FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Muhammad Wilkerson was on time for the second straight day on Thursday, which of course is a triumph in itself. He practiced with his team in full again. And since Jets coach Todd Bowles has said "He served his sentence" for past transgressions, all indications are he'll be playing on Sunday afternoon.
But that would be a foolish decision. It also would be a risk the Jets literally can't afford to take.
Because if Wilkerson plays and he gets hurt - a serious injury that affects his long-term status - the $16.75 million salary he's contractually due in 2018 automatically becomes guaranteed. If he gets through the season healthy, the Jets can cut him by March 16 and that guarantee goes away. But if he gets hurt, he gets that money and his $20 million cap number remains on the books.
Bowles knows that. GM Mike Maccagnan definitely knows that. And they absolutely know what the potential cap savings with Wilkerson - either $11 million or $17 million, depending on whether he's designated a "post-June 1" cut when they release him in March - would mean to a still-rebuilding team that plans to be active in free agency and hopes to solve its franchise quarterback problem once and for all.
So when Bowles said the risk of Wilkerson getting hurt is "no different than playing everybody else all year" he knows that's false.
It would be an irresponsible business decision if at any point in these final two games they let Wilkerson take the field.
Maybe they won't. Bowles has left that possibility on the table, saying Wilkerson's status will be a game-time decision. But he backed himself a little into a corner by saying "no," there's no disciplinary reason that Wilkerson won't play, and by insisting that his sentence for being late last week - leading to him being left off the Jets' trip to New Orleans last weekend - has been served, and saying how "we moved on."
In some situations that's the right way for a coach to handle a malcontent player. Wilkerson's lateness, which an organizational source described as "chronic," dates back three years now and it's clear he hasn't gotten any of the many messages (including four benchings) delivered by Bowles. He probably never will. But still, if the financial circumstances were different, pseudo-suspending him for the final three games of the season would be a startling overreaction that would stun the locker room. Players would know the punishment would have far exceeded the crime.
But the reality in this case is different. The Jets have been eliminated from playoff contention, so the locker room wouldn't be reeling from the loss of a key player in a critical game. And they all know that Wilkerson has no future with the Jets. They will be cutting him before he gets to the final three years of his monster five-year, $86 million deal. And, by the way, the Jets defense played pretty well in New Orleans on Sunday without him, too.
Plus, he has gift-wrapped them an excuse to sit him out. Maybe they didn't want to make it obvious they would be doing it for the money, but when they felt compelled to leave him home last weekend they had their excuse. He is a player that doesn't get it, that won't buy into a program he's about to leave, who doesn't care enough to even show up on time.
And he's tone deaf. On Wednesday, when he was given a chance to atone for all his sins, he instead said "I feel like I've earned everything I've got." Keep in mind he's gotten $37 million over the last two seasons. In return, he's been benched four times for lateness, been late countless more times than that, and he's played 28 games and delivered a paltry eight sacks.
It's not like Wilkerson can possibly have a positive effect on his younger teammates at this point either - even though he doesn't believe he's been a bad example.
"Not at all," Wilkerson said. "Spoke to my teammates as well, and if they respect me, they respect me. If they don't, they don't. I understand. Just have to move forward."
He's right about that last part. The Jets do have to move forward. It's just best to do it without him. They will be moving forward without him soon enough anyway. There's no reason to risk his guaranteed money becoming an anchor around neck of their salary cap situation. That cap room is too important to the Jets' future. It's not worth the risk to let him play.