Of all the additions to the New York Jets this offseason, from LaDainian Tomlinson to Santonio Holmes to Antoio Comartie, not many pegged that free agent signing Lance Laury would perhaps have the biggest impact in the locker room. After all Laury, now entering his fifth year in the league, has just 49 tackles over the course of his NFL career. But Laury brought something with him, that special intangible. It might just take the Jets, a team who was one win away from just their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, to the promised land.
You see, Laury brought "cornhole."
Essentially a spin off of a boardwalk game, the idea behind "cornhole" is to toss satin bags the size of a hand into a sloping board with a hole cut-out near the very top, all from a distance of about five yards. It's a game popular among tailgaters and on the beach, but it nearly shuts down the New York Jets' locker room when defensive lineman Bryan Thomas brings the set-up out. The whooping and hollering began as the Jets anticipated things getting heated.
"Get this out of here!" defensive lineman Bryan Thomas yelled with a smile as he pushed and kicked a cart for laundry out of the way to set up the game.
Pretty soon, the screams of Thomas and Laury facing off in cornhole are taking over the locker room. As defensive tackle Sione Pouha wanders back and forth in attempt to throw off Thomas' aim, the usually quiet D'Brickashaw Ferguson meanders across the open locker room to watch the events unfold and smile. It's all part of a Jets' locker room that has gotten very tight.
"The guys here really like each other and spending time with each other," said veteran fullback Tony Richardson, who has suited up for three NFL teams during his 16-year career. "We had some tight teams when I was in Kansas City but this is special."
Richardson notes that this Memorial Day weekend, a number of the Jets will be getting together for picnics and cook-outs at each other's homes. The players genuinely like each other and collectively to a man use the word "vibe" to express what they have going on. The credit, Richardson says, goes to the organization for letting this happen.
In an era of free agency, Richardson says that there is a lot of turnover in the typical NFL locker room. This can lead to alienation or a lack of camaraderie among teammates. While the media has focused on all the new additions to the Jets this offseason, Richardson was impressed with how few changes there were to the roster, thus producing this tight-knit feeling. Big names were added, but the core remained.
Then of course, there is head coach Rex Ryan, who admitted to the media last fall that he cried in front of his team following a loss.
"Rex is definitely one of the guys," Richardson said. "He's one of us out there, playing with us, talking, jawing a bit."
The game of "cornhole" continues, despite the fact that defensive end Shaun Ellis knocked all the bags off the board. Players stand to the side, laughing at the bad throws and cheering others on. It is clear that Ryan has won the battle for their hearts and minds.
But for a head coach to get the kind of respect and admiration that Ryan has achieved in just his first year in the league is impressive. Coming off the Eric Mangini years where the players often filed into the locker room without saying a word, this free flowing river of smiles is a welcome change. It is also unique.
"What we have here is special," said offensive lineman Brandon Moore. "Winning has that effect on you, but you feel close among this group. We all know each other, we've all been through a lot, but we know that we're there for each other."
This is Laury's first set of offseason workouts with the Jets after signing his free agent contract with New York this past winter. He immediately noticed the "Rex Effect."
"He's in tune with his players, he knows them and I think he cares for them," Laury said. "Some players don't even get to know their head coaches at all. That's not the case here."
Ryan takes a fair amount of kidding from his players, who seemingly vie for his attention when they're on the field like puppies wanting treats. At the same time, he sticks his neck out there to get razzed on and teased, although the collar on that neckline might be shrinking a bit.
As part of the team's offseason training and conditioning program, Ryan has entered a weight loss contest along with defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and offensive lineman Damien Woody. The participant with the highest loss of body fat is the winner and the team has been sending out updates in the locker room on the competition. The rather rotund and well-rounded Ryan realizes it's an opportunity to not just inspire his team to shed a few pounds, but also to poke fun of himself.
And it got the team talking favorites and making odds on who will be the biggest loser.
"I dunno, they're all big," said linebacker David Harris.
Linebacker Jamaal Westerman went with his teammate on the defensive side of the ball, Kris Jenkins.
"Jenkins told me he got an ab right now, a single ab muscle" Westerman said of Jenkins, who last season weighed a crisp 360 pounds. "I got to go with Jenkins and his ab."
No one in the locker room thought Ryan had much of a shot, mainly because the life of a coach doesn't lend itself to as much calorie burning as that of a player. Put down defensive back James Ihedigbo as one of those predicting a Jenkins win, but he has some advice for his coach.
"I don't know, he puts in long hours and works here throughout the night, that's a lot of potential time to be snacking," Ihedigbo said. "He needs to make healthy choices. I don't know if it's true, but I heard he is a big crackers and peanut butter kind of guy. You can't be doing that coach, you need to pick up some fruit."
But a little peanut butter isn't bad, right? After all, it is protein packed.
"It's not a little bit," Ihedigbo said. "It's a full dip."
Ihedigbo then made a large, swooping scooping motion with his hand.
But talk like this is part of the fun of being a Jet these day, the hot team in New York City right now and perhaps even in the league. A team that once was run into the ground during the Mangini tenure is now suddenly happy to be winning and happy to be together.
"If you're going to spend all this time together, you want to enjoy it," Bryan Thomas said after coming out of the wrong end of another "cornhole" contest with Laury. "You want it to be fun and that's what we have right here, right now."
Kristian R. Dyer covers the NFL for FoxSports.com and Scout.com. He can be reached for questions, comments and crude remarks at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012
Want more in-depth coverage on your favorite NFL team? Click here and get started today.