By Kristian Dyer
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It is just OTAs, but New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan sent the wrong message on Thursday when he took his team bowling instead of onto the field.
The complaint is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, and when stacked against what he has done for this franchise — including giving a confidence facelift to the entire organization — Ryan’s decision on Thursday to forgo the final session of OTAs and take the team bowling is minor. For sure, there are moments when team building is important and perhaps more crucial to a locker room than anything that happens on the field.
But for a head coach who was criticized last year for taking a team trip to Dave & Buster’s instead of holding the regular meeting at the team hotel prior to a loss at the Buffalo Bills, it was a bad choice. In fact, it was the wrong choice. The tenth day of OTAs may not be as crucial as minicamp or training camp or the regular season, but in this new collective bargaining agreement, it is a rare chance to improve as a team and continue to work on continuity. Team building has its place, but the wrong message was sent with this decision.
Earlier this week, nose tackle Kenrick Ellis said that this incarnation of the team “believes that doing the little things right can lead to big things.” It’s true. Failing to take OTAs seriously is a disconcerting choice from management and the coaching staff. Sure, it is just OTAs, and the real stuff doesn’t begin until minicamp next week
That this has been done before, including a paintball trip, doesn’t matter. This is a team with higher expectations than last year and one that is trying to instill a new mindset of competition. Bowling won’t help the Jets end a Super Bowl drought that is closing in on five decades.
On Wednesday in his opening statement, Ryan praised his team’s effort and called the OTA session an “excellent” one. But he also said that some of his players “are spinning a little bit.” That’s the spin he should have been worried about on Thursday.
It’s understood that Ryan is a player’s coach, and that’s why he’s such a valuable asset to this organization. He deserved that contract extension last year and deserves to be the Jets’ head coach this year. He’s grown as a man and he’s grown as a coach during his time with this organization. Players want to play for him, they respond to him. Free agents love his passion. They play for the man in a way that is rare in this league. But they are also football players, and the Jets forgot that on Thursday by taking them off the field.
This is a Jets team that can be good. It can be argued that last year’s 8-8 record made them a good team. There is potential on both sides of the ball, with good balance on offense and defense in terms of star power. Ryan remains one of the better coaches in the league, and his staff last year proved to be a very capable group. But this team hasn’t arrived yet, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.
It was work that surely didn’t take place on Thursday, that’s for certain.
Let’s make it perfectly clear: This matter shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. It was a misstep decision by the entire organization. Surely the players loved it, especially since bowling is much easier than the workouts and drills expected of them on the field. But that’s precisely why this should have been done after hours, not during the allotted time when a near-playoff team could have been putting together pieces for a run at the postseason.
On paper, the schedule is tougher. The offense still has plenty of work to be done. Wednesday’s OTA session showed some rough patches with quarterback Geno Smith, who looked a bit unsettled in the pocket. Perhaps this team needed that mental and physical break from OTAs.
Perhaps what they needed more was to be pushed on Thursday rather than go for strikes. And spare me the line that “it is just OTAs.” Yes, it is voluntary for players to participate, but that is not the message that should be sent from the organization in June.
The Jets haven’t arrived yet, although this certainly can be a playoff team this year. And it’s not a gripe over a minor detail. With minicamp here next week, the players in the locker room are likely already looking ahead to a vacation before training camp begins in late July. They should be putting in some work now instead of eating wings and having some team fun at the bowling alley.
There’s also the fact that for the 12 rookies drafted this year and the handful of undrafted rookie free agents — as well as the fringe players on the roster — missing a day of OTAs is one less statement they can make to the coaching staff that they deserve to make the trip to Cortland.
So while it is trite to say that OTAs don’t matter, that it is voluntary for players, doesn’t mean the organization should send a message that they simply aren’t important. Last year, following the Jets’ bye week — the team had beaten the Saints the week before the bye — Ryan made the decision in Week 11 to take his players out to a restaurant arcade rather than go over film and have a team meeting. So Saturday night in Buffalo, the team ate wings and played Whac-A-Mole rather than prep for their Week 11 game.
The result of that decision showed the next afternoon with a 37-14 Bills win. For the Bills, it was “Whac-A-Jet.”
That isn’t to equate the two decisions. Football in June is much different from Week 11 of the regular season. But it is dangerous turf the Jets trod here and a dicey message to send to a locker room that is still taking shape. They took their players off the field by choice this past week. It was voluntary on their part to do so. That’s just not right and not what this team needs to be doing right now if they want to be in the playoffs.
That Eric Decker chose to support his wife last week and missed OTAs to do so is one thing. That the organization voluntarily chose bowling over football is an entirely different matter, and clearly the wrong message to send at this time, with this team, with these expectations.
Yes, practice. We’re talking about practice here. It’s a little thing in the grand scheme, but it can lead to something bigger for this team — a team that is close to the playoffs.
Anyone who played a sport in high school probably had a T-shirt that read, “Champions are made in the offseason.”
It is a trite message, but a true one. It might not cost the team any games, but no one on the roster got better on Thursday morning by going bowling over practicing.
And that is no little thing.
Kristian R. Dyer writes for Metro New York and contributes to Yahoo! Sports as well as WFAN. He can be followed @KristianRDyer.
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