Each team searches for the kind of player safety Jim Leonhard has become. A fundamental, cerebral safety, Leonhard is also a reliable option as a punt returner. With the Jets' recent ball-control struggles on special teams, Leonhard has been tabbed by head coach Rex Ryan as the Jets primary punt returner.
"The thing about Jimmy is we know how consistent he is," Ryan said today. "We haven't gotten any special teams turnovers this year and we've given away six. We can't have that."
With the weather turning cold and the wind becoming more unpredictable in the winter months, the Jets will turn to Leonhard and his sticky hands.
"We're more confident in Jimmy right now," said special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff. "He's more experienced. Right now, we're in such a fight that there's not much room for error. That's why we would go with him."
Leonhard and rookie WR Jeremy Kerley both fielded punts during today's practice, and the seventh-year man has been able to impart his veteran wisdom on the budding returner.
"It's a long season and things happen, both good and bad," said Leonhard. "You have to remember you're never as good as you think you are and you're never as bad as you think you are. You have to maintain your confidence regardless of what happened."
Confidence has been a driving factor in Leonhard's career. At 5'8" and 188 pounds, he does not fit the typical physical mold of an NFL player. Nonetheless, the undrafted safety out of Wisconsin is a key player for the Green & White.
"He's a quality starter for us, the quarterback of the back end," said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. "He does so much mentally for us, it's huge. Last year when you had the unfortunate injury, it took us a little bit of time to adjust to life without him."
In a case of unfortunate timing, Leonhard sustained a broken leg on the Friday before last year's Week 13 showdown with New England. With little time to prepare for the Patriots' aerial assault minus one of their defensive leaders, the Jets fell, 45-3.
After extensive offseason recovery and rehab, Leonhard returned to training camp in August wearing a sleeve over his surgically repaired leg. Shortly thereafter, he lost the sleeve and has shown no inhibitions on the field, torpedoing into ballcarriers and tallying 59 tackles through 12 games.
"I told Jimmy coming off the injury that we wouldn't need him" to return punts, said Ryan. "I even told his wife that we wouldn't use him back there. The other day I said to him, 'Have your wife call me.' "
Over his NFL career, Leonhard has evolved into the kind of player coaches can turn to when the road gets rough. It's a distinction he is proud of, and he does not take his job lightly.
"As a player, that's what you strive to do. If you need to settle the storm down, you can be that guy," he said. "It's something I've strived for my whole career, and the fact that I earned it here reaffirms the fact that I'm doing the right things."
Pettine believes players like Leonhard are indispensable and considers him one of the cornerstones of the Jets defense.
"You need guys like that, and you need them at every level of the defense," said the coordinator. "David [Harris] is that guy in the linebacker crew, Sione [Pouha] up front and [Mike] DeVito, when he's there. You have a chance to be pretty good when you have guys like that at every level."
A year removed from the devastating injury that ended his 2010 season, Leonhard is thrilled to have another opportunity to join his teammates on a playoff push. For him, that's what the game is all about.
"You never know how many chances you're going to get," he said. "I've been fortunate to have chances the last three years to go deep into the playoffs. Right now we're not there but we're fighting. This is when it gets fun, when your backs are against the wall and you need a win. I've always loved this situation. I'm glad I have the opportunity again this year."