Despite the sporting world being dominated by sensible statistics, I find that ultimately, knee-jerk reactions, narrow-minded perceptions, and scapegoat creation determines the grand athletic totem pole. Unfortunate, yes, but true.
Like anything else in life, labels are difficult to transcend once they have fully fastened. In an increasingly simplified analytical landscape, these generalizations become extremely familiar. For example, there’s the “big game choker” label. Yeah, Peyton Manning could never win a big game, until he did. Tony Romo quickly became a worthy heir to this throne. Across other sports, the “choker” designation has been applied to countless victims, including Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who allegedly had never recorded a postseason hit… before this October, of course. The big game choker label is really handy because it allows for the criticism of even elite caliber players, so long as that player has not won a title. In this wacky world, Trent Dilfer had a better career than Dan Marino. Huh?
Though coaches and talent evaluators must pay little mind to these fickle whims, the impatience of the masses can produce very real effects, including increased pressure on the targeted performer.
Is it fair?
Of course not, but sports is an unbalanced reality anyway, bound to spur illogical reactions.
Last night provided the perfect opportunity for another failure of reason: the ideal scenario for an overreaction. The subject involved was Kellen Clemens, the Jets’ backup quarterback. Clemens lost a battle for the starting position with Mark Sanchez in training camp.
Clemens’ Jets career has taken a rudderless path. Drafted as the successor to physically fragile incumbent Chad Pennington, Clemens received one legitimate shot at consistent playing time, struggling as a first time starter with the 2007 Jets. It was a team with a very weak offensive line, so terrible in retrospect that even Thomas Jones had a disappointing, aberrational campaign. Playing under these conditions, Clemens did not shine, unable to secure the job. He showed flashes, nearly finishing an incredible comeback on the road against Baltimore, undone by key Justin McCareins drops. But overall, Clemens had not shown enough, and was a forgotten man after the acquisition of Brett Favre, pushed even further out of mind when Mark Sanchez was drafted. Clemens still had his share of supporters among the fan base, but there wasn’t exactly mass indignation when Sanchez was announced victor in August. Ultimately, Clemens lost the contest because he made rookie mistakes. Though his command of the offense was impressive, and there were moments of perfect rhythm during training camp drives against the defense, Clemens’ inconsistency made the decision obvious. If a quarterback were to be developed for the Jets in 2009, it may as well have been the first round pick, not the stopgap. “You improve more by being out there,” said Clemens at the team complex today. “There is no substitute for live bullets. There is a lot of growth that can come from sitting back, from learning, from watching, but there is no substitute for being out there in live action and I think that’s where I think a lot of the development comes to young QBs and you have to have that to continue to improve.” The Jets understandably preferred to grant Sanchez that opportunity right away, casting their lot with the freshman, instead of Clemens.
The fall of Clemens was not uncommon in a League that often plays quarterback roulette. The signal caller of the future can become yesterday’s news with a few bad games, which is pretty much what happened to Clemens. And hey, he did cede pole position on the depth chart to a rookie. Obviously there are weaknesses in his game. But the perception of Clemens dropped to an unreasonable level, the abyss really, with just a few sloppy snaps against the Bills last night. After Mark Sanchez injured his knee, a cold Clemens arrived on the field. He took a few sacks, overly cautious with the football, obviously leery of throwing an interception. As the seconds ticked away, the Jets seemed content to play it ultra-conservative, certainly a sensible strategy. Clemens would fumble a snap, and be separated from the ball deep in his own territory after being drilled from his blindside. The Jets recovered. He appeared uncomfortable, falling over his own feet on one play. Protecting a lead in a game the Jets desperately needed to keep their playoff aspirations alive, Clemens did little to inspire confidence. In fact, he probably downright petrified a fair amount of Jets fans. The assessment of his performance after the win was downright brutal in some quarters. Even his staunchest fans abandoned their defenses.
Jeff Garcia was bandied about as a possibility in the event of a long term Sanchez injury, which, while not an unreasonable idea by any means, would have been very unlikely at this late juncture of the season.
I am not calling Kellen Clemens an outstanding quarterback. But I will argue that it is the perception of Clemens, not the reality of his performance; that is causing this extremely harsh backlash. And a fair assessment of performance includes a consideration of circumstances. Consider the difficulty of establishing tempo off the bench in the second half. Consider the dysfunctional team he was piloting when compiling the bulk of an admittedly poor statistical profile.
If the Jets decide on a cautious route with Mark Sanchez, opting to give Clemens a shot versus Tampa Bay, it does not necessarily equal doom. Far from… Right now the perception of Kellen Clemens is in the tank. But as previously outlined, these things can change quickly. It has before. It will again. Clemens may not deserve the benefit of the doubt. It remains to be the seen. Maybe we will see. Until more evidence is presented, freaking out is a reactionary waste of time.
Rex Ryan had his daily press conference, revealing plenty of noteworthy news:
The first order of business was obvious. What was the status of Mark Sanchez? “We’ll start (with) the MRI,” said Ryan. “We got the news back on that. Mark (Sanchez) has a sprained PCL. We’re optimistic that he’ll be ready to play against Tampa Bay, but we’ll see how he progresses throughout the week. Obviously, that’ll be a decision that I’ll have to make with advice from our medical staff. I’ll make the decision that is always in the best interests of Mark and any player in that situation and then the team second. That’s how we’ll progress. We’ll see how he is through the week. It was encouraging news.”
Ryan was happy with the win, but acknowledges the other issues surrounding his team: “It’s two wins in five days. It kind of doesn’t feel like it because we’ve had other issues come up, namely Mark having the injury. It’s good that the Jets won their second game in a row.”
More on Sanchez:
The method of treatment: “They’ll put a brace on him initially to stabilize the leg a little bit. There is a real possibility that he won’t have to have that thing on for the whole season anyway.”
On the risk of re-injury: “We’ll never put a guy out there if we think he’s going to be in jeopardy. If he can’t protect himself, whether it’s Mark, a kicker, anybody, I would never put a guy out there that I don’t think can protect himself. We feel pretty confident about this. We’ll see how he progresses through the week. If we had to play today, obviously, he wouldn’t play. We think he’ll progress through the week and, hopefully, he’ll be ready to roll against Tampa.”
On speaking to Sanchez today, and the sliding issue: “No, I haven’t talked to him today. We just had a team meeting, but I have not talked to Mark specifically. Everything I mentioned is for the safety of him. I want him to be around a long time. My comments are because I care about him. I care about our football team. I care about him and I want him to be healthy. It’s been proved by some tough guys, (if) you don’t slide and you’re a quarterback, you get hurt. From Steve McNair, you name it, look around, guys get concussions, guys get ribs broke, and I don’t want that to happen to Mark.”
On Sanchez’s instincts: “It’s funny because right now, Mark’s instincts are to dive head first and not slide. That’s obviously what he’s more comfortable doing, but in the long run, he’s going to stay healthier longer by sliding. That’s all I’m trying to do is get his instincts to, “OK, I need to slide,” (even) if it means a public bashing by me, if you will. This is like one of my sons here. That’s how you approach it.”
Regarding Kerry Rhodes:
Rhodes is an interesting case. He was benched for the Panthers game and recorded two interceptions, but still had plenty of pine time against the Bills. The Jets may prefer Eric Smith in run situations. Smith was strong against the Panthers, but slightly less visible against the Bills, though he had a notable quarterback pressure, cracking Ryan Fitzpatrick on a blitz. Meanwhile, Rhodes’ suddenly passive tackling style remains a concern. Ryan had plenty to say about his former Pro Bowl safety today.
On using a variety of players: “Kerry was in a lot of the plays anyway, but I was trying to give Smitty (Eric Smith) a break. He’s playing on every special teams (unit). It’s funny because I heard, “Eric’s had 13 plays.” I’m like, ‘What! That’s it? We’re putting Kerry back in.’ We’re trying to use our players. This is a team. We’re going to do what’s best for our team. The more players you can play and have a bigger role, the better your team is going to be whether it’s putting (Jamaal) Westerman in, whether it’s putting big Howard Green in there. We’re going to do that. We don’t just have 11 good football players. We have several good football players. We’re trying to do that.”
On having Rhodes speak with Dennis Thurman: “Dennis Thurman, we’re fortunate to have a secondary coach that taught Ronnie Lott how to study opponents and film. He had a decent pupil in Troy Polamalu. He had another one in Ed Reed and Rod Woodson. He played a long time in this league as a tremendous player. Why anybody wouldn’t take advantage of that is beyond me. I don’t want Kerry Rhodes to be average. I want Kerry Rhodes to be great. If he has that ability and maybe I’m not quite seeing it, then I’m laying it out there to him. I want him to meet with Dennis Thurman.”
On Rhodes’ suspect approach in pursuit of Marshawn Lynch last night: “You want to take the proper angle. You want to get the guy down. When you’re the last guy, you’ve got to get them down anyway you can. It doesn’t have to be pretty. You’ve just got to get him down. You have to ask Kerry what he was thinking. I was thinking when I first saw it, I thought (Darrelle) Revis was going to strip the ball from him because the guy never saw Revis come back after he lit up T.O. (Terrell Owens) to come back in. I thought he had a strip opportunity and Revis was going for it. I don’t know that it had anything to do with it or not. Yes, I’d like to see him get him down as fast as he can, anyway, anyhow.”
Praising the Big Cat
The season best performance of Shaun Ellis in Toronto did not go unnoticed by his coach. “He’s always been a playmaker,” said Ryan. “Obviously, he’s been an outstanding player here for a long time. He still plays young. I love the passion he plays with. He had the two sacks and had big time production there, but the best play he made was on a screen pass. He comes in and two guys trip him up. He’s actually on the ground and he gets up, runs down and makes a key stop on a third-and-long situation. The guy is going to get the first down if he doesn’t hustle like he did. He still plays like a young man. He’s gives great effort. He’s always hustling and he’s always productive.”
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