They stood on the sideline, helmet in hand, their gaze on the field at their teammates, their expressions not betraying whatever emotions they were feeling.
If their demeanor during what turned out to be a benching by Todd Bowles wasn’t discernible, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson shed no light on the situation after the game, declining to address the topic with reporters.
They should have been embarrassed and ashamed.
With the Jets teetering on the brink of elimination from playoff contention and the team needing the best efforts of every player, two of the most important leaders had to be disciplined by the coach because they were late to team meetings.
Bowles needed to send a strong message, and it was delivered in unmistakable terms. While this isn’t the first time that star players have had issues with getting to meetings on time — or getting to meetings at all — benchings are rare. Even benchings that last only 15 minutes.
Bowles is a congenial coach who trusts his players to do the right thing. But if you run afoul of him, you’ll pay a price. That’s what happened last year with linebacker Quinton Coples, a former first-round pick who was released after being benched. And that’s what is happening with Richardson and Wilkerson, who ought to know better and need to be accountable for their behavior.
Accountability is big for Bowles, and he expects his players to own up to their failures as much as he does.
“I haven’t done a good job,” said Bowles, who was 10-6 as a first-year coach in 2015. “We’re 3-6. I haven’t done a good job.”
Bowles knows that a coach is judged by his record and is responsible for everything that goes on in the locker room. If there is a perceived dysfunction, it will fall on him. And rightly so.
But one of the Jets’ most outspoken players and acknowledged leaders insists that’s not the case. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall called Bowles “a great head coach, he’s a great leader, he’s real, he’s transparent, he’s one of the best I’ve been around, and I’ve been around a few. I love playing for him, and I think that’s the sentiment throughout the whole building. As a player, I can say this from experience: It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Richardson and Wilkerson are known to be moody in the locker room, especially with reporters. While Richardson makes time for one-on-one interviews during the week, he often declines to be interviewed after losses, and even when he does group interviews, he offers snippy, one-word answers. Wilkerson regularly shoos reporters away from his locker, something that seemed to be related to the Jets’ initial unwillingness to give him a new contract. But the pattern has continued even after the team rewarded him with a five-year, $86-million contract that includes $53.5 million guaranteed.
Not that you should care about whether reporters get interviews with players. It’s what we do, and we put up with plenty of players who prefer not to deal with the media. But the churlishness of both players is opened up to scrutiny when you see that their issues aren’t limited to weekly interview sessions. When you see that they act in such a way that the coach believes he has to take them off the field — even for a short period of time — to get his message across, then you know there are other issues here.
Wilkerson faced a similar issue last year, when he was benched for the first quarter against the Giants, making it all the more troubling. Especially now that the Jets have so much money invested in him in the coming years. Bowles insisted that “Mo and Sheldon are fine” when it comes to their commitment to the team, and he declined to confirm or deny reports that both players are habitually late and that Wilkerson, according to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, missed a team meeting at which he was to be given a cake to celebrate his 27th birthday a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s just a coach’s decision,” he said. “Any decisions I make, outside of injuries and football, we usually handle in-house.”
But in-house turned into a very public situation when both players sat out the first quarter on Sunday.
With the season in tatters and with questions about how much longer Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the quarterback, this is the last thing the Jets needed. But if Wilkerson is going to be paid like a franchise player, he needs to start acting like one. He needs to be a better example to his teammates, especially the younger ones who look up to him.
Richardson isn’t doing himself any favors, either. He might be misbehaving himself right off the roster. There was speculation that the Jets were willing to deal him just before last week’s trade deadline, and with two suspensions on his resume, it’s a safe bet that general manager Mike Maccagnan will be looking to ship him out in the offseason.
Richardson is dreaming if he thinks he’s going to get a monster deal on his next contract, because any team that signs him will have to hedge its bets. His continually running afoul of the organization is mind-boggling, particularly given that he thinks he deserves a big payday.
He certainly has the talent to earn a lucrative contract, but his history of off-field issues, which include a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and one for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy after being charged last year with speeding and resisting arrest, will give pause to any potential suitor.
Because Richardson so often stretches the bounds of trustworthiness, the Jets certainly would be unwise to invest in a multiyear deal. In a league in which off-field behavior has become more of a consideration in signing players to huge contracts, Richardson is risking plenty of cash. Seven games to go, and plenty more to prove. Wilkerson and Richardson need to get the message and respond accordingly.