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Training camp punches could be dealing early knockout blow to Jets' season

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The Jets have been pretty physical during camp, frustrating coach Rex Ryan. (US Presswire)  
The Jets have been pretty physical during camp, frustrating coach Rex Ryan. (US Presswire)  

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- As New York Jets owner Woody Johnson made his first media appearance of training camp, literally while he was downplaying Monday's fight, and opining about how mild it was, unbeknownst to him fisticuffs were nearly breaking out on the field again.

For a staff that seemed to be oblivious at times to its ongoing locker room strife in 2011, this scene may serve as a foretelling metaphor for what is to come in 2012. The first skirmish of Tuesday's morning session caused coach Rex Ryan to halt practice immediately and excoriate his team. It was actually tepid compared to what was to come mere minutes later when cornerback Antonio Cromartie was at the center of an outburst between the offense and defense that had players and coaches scurrying around the field and made Ryan irate.

Practice was halted for 10 minutes as Ryan lashed out at his team and sent them to the sidelines for taking the physical play too far. Then he put them through 11 gassers (to no one's surprise, Tim Tebow ran each lap the fastest) and huddled them up for another tongue lashing for not protecting each other, for being immature. He couldn't understand a second day of unnecessary barking and violence and he reminded his players how one selfish individual can rot a team.

Then, of course, the coaches and players largely tried to pooh-pooh the significance of it all after practice. But make no mistake, this wasn't normal, and these Jets (now powered by Tebow!), under this media microscope, and after years of their self-propelled bluster and bombast, are no normal story. Another day, another drama. And so it goes.

The response of the coaches on the field told the real story. Ryan's visceral reaction, the angriest many here had ever seen him, revealed their concern, and while it's too early to think about a season on the brink, if this splintered group is truly using the camp experience to bond as one, well, they certainly have a strange way of showing it.

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"Being physical is one thing; going past that is something else," Ryan said. "I had to remind the guys that the enemy is not in green and white."

The components here are combustible. Santonio Holmes, a central figure in the fragmentation of 2011 -- a season that began with Super Bowl boasts and ended without a playoff appearance -- is injured and was riding a stationary bike while the battle royales played out, but he's a candidate to create a back-page story at any given press conference. Cromartie, who was screaming profanities and struck tight end Dustin Keller ("Cro was wrong in that situation," Ryan said), remains a lightning rod. Darrelle Revis, to some the best defensive player in football, is unhappy about his contract.

And amid all of this, a year after his play waned and his leadership skills were challenged, Mark Sanchez must try to take the reins of Camp Chaos and assert his will on the team ... all the while with the most popular, and polarizing, backup quarterback in the history of the world nipping at his heels. Add in a leaky offensive line and a running game that failed in 2011, and all the national media attention, and you have the makings for a series worthy of Bravo (The Real Dysfunctional Football Players of New Jersey? The Fightin' Jets?).

Should the Jets rally and regain their spot as AFC contenders, then, well, all of this camp fodder will be forgotten. They were just being aggressive. Boys will be boys. That's football.

But if this season goes anything like the last, well, the storylines won't go away. The team was out of control from the get-go. The players bucked discipline. The discord was apparent before they even played a preseason game. That's a lot to have hanging over any team, much less this one. Ryan isn't buying any of that, but he did concede that while past camps may have been more physical, he has never had to go to these lengths to intervene.

"It needed to be done," Ryan said of his comments to the players and subsequent gassers. "I wanted them to understand I was serious about it."

As the players made their way off the field after three hours of work, they said all the right things. But just a day after the pileup that erupted during drills, the timing could not have been worse.

"We've got to take care of each other," defensive tackle Mike DeVito said.

"That little tussle was just uncalled for," rookie receiver Stephen Hill said of the back-and-forth with Cromartie, "but then we came back together."

Holmes chalked it up to the norms of training camp and all the hitting and the urge to begin playing other teams. "We're ready to hit somebody else," he said.

Safety Eric Smith said: "Rex knows we were not being good teammates right now. ... We're taking things further than we should. ... We're not protecting each other the way we should be."

All the while Johnson, just back from a trip to Isreal and on the pristine fields here at SUNY Cortland for the first time this summer, was sounding a tone of renewal. He didn't want to delve into the past and said he believes the future for this team is bright.

The Jets' owner is somehow surprised by the focus on Tim Tebow at camp. (US Presswire)  
The Jets' owner is somehow surprised by the focus on Tim Tebow at camp. (US Presswire)  
Some are wondering what a lost season might mean for the future of Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum, but Johnson said he is a bigger supporter of Ryan now than when he hired him ("He's maturing," Johnson said). He guaranteed the Jets would be sold out for the season and defended the move for Tebow (which involved parting with more than $2 million on top of the draft compensation just to assume the contract).

"I think Tebow is going to be a very valuable part of the team moving forward," Johnson said.

He did, however, allow for the fact that the daily (hourly?) media coverage of the No. 2 QB/gadget guy/personal protector on the punt team was somewhat mystifying.

"The enormity of the coverage kind of surprised me," he said, though a few phone calls to the Broncos could have prepared him for the oncoming barrage had he underestimated it this offseason.

President Obama's remarks that he would feel "pretty nervous" about the Jets' quarterback situation even brought a chuckle to the owner, a noted Republican. "The fact that he's a Jet fan, and he cares ... it's a positive," Johnson quipped.

From a branding and marketing perspective, the fact that the President would even be in a situation to comment on the Jets, long the little brother to the Giants, and the constant attention the team generates is certainly progress. They have become one of the can't-miss stories of the NFL, and, win, lose or brawl, they are rarely boring.

So they have all of that going for them. Johnson has helped them become much more relevant and they secured their future with a glistening new stadium and they are not that far off from co-hosting a Super Bowl. It's not like all is lost here, not by a long shot.

But there is also plenty of cause for alarm. There are legitimate questions about whether this club has already peaked, about its age in some key spots, about its chemistry and general feelings for one another, and about whether any of the quarterbacks on this roster are equipped to lead a team deep into the postseason.

In the meantime, players say the pugilism is behind them.

"I bet we don't have one tomorrow," Smith said of the fights.

Hmm. I don't know. Maybe I should have asked him for some odds.


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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