The most important thing for every NFL team in every preseason game is to simply come out of it with their starting lineup intact. Whatever the starters get out of a few meaningless snaps is rarely worth the risk of a devastating injury.
The Jets and linebacker Avery Williamson were just reminded of that in the worst way possible, thanks to the worst decision of Adam Gase's short Jets career.
The Jets suffered a huge blow on Friday when their worst fears were confirmed - that Williamson suffered a torn ACL in the Jets' 22-10 win in Atlanta on Thursday night. And the insult to the injury is that it was truly meaningless and could have - should have - been avoided. The 27-year-old was injured with 3:52 left in the first half, long after all the other Jets defensive starters had departed.
Why was he still in the game? Why did he play 30 snaps, twice as much as most of the other defensive starters? It's a decision that seems inexplicable. So consider these the first real tough questions that Gase will have to answer when he next talks to the media on Sunday night.
And no matter what he says, there really are no good answers. In these preseason games someone has to play, of course. And the younger players in the lineup clearly could benefit from having a veteran and team leader like Williamson calling the defense for them on the field.
But the risk just isn't worth it. Williamson got hurt on a simple play, when he dropped into coverage on a running back in the end zone. Jets cornerback Tevaughn Campbell dove for the ball as it headed in his direction and he landed right into Williamson's right knee.
Sure, had that one play not happened, had Williamson gotten through that play and the next one unscathed, his night would've been over and his 30-plus snaps would've been nothing more than a minor oddity. Gase and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would've gotten away with the decision, never to be even asked about the risk. But that's the point - and the risk -- because one moment, when all the rest of the starters were on the sidelines, turned it into a nightmare for everyone involved.
Now the damage is done and it is real. Williamson was one of the best players on an underachieving defense last season and figured to be a key component in the middle this year, too. Yes, the Jets did bolster the linebacking corps by signing free agent C.J. Mosley this offseason and it can be argued he likely would have emerged as the more important player.
But the linebacking corps isn't deep beyond them, especially in the middle after the Jets dumped linebacker Darron Lee on the Kansas City Chiefs back in May. Losing Williamson won't destroy the Jets' chances, but it doesn't help, especially since they are holding their secondary together with Band-Aids as it is.
And there's no one to blame but Gase or Williams - whichever one made the decision to keep Williamson on the field. Maybe they did have a good reason for playing Williamson so much, for leaving him on the field surrounded by second- and third-teamers. But the reason can't possibly be good enough to justify the worst-case scenario that unfolded in front of them.
Williamson simply should not have been in the game at that point. And now he won't play another game this season at all.