Gary Dulac reported on Thursday that Jesse James was grieving the loss of a friend, a tragic circumstance that could have had an impact on his performance in the Hall of Fame game against the Minnesota Vikings. Fans and coaches alike seemed befuddled and unpleasantly surprised with James' two dropped passes, one of which would have been for a sure touchdown.
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NFL players are often heroes to their fans, but that does not make them superhuman. Football players experience trials and tribulation just like the rest of us. In this case, it was the death of a friend. A horrible tragedy that would be distressing and distracting for anyone. What happens, though, when your job requires you to stay focused and perform even in the wake of such a tragedy?
In the case of Jesse James, his bad day at work generated a lot of unfavorable attention. Still, though, the NFL is a business, and in the end part of the job is learning to compartmentalize distracting problems and emotions in order to perform effectively on the field. That is a skill he will need to learn just like everything else is his learning as he transitions into the NFL.
Cam Heyward is expecting a baby during the regular season. When asked what he would do if his wife went into labor during a football game, Heyward said, "I'd tell her to hold it." In 2012, Baltimore Ravens WR Torrey Smith played in a game just hours after his brother's fatal motorcycle accident. Life events, joyous and tragic, often come at inconvenient times.
James' draft report cited poor hands and receiving ability as a weakness. So, it is possible that his Sunday mistakes had nothing to do with his personal circumstances. On the other hand, James is only 21 years old. Mental toughness is a skill that often comes with age and life experience.
Does Jesse James deserve criticism for Sunday night's game even though he was reeling from the death of his friend? Yes. He had a job, and he failed to do it well. The difference is, James has a very public job. If he worked in another sector, he probably would not have been given bereavement leave for a friend. He likely would have had to go to work. He likely would have been distracted and sad as he sat at his desk. The difference is, he would not have had an audience of millions judging his work performance as he did on Sunday.
James understands what is expected of him, saying via the Post-Gazette, "You've got to get back to work and focus. You know you've got to make the next play, and even at that, I didn't make the next one. But I'll be back and make the next one." Mike Tomlin reminded the media that Lawrence Timmons had a horrible NFL debut. It's the preseason. There is room for mistakes. Hopefully they will be ironed out by the time the regular season comes around. And, hopefully Jesse James can bounce back and show that he deserves a spot on the 53-man roster.