Jim Leonhard is now the marquee starting safety for the New York Jets, but he had to take a long and circuitous path to get there. He was a walk-on at the University of Wisconsin, though he became a three-time first-team Big-10 player once he got there. And despite what he did in college, the undersized (5-foot-8, 188 pounds) Leonhard found it impossible to get on anyone's radar in the draft.
He spend three years with the Buffalo Bills, signed up the Baltimore Ravens and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan in 2008, and then followed Ryan to the Jets in 2009. Against pretty tremendous odds, he's become one of the better players at his position at a time when safeties have become more important to the game than ever.
It was our pleasure to talk with Jim recently — we were able to cover enough subjects to put together a two-part interview. In Part 1, Jim talks about his involvement with Farkas Original Eye Black and the 'sticker shock' which caused that partnership, just what makes Rex Ryan so great, and the harsh realities of modern NFL violence.
Shutdown Corner: Let's start with the "Athletes Against Stickers" promotion you're doing with Farkas Original Eye Black. What's it all about, and why are you so passionate about this subject?
Jim Leonhard: I'm very honored to be the Chairman of the "Athletes Against Stickers" campaign. I've worn eye black my whole career, and we think there's a danger in this trend that's coming about where these guys are wearing stickers on the field. We're known today as being the "modern-day warriors," and we really don't think it's appropriate that guys are wearing stickers on the field.
SC: You had a great quote in the press release for this — "Call me old-school, but when I think of wearing stickers, I envision my niece and her dollies. That's not very intimidating if you ask me."
JL: [Laughs] It's true! It's very childish, especially given that fact that the NFL and college football made a rule that you can't decorate your stickers. You saw that trend going on? It's just not good for the game.
SC: Do we know what Tim Tebow thinks about this?
JL: Um, I do not know. The thing about him is that he was putting a good message out there. But other than that — putting "Hi, Mom" and your area code and all that, it's just inappropriate.
SC: I wanted to ask you about the Dunta Robinson hit on Jeremy Maclin, and Mike Smith's comments after the fact that the hit was clean and that's the way he teaches his guys to play — I've talked to a number of different defensive players about these types of plays, and there seems to be a consensus that there are times when these hits are just unavoidable. Whether it's quarterbacks leading receivers into harm's way, or receivers running through zone pockets with enemy defenders converging, how realistic is it to assume that defensive players can always hold up and avoid this kind of contact?
JL: It's extremely difficult. Obviously, it's a very highly-paced, violent game. On a play-to-play basis, when you're working with space and high speeds, sometimes you have the best target possible where you're trying to hit someone, and then, something happens, You move, they move, and it's very tough. There are a lot of bang-bang plays. These hits are unavoidable, and you try to coach it and execute it as well as you can.
Obviously, sometimes it doesn't look that way, but it's part of our game and it will always be a part of our game. The fact is that players are very aware of it — they know they're going to get fined and suspended, You'd like to think that it's going to change some of those hits.
SC: I also wanted to ask you about Rex Ryan. You and Bart Scott followed him from Baltimore, at the scouting combine a couple years ago, most of the draft prospects said that they'd love to play for him. We know that he's bombastic and a total quote machine, but what don't we know about Rex Ryan? Why are players just so totally willing to sell it all out for him?
JL: I think it's the passion he has for the game, which the fans see, but on a day-to-day basis, just how he approaches the game. And then, the honesty he has with the players. He's very open with us, just like he is with the media and the fans. He will tell you the truth, whether you like it or not, and players respect that. The one thing that gets under guys' skins more than anything is if they feel that they're being lied to or jerked around, and he doesn't do that. He doesn't play games with you, and it just feels that if you treat guys like men and professionals, they will respond. That's why the people who play for him feel the way they do about him.
SC: I have his marvelous book on the 46 defense, and I think that if there's one thing that's really underrated about Ryan, it's what a great defensive coach and strategist he is. The Revis interception against Tony Romo in the season opener was a great example of how defenses can fool a quarterback with disguised coverages. Do you think that's an overlooked aspect of what defenses do?
JL: I think you're seeing more and more coaches really try to play that game back with offenses. Rather than having offenses dictating what they do to you for 60 minutes, I think you're seeing defenses having a little more fun and getting a little more freedom with what they do to try and cause confusion and make the matchups on your favor.
Schematically, there's no better coach, and technically, I don't think there's a better coach than Rex, and I think that gets highly overlooked by everyone because of the way he goes out there and talks to the media.