Commentary

Jets made right decision with Holmes

Woody Johnson made a risky deal for troubled WR, but it has paid off

Updated: January 20, 2011, 12:25 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- As Santonio Holmes spoke about the Pittsburgh Steelers at a nationally televised news conference, telling the world that he needs two more wins to complete his Pittsburgh payback, his boss watched with admiration on a flat-screen TV in another part of the New York Jets' training facility.

Owner Woody Johnson, who signed off on the trade last April, was impressed by Holmes' poise and honesty in front of the cameras, how he answered tough questions about facing his former team Sunday for the AFC championship. It was a feel-good moment for Johnson, who took a calculated risk by dealing for Holmes and the off-the-field baggage that came with him.

"We're the second-chance team in some respects," Johnson told ESPNNewYork.com. "I've had a lot of second chances, I guess. Maybe most of us have. Sometimes you just need a change of venue, going to a different place."

Now it seems like a no-brainer, acquiring a former Super Bowl MVP for the pittance of a fifth-round draft pick, but the Jets were criticized at the time for picking up another player with character issues. The trade fell together relatively quickly, about 36 hours from first phone call to consummation, but there was an intense, 45-minute conversation between Johnson, GM Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan before they decided to pull the trigger.

"A spirited debate," Tannenbaum said Wednesday.

The Jets weighed risk versus reward versus Marshall -- Brandon Marshall, that is. They also were interested in trading for Marshall, according to a league source, and he was very much part of the Holmes debate. If they hadn't picked Holmes, there's a good chance they would've made a play for the former Denver Broncos receiver, who wound up being dealt to the Miami Dolphins.

From a short-term standpoint, it's hard to quibble with the Jets' decision. Holmes made three game-winning plays in three successive weeks in November, and he delivered an acrobatic touchdown grab in the Jets' playoff win over the New England Patriots.

Now Holmes gets to face his old team for the second time in six weeks, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.

"I think the personal game is out of the way," Holmes said. "The personal game was [Week 15] when we played the Steelers. We got that game out of the way. I got a chance to beat those guys the first time around.

"This time, it means everything -- everything for myself, for this team, for this organization. We're trying to get to the Super Bowl. I don't care about the Steelers right now. Those guys are in my team's way. If we win the Super Bowl, then everything is personal. That's a slap back in those guys' face for trading me."

Holmes wouldn't be human if he didn't feel some sense of betrayal. After all, he was an instrumental player for the Steelers, but they got tired of his off-the-field behavior. There was a marijuana arrest in 2008, followed by yet another violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, resulting in a four-game suspension to start the 2010 season.

When the Steelers got wind of the suspension, they put Holmes on the trading block. The story about how Ryan found out already is part of Jets lore. When he received a call from his assistant, who was relaying the news from Tannenbaum, Ryan bolted his office, ran up a flight of stairs to the GM's office and basically said, "Get him!"

Ryan knew Holmes from his days in the AFC North as the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator, and he felt that Holmes had cost him one, maybe two shots at a Super Bowl ring.

When Johnson learned from Tannenbaum that Holmes could be had, he thought to himself, "Oh, that's interesting." He immediately thought of Holmes' game-winning catch against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

"I remember the catch," Johnson said. "Everybody remembers the catch."

The Jets were stunned, and thrilled, Holmes was available, but reality hit and they had to ponder a tough question: Why?

"The Steelers are a smart organization -- they get a lot more right than wrong -- and I was concerned about why they were trying to trade him," Tannenbaum said. "It makes you think twice. We decided to proceed cautiously."

Tannenbaum and Ryan, researching Holmes' background, called a handful of players and coaches around the league. They also consulted with team psychologist Sara Hickmann, player development director Dave Szott and security director Steve Yarnell, who researched Holmes' legal issues.

In the end, Tannenbaum decided, "The downside wasn't catastrophic if we were wrong."

They felt it was important for Holmes to be a regular in the offseason program, so they reworked his contract, which expires after the season. They converted some base salary into a workout bonus -- a carrot for him to show up.

The next morning, the Jets' players were stunned when they heard of the trade. "I was like, 'Wow,'" said guard Brandon Moore, who saw the news on a TV in the team cafeteria.

Defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said, "This team is built with a big offensive line, old guys, castaways and guys that beat up on Rex [in past years], like Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. ... If you don't think Rex files that in the back of his Rolodex, you're absolutely wrong. How could you not want a Super Bowl MVP? That's a no-brainer."

It sure seemed that way on Sunday, when Holmes did his thing in the end zone, making yet another acrobatic touchdown. Johnson said he's seen the play 20 times.

"Each time," he said, "I'm still amazed."

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

MORE NFL HEADLINES