By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s about time the Jets held a player accountable.
And, no, I am not just referring to Quinton Coples, the 2012 first-round draft pick who Jets coach Todd Bowles cut last Monday following Gang Green’s fourth loss in five games.
Coples was picked up and activated by Miami in time for him to serve primarily as an innocent bystander in the Jets’ 38-20 rout of the Dolphins at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
While some Jets said afterwards that they felt Bowles “sent a message” to the team, especially after a story leaked that alleged Coples was involved in “an incident” on the flight home from Houston last week, I tend to believe Bowles. On Sunday he reiterated that it was purely a football move and had little to do with the Jets’ increased defensive effort against the inept Fish.
After all, how much of a difference did the jettisoning of a player who had seen his snap count dwindle each week make? It had become obvious that Coples, whose high draft selection was reportedly at former coach Rex Ryan’s insistence over the objections of others in the Jets’ war room, did not fit in Bowles’ schemes.
Coples was too slow in pass coverage as a 3-4 linebacker and was not getting to the quarterback consistently as an edge rusher. When the Jets went to a 4-3 base a few weeks ago, he was miles behind Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, both of whom play in all packages.
In my opinion, a more subtle maneuver by Bowles on Sunday made more of an impact. For the first time, he alternated linebacker Demario Davis with Erin Henderson by series.
Davis had rarely come off the field in the Jets’ first 10 games. According to sportingcharts.com, prior to Sunday he played in 659 out of the team’s 666 defensive snaps.
Not that Davis’ production this season warranted the every-down role. The fourth-year veteran was prone to missed tackles and coverage gaffes. Opposing running backs too often burned Davis for big plays in the passing game.
Bowles hasn’t revealed the tipping point. It could have been the trick play the Texans executed in the third quarter in which running back Alfred Blue was wide open in an area vacated by Davis on a pass from wide receiver Cecil Shorts III.
The Jets had signed Henderson as a free agent over the summer after the 29-year-old was released by the Vikings and sat out the 2014 season following two DUI arrests. In training camp, Henderson wasn’t even assured of making the Jets’ final 53.
But Henderson, according to Bowles, had been recently proving in practices that he was shaping into the form that made him the Vikings’ second-leading tackler two years ago while staying clean off the field.
“You earn your playing time around here,” Bowles said, when asked after the victory about rotating his linebackers. “Erin’s earned some playing time and he got some plays.”
Henderson was credited with five tackles and a pass defended as the Jets frustrated the Dolphins’ anemic attack until the game got out of hand late. Prior to Miami’s two garbage-time touchdown drives, the Jets defense yielded just 177 yards. Miami generated only three first downs in the first half and failed to convert on its first eight third-down attempts.
The relevant point is not to celebrate the 6-5 Jets’ decisive win over a team that — let’s face it — lacks offensive talent outside of wide receiver Jarvis Landry and had so many players go down on Sunday that I worried whether there were enough doctors in the house.
The larger picture is Bowles’ growth as a coach. I had heaped plenty of criticism on him during the Jets’ slump, some of which related to the apparent lack of accountability on the team.
I was not focusing on the quarterback position, the usual lightning rod for most fan conflicts. Ryan Fitzpatrick had been showing signs of regression by committing an excessive number of turnovers. It led to a vocal minority demanding that a change to Geno Smith was in order. But I submit that anyone who believes that Smith would reduce the team’s interception rate would also tell you to go to your car dealership to keep repair costs down.
Bowles, however, also happens to be responsible for the other 21 positions on the depth chart as well as special teams. And there were problems galore that had been figuratively pushed under the rug.
Antonio Cromartie was fossilizing before our eyes at cornerback. Rookie wide receiver Devin Smith seemed to be making a negative game-changing play every week. The ground game stalled, raising concerns about the running back rotation and the offensive line. The pass rush was inconsistent, the punt coverage unit too often wouldn’t even be in the picture upon the catch, and, yes, the offense was relying too much on Fitzpatrick’s arm.
Yet nothing was materially changing from week to week. Bowles wasn’t holding anyone accountable for poor performance.
Until the loss to the Texans.
Last week Bowles, who in his postgame remarks seems like he would rather eat sand than sandbag one of his players, wasn’t coy about his feelings regarding Devin Smith’s game.
“Our rookies have got to stop being rookies,” Bowles said. “They need to grow up. They get paid like everybody else and they’ve got to start acting like they’re not in college anymore.”
Bowles’ jolt paid off on Sunday as Smith held on to the two catchable balls thrown his way, including one that resulted in a 16-yard touchdown right before halftime that put the Jets up 14-0.
Players have to know that Bowles means it when he says that playing time is earned and not a divine right. Competition for jobs is not over after the exhibition season.
We’ll see if Bowles keeps up the pressure as the games increase in importance as it relates to postseason viability.
Bowles may have another area in need of upheaval before next week’s road game against the Giants: If Marcus Williams is healthy after injuring his knee on a first-quarter interception return and Darrelle Revis returns from his concussion, there’s no reason why Williams should automatically be benched in favor of Cromartie.
Player evaluations have to be an ongoing process.
The win over the Dolphins hopefully did more than just ensure that the Jets will be playing some meaningful games as the calendar turns to December. Maybe it’s evidence that Bowles is growing up on the job.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1