FLORHAM PARK: The smile grew wider and wider on the face of Leonard Williams. He admitted he hadn’t thought about it in just this way, but now his imagination was fixated.
Standing by his locker, the Jets rookie pictured a situation where he wasn’t a 6-5, 302-pound defensive end, but rather a quarterback. Now, would he want to line up under center and look across at a defensive front comprised of the DE-version of himself and Muhammad Wilkerson?
Eh, probably not.
And what if you then added in Pro Bowler Sheldon Richardson?
“No,” Williams said, his grin now ear-to-ear. “No I would not.”
Monday afternoon, the Jets defense finally resembled what Todd Bowles had hoped it would when he signed on to be the team’s head coach. Sure, the secondary looked no different at practice than it had through the first quarter of the season. But on the defensive front, Richardson’s presence made quite the difference.
Fresh off his four-game suspension following a positive test for marijuana, Richardson rotated in-and-out with Williams and Wilkerson for the first time since training camp. For the past month, he could do nothing more than watch film with his teammates. Any on-field work had to be done on his own.
As a result, just being on the practice field had Richardson straight giddy. During the team’s pre-practice stretch, he grabbed nose tackle Damon Harrison and danced him around.
“It was good, man, just getting back out there with my guys,” Richardson said. “The camaraderie, I missed that. Watching football isn’t my thing. It’s been real difficult, but I brought this on myself.”
While on the field Richardson has established himself into one of the game’s best 3-4 defensive ends —he was the NFL’s defensive ‘Rookie of the Year’ in 2013, a Pro Bowler in 2014 and has 11.5 career sacks in 32 games—his off-the-field life caught up to him this offseason. On July 2, he was suspended by the NFL for four games after his second violation of the league’s Policy and Program for Substance Abuse. Two weeks later, Richardson found himself in even more trouble.
On July 14, officers in Missouri noticed two cars that appeared to be “street racing.” According to the police report, one of the vehicles, which was driven by Richardson, was clocked at speeds of 122, 135 and 143 miles per hour. When officers attempted to conduct a traffic stop, Richardson’s vehicle attempted to avoid any such citation by driving off into a neighborhood.
Officers followed Richardson’s vehicle, and when he was pulled over, it was discovered that he wasn’t alone in the car. There were three other passengers, including a 12-year-old child. Underneath Richardson’s seat was also a loaded hand gun, and all in the vehicle smelled of marijuana.
While Richardson’s marijuana suspension was for the first four weeks, it was considered a very real possibility that he would be forced away additional time when an additional suspension, for the arrest in Missouri, was handed down. Just a couple months ago, Richardson said the potential for an increased sentence was a “dark cloud” over his head.
At least for now, those threatening skies have turned less gray and more blue. With the legal case ongoing —Richardson has pled not guilty— the defensive end will be back on the field when New York takes on the Washington Redskins (2-3) this Sunday.
“I was just trying to take care of my court issues, and I knew an adjustment was going to come after that,” Richardson said. “When (the court date) got postponed, I kinda figured I was gonna be in for this season.”
With Richardson back, the question now is just how the Jets plan on using him. In his absence, Wilkerson has been playing at an all-pro level, and Williams is coming off the best game of his young career. In a victory versus the Miami Dolphins, Williams recorded five quarterback hits and four quarterback hurries.
Speaking to the media, Bowles assured all that Richardson would “definitely” play against Washington, as would Williams and Wilkerson, but he didn’t have an answer for how much. It’s been quite some time since Richardson has played a meaningful game of football, thus the coach sees the need for him to get in “football shape.”
Bowles said it’s not realistic to think Richardson can go from sitting out a month, to playing 50-60 snaps. Eventually, he will be, but just not yet.
“You gotta get hit,” Bowles said. “Gotta get double-teamed, play double teams in-and-out. You gotta jump around blocks, use your hands and get used to the wear and tear body wise as opposed to just running around doing drills when nobody’s hitting you.
“You’ve gotta get hit from the side, chop-blocked, hit up top and do all of those things and still be able to play and practice with minor injuries.”
Bowles said the Jets wouldn’t be able to tell any of the above until Richardson plays a game, but as for Richardson’s teammates, how much he plays matters not compared to the fact he will.
Safety Calvin Pryor entered the locker room Monday, looked at Richardson and screamed “He’s back!” before telling the media “words couldn’t express” how much Richardson meant to the team. Williams, who has never played in a regular season game with Richardson, echoed the same sentiment.
“It’s great having him back,” Williams said. “He’s a great guy to be around, just his competitiveness is gonna push the rest of us to be great.”
And as for the message Richardson has for his teammates?
Well, it’s simple. But then again, he’s been saying it on repeat for quite some time now:
“I’m coming. That’s it, I’m coming,” Richardson said. “I told them, I’m coming to eat too.”