Leonard Fournette either has not heard of or disagrees with the pro sports adage: Rookies should be seen and not heard.
Proof lies in the Jaguars running back’s comment on being unimpressed by the speed of the NFL game following his preseason debut against the Patriots. Fournette told NFL Network, “It’s a lot slower that I really thought. A lot of people were like, ’It’s going to be really fast.’ But by me playing in the SEC that kind of helped me a lot. I think to me it was really easy.”
This is not a federal offense. But there are many levels of stupidity and arrogance associated with Fournette’s comment.
Do you think Fournette’s comment might be repeated by Texans coaches to their defensive players prior to the Jaguars’ regular-season opener in Houston? It’ll be recited to the players who last year formed the NFL’s top-ranked defense without three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who has returned.
No-nonsense Tom Coughlin is now running football operations in Jacksonville, and he likely pointed out to his young, immature back that it’s OK to be open with the media. But when a player hurts himself and his team in the process, that’s when the player has been too forthcoming with his opinions.
Fournette has put a target on his back this season, beginning with that opener. He also has hurt his team, as opponents such as the defending AFC South-champion Texans otherwise might have overlooked a Jaguars team that has managed a 17-63 record over the last five seasons.
Let’s also realize — even if Fournette himself does not — he made the comments after he faced a New England defense that did not field any starters in Week 1 of the preseason. Perhaps he would have a different reaction had he faced the defending Super Bowl champs’ defense with starters such as Pro Bowlers Donta’ Hightower and Devin McCourty giving maximum effort in a regular-season game that counted.
If it’s “really easy” to play in the NFL, why didn’t Fournette perform better against the Patriots’ second-teamers than 31 yards rushing on nine carries for a 3.4-yard average?
Probably the same reason the fourth overall pick in the draft will find it tough-sledding all year — defenses don’t respect the Jags’ shaky starting quarterback Blake Bortles. Until Jacksonville’s passing game improves, eight in the box will be the standard alignment Fournette will battle.
This is the same player who said he should be able to top the rookie numbers of Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing last season with 1,631 yards.
Sorry, Leonard, but you’re not running behind the NFL’s best offensive line. You have the Jaguars’ O-line, a mediocre-at-best unit that led the way for the 22nd-ranked rushing attack last season.
Fournette putting the SEC on a pedestal also might rankle players from other top conferences, such as Watt, who played in the Big Ten at Wisconsin.
Everyone knows the SEC plays top-notch college football, but so do several other conferences. Alabama and other SEC powers have lots of future NFL players on their rosters, but players such as Fournette don’t see NFL speed and athletic ability on display throughout an entire SEC team lineup, which is the case in the NFL. Nor do they face premier players every week as they do in the NFL, especially in some of the cupcake nonconference matchups that college athletic directors and coaches love.
Then there’s the question of why a player who battled injuries in college would challenge pro defenders and downplay their speed.
Fournette missed six games last season with an ankle injury. His rushing total fell from 1,953 yards in his outstanding sophomore season to 843 yards as a junior. He already is fighting a foot injury that will cause him to miss Jacksonville’s home preseason game against Tampa Bay.
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I understand how rookie egos sometimes need to be controlled, especially for first-rounders. I dealt with a pair of Rookie of the Year players in back-to-back seasons — wide receiver Randy Moss and his 17 touchdown receptions for the Vikings in 1998; then “The Freak,” defensive end Jevon Kearse, and his 16.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles for the Titans in 1999.
Moss and Kearse both got worn out toward the end of their rookie seasons from excessive media demands, and they wanted to significantly limit their press interactions. I had to step in and say the team would help to control the situation, but I also reminded them that the media voted on All-Pro teams. It was the wiser course to cooperate as much as possible.
This was accomplished more readily with Kearse than it was with Moss. But in all their public statements, neither ever said anything as foolish as what Fournette said in his NFL Network interview.
Handling Fournette will be a challenge for the Jaguars’ front office. I just don’t think he seems smart as Moss and Kearse were — his reportedly low score of 11 on the Wonderlic intelligence test at the Combine reinforces that opinion — so he will need constant tutoring on what to say to the media in order to manage the fallout from his “NFL is really easy” statement and avoid saying anything else to stir things up.
From here on out, Fournette needs to let the quality of his play do the talking.
Jeff Diamond is the former president of the Titans and the former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.
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