By Ernie Palladino
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As baseball enjoys its annual midseason slumber, aka the All-Star break, with neither team mounting a particularly meaningful surge upward, it’s a good thing the latest installment of football’s soap opera is moving right along.
The Jets starting quarterback competition between Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith begins in a couple of weeks up at SUNY Cortland, though by all accounts Smith has fired the first heavy salvo without even throwing a pass. Actually, he took a pass — on the incumbent’s fourth annual Jets West camp.
Invited to participate in Sanchez’s own team-building, morale-building week in sun-drenched Mission Viejo, Ca., the cocky second-round pick opted to continue hanging out in Florida.
Sanchez wasn’t annoyed by Smith’s absence, at least publicly. But let’s make no mistake here. This is not some overblown little snippet the media latched onto to add another layer of controversy to an already juicy competition. This is a direct slap to the face of the incumbent from a kid who has yet to take a pro snap.
It’s Smith figuratively swatting Sanchez off his shoulder like some bothersome fly.
It could turn into Smith’s biggest mistake. Not because it’s going to set him back in learning Marty Mornhinweg’s West Coast system, but because the teammates who did show this year and in the past at Jets West undoubtedly expected Smith to act like one of the guys. In eschewing a week of bonding that old veteran Mark Brunell and last year’s anointed game-changer Tim Tebow thought useful and, perhaps, even informative, Smith set himself off.
Smith passed up the opportunity to fashion himself as a young leader. Real leaders learn first how to follow, how to relate, how to respect. For all of Sanchez’s flaws — anyone who has followed him the last two years knows they are many — few have challenged his competitiveness. Confidence, yes, but the guy wants to win, and he wants his teammates to do well.
Smith seems concerned only with taking Sanchez’s job. That will shake out in training camp, certainly. But even if he wins that competition, he must also worry about taking the locker room along with him.
He still has plenty of time to develop a rapport with his skill players. But one has to think that the fellows who flew out to SoCal to commune with Sanchez are going to remember this. New backfield addition Chris Ivory and new tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. cleared their calendars for it. Veteran tight ends Jeff Cumberland and Konrad Reuland thought it beneficial enough to show, as did young veteran receivers Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill.
In all, 11 skill position players showed up for some extra field work with a quarterback who wants to revive his career in the worst way. But Sanchez couldn’t draw a hot-shot rookie thrower whose attitude and immaturity put off several teams leading into the draft.
Sanchez may well have come to the end of his days in green, may never escape the long shadow of last year’s “butt fumble.” But at least he’s trying. Even Winslow, who has seen hard times himself, was impressed with Sanchez’ leadership and classroom presence.
Those players don’t know about Smith. A second-rounder would not have taught, but he would have absorbed. And he would have related.
Instead, he chose to stay away in such a fashion that his absence could not be regarded as anything but disrespectful to his training camp competition.
If that’s how he wants to play it, all well and good. But players remember. He’ll have to mend more than one fence when the dorms open up in Cortland.
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