Outsiders Matt Forte, Josh McCown must fulfill Jets’ cultural overhaul

Matt Forte told SiriusXM NFL Radio last week the leaders on the New York Jets have had “a lot of meetings” with coaches over the offseason to address changing the culture in the locker room.

New York’s roster apparently isn’t the only thing in need of an overhaul.

“Being in that locker room and going through that season, we know what the issues were,” Forte said. “We identify those issues as a group and meet with the coaches and talk about, ‘How do we change that? How do we change the culture in the locker room? How do we change the mistakes we made last year?'”

Put aside win/loss expectations and the X’s and O’s as you read this column. It’s hard not to indulge in speculation when discussing intangibles like leadership and chemistry–their level of importance, their sources–but it’s fascinating to analyze the Jets’ situation here.

Matt Forte has spent one season in the Jets’ locker room after a career with the Chicago Bears, which is not a team known for its chemistry or functionality this decade. Yet, it took him that small amount of time in New York to be able to sense the discord.

That alone should speak to how dysfunctional the Jets were in 2016. Of course, a lot was happening off the field. From the start, it was the Ryan Fitzpatrick and Muhammad Wilkerson summer contract sagas, while Brandon Marshall and Sheldon Richardson got into public arguments early and often. Fitz and Marshall have been shown the door since then, as well as fellow veterans Darrelle Revis and Nick Mangold.

Forte hasn’t been a Jet for very long at all, but he seems to be taking a more vocal role as one of the few older players remaining on the roster. In fact, he was speaking up as early as last season.

“There’s a difference between playing next to somebody and (playing) for them,” Forte said in the radio interview. “I always say that to guys, like last year, when we were in the middle of the season and things weren’t going well. We were at practice and I was like, ‘Guys, everybody is out here as an individual and we’re just playing next to the guy. Do you really know that guy?’ If I’m playing next to you instead of for you, I really don’t trust you.”

Todd Bowles never struck me as the kind of coach who spends much effort trying to help his players “bond” or yells at the guys who get out of line to put them in place. It seems like it’s going to come down to a handful of players to provide that element in this cultural transition.

That’s where someone even newer to New York than Forte comes into the picture. The Josh McCown signing in March was hardly met with fanfare by fans or the press (to some Colin Kaepernick supporters, the transaction was practically racist). But salary and system fit and long-term plans aside, McCown is notable for another reason. It seems that everywhere he goes, he’s hailed as a tremendous leader.

Those are the precise words Cleveland coach Hue Jackson used to describe McCown after the 37-year-old left the Browns in free agency to join New York. Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht called McCown “one of the most special leaders I’ve ever been around.” In Chicago before that (as a teammate of Forte’s), McCown won the team’s character award, the Brian Piccolo Award, in 2014. The guy wins over admirers everywhere he goes.

You might be fairly asking the question, “If he’s such a great leader, why has he played for five teams since 2011?” There’s no time to really dissect his recent career arc — the brief but wild success he had in Chicago that helped him land a lucrative contract in Tampa or the QB mess he tried to fix in Cleveland. What’s more important to me is that despite mediocre numbers, McCown keeps getting jobs.

NFL executives are tight with each other, and I’m sure some of them have discussed what a gem of a leader McCown is. Simply put, many quarterbacks are called leaders for what they do on the field. Because we know that’s not the case with McCown, he must be doing a hell of a job off the field.

With Mangold gone, David Harris is the longest-tenured Jet. After him it’s long snapper Tanner Purdum. There are only six players in their 30s on the roster. It’s going to come down to onetime Bears teammates McCown and Forte, in particular, to cure the locker room ills the Jets had in 2016. Neither are lifelong Jets. They haven’t been around long. But maybe it’s their “outsider” perspective that the team can use.

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