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Gang Green Nation Interviews Jim Leonhard

Jets safety Jim Leonhard is co-chairing a national campaign sponsored by Farkas Eye Black called "Athletes Against Stickers." It promotes the use of eye black in youth sports instead of stickers, which scientific tests indicate do not help reduce glare in athletes' vision. An excerpt from a release from the group:

The finding and the trend’s uptick, troubles Leonhard, "You wouldn’t wear a helmet simply because it looked cool if it offered no protection on the field. Why then would you wear stickers for some perceived aesthetic value?"

Scientific evidence aside, Leonhard questions the message this trend is sending to today’s youth. "I play a dangerous sport against the greatest athletes in the world. Every little advantage can make the difference on a Sunday afternoon, be it physical (like reducing the sun’s glare) or psychological. I am worried that today’s athletes have gone soft or are misinformed. 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."

Jim was kind enough to speak with me about his campaign and other things. You can sign a petition to help Jim on either Farkas Eye Black's official web page or its Facebook page.

John B: Could you provide a bit of background about the campaign of which you are part?

Jim Leonhard: I'm the chairman for the Athletes Against Stickers campaign with Farkas Eye Black. It's something that is very dear to my heart. I just don't think it's right for today's modern warriors as we are considered to be wearing stickers out on the gridiron.

Check out the full interview under the jump.

JB: There are rumors that you left more money on the table from other teams to come play for the Jets when you were a free agent back in 2009. Is that true?

JL: It is definitely true. It was one of those things where I knew I wanted to play for Rex. I knew I wanted to be in this system. It fits me extremely well, and I knew I was going to have a lot of success in it. It's tough to turn that down. Money is money, but you have to realize what is good for your career. The best place for me was definitely New York.

JB: What was it about Rex Ryan that made you want to play for him so much?

JL: It was the experience I had playing for him in Baltimore. I realized the type of coach he is, the type of person he is. You want to be around people like that. It was a very easy decision for me to follow him to New York. We have had a great time the past couple of years. We unfortunately came up just a step short. We are looking forward to taking that next step and hopefully winning the Super Bowl.

JB: What about Rex is different from any other coach you have had?

JL: I think it's his passion for the game. It's his honesty with the players. It's his honesty with the organization and the media. He's not going to hold his tongue. He's going to tell you exactly how he feels at all times. As a player, you respect that, especially when you see the work he puts in on a day to day basis.

JB: Back to free agency, what is it like going through that process as a player?

JL: It's a crazy process. It's a whirlwind. All of the sudden that deadline hits where teams can talk to you. Then you have to make a decision extremely quickly. Otherwise they are moving on to the next guy.

JB: We always hear from announcers, "Leonhard makes the calls on defense." What does that mean?

JL: A lot of times it is not the calls. The coaches call the plays. As a safety, especially in this defense, there is a lot of flexibility. There are a lot of adjustments we can make. I pride myself on being the guy to step up and make sure we are put in the best situations on a play to play basis.

JB: What kind of adjustments do you make before a play?

JL: Sometimes it's a coverage. Sometimes you're working with linebackers in the running game. Sometimes it's a blitz where there is an option. One of two guys is going. In coverage you are assessing the matchups that we have. There are a number of different things based on what offenses present to you and the freedom within a certain call that you have.

JB: So it's kind of like the equivalent of a quarterback looking at a defense and changing things at the line based on what he sees?

JL: Yeah, absolutely, it is like an audible. We like to play that game back with offenses. We don't like for them to dictate what we do for sixty minutes. We like to play that game back. I'm one of the guys on our team with the freedom to do that.

JB: How frequently do you make one of these adjustments? Is it every play or just every once in a while?

JL: With the majority of the calls that we have, there is some flexibility built in. It's not like we're just totally scrapping a play based on what we see. That's the beauty of this defense. They give us a lot of freedom. If you have a good understanding of an offense and what they are trying to do, a lot of times, you can put guys in a position to help themselves out on a play.

JB: A few weeks ago was cutdown day. Obviously you were a lock to make the team, but going back to when you were an undrafted rookie in Buffalo, can you describe what they day is like for somebody on the bubble?

JL: It's the worst day in football. There's no question about it. There are a lot of guys whose dreams come to a crashing halt. It's extremely difficult. I have been cut before. You never know what is going to happen. You always believe in yourself and think that you're going to get another opportunity and be able to make the most of it. The unfortunate reality, though, is sometimes that doesn't happen. A lot of guys who get cut on that day never put the pads on again. Going through that, you understand it and feel for all those guys. There's no way around it. It's the worst day in football.

JB: When you were cut, did you ever think that might be it?

JL: I was very fortunate. The year that I was cut somebody got hurt in Week 1 so I ended up playing the rest of the season. I only ended up missing one game. You always question it, though. Leaving Buffalo, they essentially said, "Thanks but we no longer want you hear." It is kind of tough to swallow, but I was fortunate to get picked up by Baltimore and get the opportunity I felt I was waiting for. I was able to make the most of it and extend my career.

JB: Based on your preparation so far for the Raiders, what do you think it going to be your biggest individual challenge in the game?

JL: I think it's a week where there is a lot of stress on the secondary because you know you have to stop their running game. You have to commit guys to the run. Sometimes that puts you as a secondary into some tough situations. We feel like we have the personnel to do the job. We just have to go and get everybody dialed in early in the week, and really lock them down.

JB: After the Raiders, you guys head to Baltimore to play the Ravens. This past week, we heard a lot of people wonder how much of an advantage Jacksonville had since Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman were former Jets, knew the players, and knew the system. To what extent do you think former members of the Ravens like you, Bart Scott, and the coaches have any sort of tangible advantage going into that game? Does it have any effect at all?

JL: The advantage is the comfort level. Week in and week out it's a quick turnaround in the NFL preparing for a whole new offense and personnel. To know some of the guys and know how Flacco tries to look you off or how Ray Rice runs, the type of athlete he is, and the receivers definitely is an advantage going into a game. You don't have to feel your way into it. You know what those guys are like before you step on the field.

JB: From a defensive player's perspective, what are your thoughts on the league's strict enforcement of penalties on shots to the head?

JL: It's tough. Being a defensive player is extremely difficult because a lot of bang-bang collisions happen. You'd like to think that you're trying to be safe at all times and protect guys, but sometimes things happen where you really don't have a lot of control over it. You might have a great target, and all of a sudden a guy moves, a guy falls, a guy trips a step early. It's extremely difficult, especially for safeties and linebackers, the ones involved with those big collisions.

JB: Your defense looks extremely complicated. Does it just look that way, or is it actually more difficult to master than other schemes?

JL: It's a lot more difficult than some of the other schemes I have been in because we do a little bit of everything. We mix and match what everybody else does, and we have it all in one playbook. Our coaches do a great job of teaching and coaching us, but there is a little bit more than what most teams have.

JB: Is there any difference in the way you are utilized depending on which safety you are partnered with Kerry Rhodes vs. Brodney Pool vs. Eric Smith?

JL: There is a huge difference. You want to maximize the abilities of both guys. Kerry, Brodney, and Eric are all extremely different players. What they do well is all different. My role is definitely changed. When I play with Eric, it's almost a total 180 of when I was playing with Kerry. We mix things up a little bit more with Brodney. The role definitely changes both week to week and depending on whom I am playing with.

JB: What specifically is different between playing with Kerry Rhodes opposed to Eric Smith?

JL: Eric is more your classic strong safety type. He's down in the box, playing the run, covering tight ends more, whereas Kerry is more your free safety type. He was more effective a little further back in pass coverage using his range. The guy next to me changes my role on the team in that way.

JB: Who is your best teammate?

JL: Oh, wow, are you trying to start fights? (laughs) I'll go with my fellow safety, Eric Smith, the guy I have to communicate with on a play to play basis. We've got a great thing going. We have a great relationship. We understand the pressures of this defense and how to get ourselves into the best position.


Thanks to Jim for doing this interview. He was very insightful. I always liked him as a player, but I feel like I did not appreciate all he really brings to the table until now.