signal-caller, but Leonhard is so much more than that.
In fact, ask yourself this, have you ever wondered or heard anyone wonder about how Rex Ryan was able to have such success implementing his defensive scheme to such a dominating level in just his first year as a head coach of a team he never coached for? It’s not often you see that happen, especially when the defense is as complex and sophisticated as a Ryan defense is.
So how were the players able to adapt so quickly to understanding and executing this new defensive scheme?
The answer, Jim Leonhard; and it would be an insult to not mention Bart Scott as well, but fortunately for the Jets Scott is healthy and this article is about the impact the loss of Leonhard will have.
Both Leonhard and Scott had played for Ryan in Baltimore, Scott was the splashy headline snagging signing, but the signing of Leonhard was just as important, most people just didn’t know it yet.
There was never any doubt in either of their minds, as soon as Ryan got offered a head coaching job they were following him wherever he went. Just as in Ryan’s mind there was no two players he would have rather brought with him to help make his transition so smooth (Okay, he probably would have brought Ed Reed with him first if he could have, but he couldn’t).
Watching Leonhard play he stands out because he is always near the ball and has been known to deliver some devastating hits. Talking to him or anyone else around the Jets about him, it’s his leadership and intelligence that jumps out at you.
“I think a lot of it starts with off-the-field. He’s not just a great football player; he’s a great person. I think his personality is just tremendous, (he’s) very funny guy (and) good-natured. I think he kept the room very light, was very quick to point things out, very quick-witted.” Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said, “That’s a big part of it, to me, is more the personal part of it, the off-the-field stuff. On-the-field, a lot of people do realize what an important part he was, he really did quarterback the back end. He was a big part of helping guys get lined up and he was usually a guy that was in the right place at the right time doing his job. That’s something that we are really going to miss.”
You hear the word cerebral used a lot in the NFL, usually about an elite quarterback, but it’s the perfect word to describe Leonhard and how he plays. That’s how he was able to help his teammates understand their roles, assignments and coverages. That’s why he is always around the ball and that’s why he is deservingly called the quarterback of the Jets defense.
There is not a single player on the Jets defense that will hesitate to tell you that Leonhard has helped them in certain situations and just helped them to improve as a player. His knowledge of Ryan’s system combined with his intelligence and leadership is as a big of a reason as any that Ryan’s defense was able to be so effective so quick.
“Jim’s been in this defense a few years, so he knows, basically, the ins and outs. He knows it like a coach does.” Eric Smith, one of the players that will try and fill Leonhard’s role, said. “He does a good job of recognizing formations and adjusting the calls for those formations over what we think we’re going to get from the offense.”
At this point in the season, and the second season for most players in this system, maybe Leonhard’s understanding of the play-calling and ability to literally tell players their assignments on the field between plays will not be missed as much. That is wishful thinking though, because in order for that to be the case the players all have to have a complete and total understanding of their job for each specific play.
Maybe, if the defense hadn’t been suffering from so many communication problems this injury would be easier to write-off. The defense definitely has been much better with their communication issues as of late, but now the question becomes will the problems resurface without Leonhard’s presence? This is certainly terrible news, but it’s also terrible timing because the last team you would want to test this question on is the Tom Brady led Patriots.
It’s is a damaging blow to the Jets and their defense, but it’s not one they can’t overcome. It’s not going to be easy, but the rest of the Jets defensive players aren’t exactly dummies.
“Brodney’s role really does not change this week. I think it’s between Eric Smith, James Ihedigbo, Kyle Wilson, Dwight Lowery, I think between all of them, we will kind of absorb the roles that Jim Leonhard would have played for us.” Pettine said.
But even if they all step up their game and hypothetically they play better without him (Lowery is expected to play coming off his concussion injury), this still decimates the depth for this, already shallow, Jets secondary.
It’s also important to realize that Leonhard is a vital part of the punt return team for the Jets (the eighth ranked punt return in the NFL), Ryan has repeatedly said he trusts Leonhard will always make the catch and right decision about how to go about returning the punt. With Leonhard out Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff said that they will still use the two deep safeties/returners on punts, but instead of Leonhard it will be some combination of Cotchery, Cromartie, Wilson and Westhoff said even Santonio Holmes has volunteered his services in the return game.
So no matter how you slice it, there is no silver lining hiding in this bad news, but if you are expecting Ryan or any of the players to think this will prevent them from reaching their goal you clearly don’t understand how this team thinks and operates.
“We’re going to find a way to get it done, and that’s what I’m banking on.” Ryan said, “Do I think we’ll win the game? Absolutely.”
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