Damon Gibson was an average return man. His average of 8.8 yards per punt return last season was actually below the NFL average of 9.6 yards in 2001 and his longest run only 24 yards. Gibson was a player whose status was in doubt all during the Jaguars training camp last summer as the coaching staff tried to find someone who could be more explosive and offer the team better field position. His position on the roster was based more on Tom Coughlin's confidence that he would catch the ball and secure it than his ability to take it the distance for a touchdown. I'm fairly certain that my 'untrained' football eyes weren't the only ones that knew Gibson was 'just a guy.'
Gibson was a 'bubble' player in danger of being replaced at any time. His only security came from ball security and that disappeared with the Jaguars momentum against Indianapolis. Jacksonville had finally put the clamps on Indianapolis with four straight defensive stands that yielded ten points, two punts and their first lead of the game. All Gibson had to do is fall on the football at the 19-yard line and he would still be catching punts in the NFL. The result is now history as is Gibson and it has stirred a mighty debate. Does one mistake justify a player losing his job?
The answer is…it depends. It depends on the player, his position, his salary cap number and the circumstance of the mistake. Mark Brunell was never in any danger of losing his job after throwing the interception that Marcus Washington returned for a touchdown, he is the club's quarterback and let's not mistake the difference between a player who may touch the ball four or five times a game and one who handles it on every play. Brunell is the Jaguars franchise player who's impact on the field, the salary cap, among the fans and in the community is unquestioned. Trying to compare Brunell and Gibson is like putting the moon next to the sun and asking which is brighter.
Gibson, like most players that represent the bottom of a club's roster, understood his place in the locker room. He knew he was involved in a battle to stay on the roster even after he made it through training camp. A quick glance at the depth chart and Coughlin's history would suggest that Gibson, Micah Ross or Jimmy Redmond was short for the season. It's a rare instance that he has ever kept six receivers. The first one to blink was likely to be the first one packing his bags. That man was Gibson. It's not a big loss, in fact Gibson's departure won't be felt by the Jaguars until someone else fumbles a punt and his fate is remembered.
What has been felt this week is the pressure that comes with intense scruitiny. Those players who occupy the 43rd through 53rd spots on the roster now understand theirs is a tenuous existence which is reliant upon them executing their jobs without executing their team's hopes to win on Sunday. Coughlin didn't create that system, it has existed as long as coaches could find another player to sign. There has been speculation all week that the players now have to deal with the thoughts of Gibson every time they take the field and they'll play tight. In reality, the choice is theirs and how they take the field is up to them, not Coughlin. They're grown men and their minds are their own. Those that are tough enough to not worry about what they can't control will succeed and by the way those have always been the players who have done well under Coughlin.
Don't mistake these words or their writer as apologizing for the coach. Coughlin has felt the heat of the fans and the press who believe his methods unfair and unwise. The coach contends that he was doing and will continue to do what he believes is best for the franchise. That's been his stance since the first day he took the job in 1994 and he fervently believes it almost nine years later. It's not that he doesn't care what you or I think, it's that he thinks that he should be judged on wins and losses not the way he communicates with his players. His decision to move on was based on his belief that Ross and Redmond make the Jaguars a better team. He may have been upset and seemed angry at his Monday news conference, but when have you seen him in any other sort of mood after a loss.
Coughlin will have to contend with the same unhappy people until he recreates the winning team he once had. He could make it easier on himself by changing the tone in his voice or the words that he uses as he did from Monday to Wednesday when he was calmer and offered a logical reason for Gibson's release. But like his players, the choice is up to him and he's proven that he will always do what he believes is best even if you or I disagree.