It was safeties first and foremost at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center today in the wake of head coach Rex Ryan's decision to elevate Eric Smith to one of the starting safety positions ahead of Kerry Rhodes on Sunday against Carolina.
"Kerry's still starting in a lot of our groups," said Ryan in his first comments on the story that broke late Tuesday. "This is just something where you have to make some decisions that you think are in the best interests of the football team. The particulars, I'm not really going to get into. Kerry Rhodes has been a pretty darned good player in this league. Do I expect more of Kerry than what we're getting? I would say that's a true statement. He probably expected a lot more of himself this season."
Rhodes, who has started all 75 regular- and postseason games the Jets played since he joined them as a fourth-round draft choice out of Louisville in 2005, reminded reporters that he's not being benched, but he said his "repurposing" was a blow to his ego.
"It's a humbling thing, sure, for a player like myself who's done a lot for this team and done some things in this league," he said during this afternoon's media availability period following Ryan's news conference. "Yeah, I'm embarrassed. I have a lot of pride. It's one of those things where you don't want to be in this situation, but it is what it is right now. You've got to learn from it and move on."
Smith, the fourth-year man who had 10 starts in 2007 and '08, said he's ready to do what's asked of him and there is no awkwardness for him and Rhodes with the change in roles.
"We're teammates," Smith said. "Things like this happen all over the league. You see it every week. It's only awkward if you make it. We're both good friends. We know it's something they're trying to change up, maybe get something done on defense a little differently."
Ryan was asked about his assessment of a few weeks back that Rhodes was playing "pretty well."
"If you're playing pretty well and all that, I think that's probably a true statement," the coach said. "I think when you're capable of playing better than that, maybe that's where the issue is."
The issue might be contained in two words: "big plays."
"I thought I was doing OK," Rhodes said, adding, "I haven't made the big plays I have before."
He had been a ballhawking safety in his first four years with 12 interceptions; this season he has none. Also in those first four seasons, he had six forced fumbles and four recoveries; this season, none of either. From 2006-08, he had 8.0 sacks, the most by an NFL defensive back in that span; this season, none.
Jim Leonhard, Rhodes' new teammate this season in the deep middle, said he felt that Rhodes had been pressing this season trying to come up with that field-changing, game-winning kind of play.
"He's used to making big plays. He's done that in this league and that's just the type of player he is," Leonhard said. "I can tell you he's been frustrated the last couple of weeks,"
Ryan said he felt it was "time to do something, time to react."
"One thing I want you to understand is I'll do what's in the best interests of our team. And this is sometimes hard to accept, but I think I'm doing it in the best interests of Kerry as well," he said. "I know how much it hurts him, how much he wants to be out there with his guys. Sometimes more than money, more than anything else, you take something away from somebody, there's only two ways to react. And I'm banking on Kerry Rhodes and how he's going to react."
How long might this new safety realignment continue? Rhodes said, "It can be a couple of days, it can be a game — I don't know." Smith agreed with the unknown nature of the situation.
"I think it all depends on how it goes in the game," Smith said. "If I play well and do what I'm supposed to do, then we'll see for next week. If I'm in there not performing to the level I need to be, then we could see him coming back."
Ryan didn't see the latter as a likely outcome against the Panthers.
"I think Eric Smith is a good football player," he said. "I think he'll make a good account of himself."
One of the themes to reporters' questions today was if this was one of those moves to shake up a Jets team that had lost six of seven to fall to 4-6. Opinion among the principals involved was mixed. Ryan said no. Smith said, "I wouldn't say that."
Rhodes' vote was a maybe: "I'm a guy that's looked upon to do a lot of things for this team, I'm a guy that makes a little money as well ... so maybe."
Leonhard was leaning toward the "no" side of the ballot.
"I don't necessarily feel we're at that point in the season. We need to win a football game, we need all the best players on the field," said Leonhard, who remains in good shape after playing the entire New England game with his injured thumb.
"We realize what's at stake. We're all professionals. We understand this game and everything that goes into it. So I don't necessarily think he needs to send that message. It's a decision that Rex feels is for the best interests of this team to make a chance, and as players we have to back that."