FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Mike Westhoff has seen enough footballs hitting the turf.
A league-leading six turnovers on returns, including one in each of the last four games, has the longtime New York Jets special teams coach fired up.
“I’ve led the league in a bunch of categories,” Westhoff said Thursday. “I haven’t led in this one yet. So, of course it bothers me. You know everything bothers me.”
Westhoff is a perfectionist in every sense of the word, tweaking his special teams unit every week to try to make it among the best in the league. That’s where it has been in nearly all of his 30 years coaching in the NFL, and that’s what makes the trend of miscues troubling to Westhoff.
“Trust me, I don’t like it,” he said. “Sometimes there’s things as coaches that you can control, some things that you can’t control. Sometimes, that’s very difficult to control. You work on it, you hope it doesn’t happen, but it happens. It’s frustrating for me, but at the same time, what do you want me to do? You’ve got to live with it, move on, hope that you’ve improved it and get better and better.
“That’s how you deal with it.”
Jeremy Kerley, Joe McKnight and Antonio Cromartie have each fumbled punts, while McKnight and Cromartie have also had miscues on kickoff returns. The other turnover came when a kickoff hit Garrett McIntyre’s feet and Miami recovered.
Both of McKnight’s mistakes have come in the last four games.
“Just a lack of focus on my part on the returns,” said McKnight, who leads the NFL in kick return average. “It’s not trusting your blockers or not concentrating on the ball, worrying about everything else around you. That’s all on me. We never did that last year.”
The latest mistake came in the Jets’ 34-19 win last Sunday when Kerley couldn’t hold onto a punt in the second quarter when a Washington player was knocked into him. The Redskins recovered and it led to a field goal that put them ahead 13-10 at halftime.
“He’s the only innocent person in the whole play,” Westhoff said of Kerley. “Deion Sanders couldn’t have caught that ball because he had a guy thrown right into his lap.”
Westhoff said someone missed their assignment on the play, but didn’t identify the player. It appeared Kyle Wilson missed a block on Niles Paul and then pushed him, sending him into Jim Leonhard — and both Paul and Leonhard smashed into Kerley.
“He had no chance to catch the ball and it’s a shame,” Westhoff said. “The absolute singularly most frustrating play I’ve had in a long time because we had it called exactly right, and 10 guys executed it exceptionally well. I think if he catches that punt, he’s going to run for a touchdown.”
While Westhoff absolved Kerley of any wrongdoing on the play and hasn’t lost confidence in him, coach Rex Ryan wants the sure-handed Leonhard returning punts. Leonhard has been the Jets’ primary punt returner during his three seasons in New York, but Ryan was hesitant about having him handle those duties full-time after coming off a broken leg last season.
“I told Jimmy coming off the injury, ‘Probably won’t need you,’ and all that stuff,” Ryan said. “I think I told his wife that, promised her. I had to go about it and say, ‘Hey, have your wife call me.’ It’s one of those things.”
Leonhard, who averages 10.1 yards on punt returns, said he never believed — “not for 1 second” — that he wouldn’t return punts again.
“My wife has let him hear it, she has let him have it,” Leonhard said with a grin. “She’s called him out on his lie, which is good. You have to do that, right? That’s how you keep people in check.”
With the switch to Leonhard, it’s a matter of trust — and not a shot at Kerley, who is also just back from a knee injury that sidelined him a few games. Leonhard has never lost a fumble in 81 punt returns and 49 fair catches.
“The thing about Jimmy is we know how consistent he is,” Ryan said. “I think Kerley’s going to be one of those guys. I really do. But right now with the way the winds are, the weather changes, I just have a lot of faith in Jim Leonhard. I know he can get it done.”
McKnight is recovering from a hyperextended right elbow, and would be replaced by Cromartie on kickoffs if he can’t play against Kansas City on Sunday. But, Westhoff doesn’t care who’s back there — he just wants the mistakes to end.
“It’s his passion and he takes everything very personal,” punter T.J. Conley said of Westhoff. “If we have turnovers or if he thinks he didn’t call the right return, he takes it personally and takes responsibility for it. It’s probably a lot of the reason he’s the way he is. I mean, he has an extreme will to succeed and win. He does anything he can to get that result, and that definitely rubs off on us.”
Notes: Ryan said the team will have the offense introduced Sunday, the first home game since QB Mark Sanchez was booed in pregame intros. “I’ll bet you he doesn’t get booed this time,” Ryan said. “He’s had two fourth-quarter wins.”
RG Brandon Moore (hip) and DL Mike DeVito (left knee) didn’t practice for the second straight day. DeVito is likely out, but Ryan is confident Moore will play. … Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer isn’t “threatened” by consultant Tom Moore being around the team the rest of the season. “I love having him around,” Schottenheimer said. “I hope he stays for a long time. That means we’re winning games and doing well.”
Will the Jets cut down on their mistakes when they face Kansas City?
(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.)