Jets Letting Kerry Rhodes Roam, One Last Time

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Quick trivia question. Until the start of this season, who was the longest tenured and starting player on the Jets defense?

Easy one right? Shaun “The Dean” Ellis.

Here’s a harder one, who was the second longest player for this Jets defense?

Would you believe it was Kerry Rhodes?

Hard to believe isn’t it? Since joining the team in 2005 as a guy who came to safety late after playing some quarterback at Louisville, all Rhodes did was work his way into not only a quality starting safety for the team, but an impact player. Ironically, he wasn’t the safety drafted that year that everyone expected to come out of camp with a job, initially it was hard hitter and fifth rounder Andre Maddox, whom legend tells Parcells with the Cowboys at the time, called the Jets front office after the pick, congratulating them on stealing his guy.

Humble Beginnings to Lofty Heights

As a fourth rounder, his play in his early seasons increased his notoriety among Jets fans, until he became something of a well-kept secret. In just his second season, Rhodes put together Pro Bowl numbers, but didn’t have the reputation to carry him to Hawaii. That coming offseasn, while Rhodes was working for it on the field, he got more savvy about PR, maybe as a means to help bridge the gap of his play and his Q Score. The dashing Rhodes — who had wanted to be an actor anyway — was working to increase his reputation away from the field as well, he’d started working with a PR agency that helped him get some publicity through acting, public appearances and even a few well-placed nights out on the town with female celebs. In no time, Rhodes was rubbing shoulders with Jamie Foxx and other celebs that more fit with his “Hollywood” nickname.

Still, after just one year with gaudy numbers for the football punditry, it really wasn’t until 2007 that things really kicked up for the young safety. Peter King named Rhodes #29 on his Top 500 players in football list, during 2007 and by the end of that year, the safety had put together the following impact numbers between 2006-2007: 23 passes defensed, seven sacks, five forced fumbles and nine interceptions. Not bad for a guy who starts as far away from the ball as possible.

moss.jpgOr was supposed to be. As much as Jonathan Vilma was a help to Rhodes discipline, work ethic and film study, it was his inability in the 3-4 that allowed him to be the fourth and a half linebacker for the team, which helped him register all those impact plays. Without Vilma and with Harris and now Jenkins, his helpfulness up front was limited. 2008 was a down year for many reasons and Bent addressed them stellarly in this analysis last January.

Brett Favre’s play down the stretch deflated the team, and most of the team felt disconnected to their coach and Rhodes was not immune. To boil it down though, the biggest cause for Rhodes’ decline was threefold (1) he was a victim of his own success (teams looked away from him) and (2) while the personnel improved ahead of him they declined in his unit (Lowery & Elam – with respect to Revis), and it (3) limited how they used him in their scheme (cover help only).

A Clean Break and Expectation Station

With the firing of Eric Mangini and the hiring of Rex Ryan, the Ed Reed comparisons couldn’t come surface quick enough, from everyone involved: the coaching staff, his teammates the press, the fans and even Rhodes himself:

Rex Ryan at his first presser:

Ed Reed is a great example. Ed Reed and Kerry Rhodes. I’m excited to see and coach Kerry. Ed has a reputation of being a freelance guy, but Ed plays in the structure of our defense and whether you want to believe it or not, it’s the case. We’ll let him know where the traps are, we’ll set traps and all that, and the thing that Ed did is take advantage of the opportunities that he got and that’s something that we’ve got to understand. It’s not just one guy doing his own thing out there. It’s all 11 doing what we’re supposed to be doing and doing it in a fashion where it’s physical and aggressive always.

Representative press quote from SI:

the most intriguing part of the new-look Jets, though, could be the secondary. Leonhard was the perfect complement to Baltimore’s Ed Reed, who finished 2008 with nine interceptions. Expect Jets safety Kerry Rhodes to see an increase from his two interceptions in ’08. The over-under starts at four picks. Take the over.

“We’ve got a free safety [Rhodes] that’s a ball hawk and, to me, the best corner in football,” Ryan said of Darrelle Revis. “That’s a pretty good starting point.”

Calvin Pace after Ryan’s first presser:

“I guess you look at it like who are you going to be in that defense. I’m looking at Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs,” Pace said of the Ravens’ outside linebackers. “Which one of those guys am I going to be? I would guess Kerry [Rhodes] would be happy because you see Ed Reed making the plays that he makes. Hopefully we all can mold into what those guys have done.”

Kerry Rhodes after Ryan’s first presser:

“Ed Reed is a special player, but it’s the way he’s used,”

“He has a guy next to him he can trust, so he can take chances and freelance. That’s the most important thing to me. If the coaches have confidence in the guy next to me, I can go out and make as many plays as Ed Reed.”

The same Ed Reed who was an All-Pro safety for the Ravens. The same Ed Reed who was pedigreed at “The U” and led a pro quality defense while he was there, and had been now doing for the better part of a decade. The same Ed Reed, who had been in the system for years, and who bought into it in full.

So with the the expectation that Ed Reed and Kerry Rhodes were valid comparisons starting on Day One, I think it came down to bad expectations all around. Everyone expected him to shoot out of a cannon Week One as Ed Reed, and it just never happened, for whatever reason.

While you see Pace mention Terrell Suggs … how come that didn’t stick like the Ed Reed comparisons? But Ed Reed stuck … maybe it was because the Jets drafted Bryan Thomas in 2002 when Ed Reed was drafted only two slots behind him? Were we in the press and we in the fan base (I consider myself both) making unfair comparisons? I don’t know … just a thought.

Irreconcilable Differences

Before you continue reading this, go back up and look at Rex Ryan’s quotes. In particular look at the quotes he makes on the structure of the defense, on buying in, and on physicality. With that in mind, think the way Rhodes played this past season. Now mix in Bent’s argument of what made him such an impact player in 2006.

in 2006 – arguably his most productive season – Rhodes was more of a strong safety, but ironically at times, it almost seemed that he had a “free” role, roaming the backfield, stepping up into the box or coming up to the edge at line of scrimmage. This enabled him to contribute in a variety of ways. It’s difficult to determine cause and effect, but the Jets were – on one hand – forced into using Rhodes in this way because Jonathan Vilma was so ineffective inside in the 3-4 and – on the other hand – able to use Rhodes in this way because Vilma was able to hold his own when he dropped back into coverage, which he did with more regularity as the season wore on, almost enabling Rhodes to operate as another linebacker. This is harder to scheme for because you never knew where he was coming from – or going to.

In his interview with us, Rhodes even mentioned his in his 2007 interview with TJB:

TJB: What do you enjoy doing most [in a defense]?

Rhodes: Me? Oh, I prefer to be in a zone. I like to cover when someone gets beat or who slipped coverage and I can provide help, it’s a good feeling. A funny story when I started with the Jets in my rookie year, Donnie Henderson asked me what I wanted to do. I told him, “Coach, let me roam!” Roaming is where I feel most comfortable.

Now think back to those quotes from Rex Ryan and how he phrased his comments. Ed Reed took great advantage of the opportunities allowed him, but it was within Ryan’s structure. I’m not saying that Rhodes went AWOL on that structure, I don’t think that’s the case at all, but I think that (as ironic as it sounds) confined in Ryan’s structure it didn’t play to his skill set. Rhodes isn’t by nature a “boat rocker” so while he tried to play within the system, I think his frustrations internally rose well before it boiled over to the press or Twitter or the like.

That then trickled down into other things like tackling. Rhodes can be a pretty convincing tackler, so what gave in 2009? It sure seemed like malaise to me. How Rhodes was used didn’t allow him to do what he does and likes best, which is to move up and back from the line of scrimmage, to jump routes … to be unpredictable. More often than not, Rhodes repeated what he did in 2008 under Ryan, which was to play centerfield. Rhodes was uncomfortable in his role in 2008, and told his coach so at that time.

… the frustration got to [Rhodes] around mid season, when he noticed “the plays weren’t coming my way.”

He requested a private audience with Mangini, who explained his reasoning behind the strategy. Rhodes declined to give the juicy details, but it seems obvious: With problems at right cornerback – rookie Dwight Lowery started the season and was replaced by graybeard Ty Law – Mangini wanted Rhodes to be a safety net, so to speak, providing deep help.

“Me and Eric talked because I wasn’t happy about it,” said Rhodes, who also had another sit down with Mangini late in the season when everything was crumbling.

Any such reprise in 2009 — which maybe it seemed like it was from his perspective — was unacceptable. While there might have been some similarities from the macro-level, Rhodes admitted that it was the micro-level that was where he felt he was failing in the scheme.

Last year, when he struggled, Rhodes chalked that up to the conservative defensive system run by Eric Mangini, who was fired after the season. Rhodes said he too often played like a center fielder, the last line of defense, minimizing his potential impact.

Ryan’s arrival was supposed to free Rhodes to roam and make the game-changing plays that safety Ed Reed made so often under Ryan in Baltimore in recent seasons.

“I’m not going to make excuses,” Rhodes said. “I have to play better. There are situations in this defense where I revert back to the old defense. We can be playing the same coverage, but little techniques will be different here and there. That is where you will revert back to what you’ve been doing for a while.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know for myself, when I’m not passionate about something from the larger perspective, I’m not that motivated when it comes to the details. Maybe it was the same for Rhodes here.

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Visible Cracks Emerge & Camelot Crumbles

With the lack of focus, the “revert[ing] back” as Rhodes put it, things crumbled. As I scanned news from the past year, some of the signs might have been there from the beginning of his time in this new defense, but maybe I just saw it as easily explained it as his adjustment to the new system.

Never one to give up long plays — and granted this was in an APRIL practice (practice?!) — Erik Boland reported in Newaday that Rhodes was out of position on a touchdown to Jerricho Cotchery stemming from Lito Sheppard blowing his coverage. Maybe that’s just one incident and unfair, but it sounds like Rhodes struggled early with the new scheme. Ryan even said so during training camp.

“I think he’s much more comfortable in the system now,” Ryan said about Rhodes recently in camp. “He’s working well with Leonhard. I definitely think he’s going to have a big year for us.”.

But despite any level of comfort in the system that Ryan ascribed to him, Ryan had a mind to use him in his structure, which just didn’t mesh with what Rhodes wanted and as he was relegated to a role that made him more of a help-mate to Darrelle Revis rather than the focus of the defense. As the season wore on, Rhodes seemed less interested in making the plays that were funneled to him, which culminated in the Patriots game in Foxborough where he was roundly criticized for allowing ball carriers to more or less run over him.

Rhodes was subsequently benched, and fought to make his way back onto the field as a starter. We all know how that went, so I won’t belabor the point, but it’s fair to say with the press asking him and Rex Ryan again and again about his status, it didn’t make smoothing over the issue any easier. Comments were eventually made to the press that were exactly what the press was hoping for, but didn’t help the relationships between player and coach.

Right after his benching though, Rhodes came out and intercepted two passes during the game against the Panthers, whether it was Jake Delhomme’s play (in large part it was) or whether it was the way the team used Rhodes in that game, whatever it might be … Rhodes had to have felt justified in his play after the benching. Rhodes then proceeded to chalk up three interceptions in as many weeks. Maybe in a way the benching stiffened his spine, proving to him that it didn’t matter how much or how little they played him, he was the playmaker he always knew he was.  They just weren’t using him the right way.

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Tragic Ending

It’s hard to know what’s the story behind the story, but a talented starting player in his prime doesn’t get traded for no reason. I do think that Rex Ryan saw the situation wasn’t working (thus the benching) and I do think that Kerry Rhodes, already trying to fit into a system not suited to him, felt slighted by the benching and was looking to be in a place where he’d be the star piece in a defense — be it in New York or otherwise.

In a break-up or whatever. When one side wants nothing to do with the other, or refuses to acknowledge the problem, as a third party it’s easy to side with the one wholly wronged. To me, the saddest and most tragic endings of broken relationships be it in movies, real life, whatever … are when both sides see there’s a problem and are trying to fix it yet they still end up irreparably broken.

I see that as the case here. Everyone had their reasons to move on, and to stay, and no one seemed able to fix it to stay together.

Rhodes expressed uncertainty, staged a mini-revolt after his benching, but in the end, checked his ego and worked to correct his play down the stretch. Similarly, Ryan tried to reach out to his safety on a personal level. According to Rhodes, he was in constant contact with him to try and work though the issues. Ryan even attended his fundraiser at the Short Hills Mall right before Christmas.

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It seemed like whatever damage was done, could be worked through in time … it heals all wounds, doesn’t it? But this is the NFL, and time isn’t something that anyone seems to have much of.

In the end, the dog-years that govern all players, coaches and general managers, seemed to weigh heavily on the decision of what to do, and it seemed best for both sides to move on and seek a situation that was best for all parties. Ryan gets to hand-pick his new safety, and Kerry gets to play with Donnie Henderson again, a coach he asked five years ago to let him roam.

It’s time to roam, Kerry.