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Game Of Inches

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By Jet Moses

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It’s a cliché that the game of football is a game of inches, but that being said, it is unarguably a game that is won and lost along the line of scrimmage. Look at any championship team, in any era, and you can see they all shared at least one thing in common- a great offensive line. The first group that comes immediately to mind are the legendary “Hogs” of Washington DC, a group that won a super bowl in 1982, against the Dolphins, and almost ten years later, would win another one in 1991, against the Bills. The trio of Jeff Bostic, Russ Grimm, and Joe Jacoby played in both games. Linemen such as Mark May, Mark Schlereth, and Jim Lachey rounded out the line at various times, but overall the Redskins always managed to keep the core of the offensive line together. The rest of the team was interchangeable parts, even at QB and RB, and yet the Redskins during that era were always competitive, and sometimes dominant.Another great line was the one Jimmy Johnson built in Dallas: Larry Allen, Nate Newton, Ray Donaldson, Mark Tuinei, and Erik Williams. Mark Stepnoski was also a part of that group that won super bowl’s in 1992 (XXVII), 1993 (XXVIII), and 1995 (XXX).These teams were able to accomplish great things because they had stability at the offensive line. An offensive line must have cohesion; and cohesion can only be achieved over time. To have the chemistry necessary for a team to perform at it’s peak and compete for a championship, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the O-linemen need to be familiar, and comfortable with each other. From 1998-2001, the New York Jets had that- and it’s no coincidence that during that time period, the Jets were not only competitive, but at time’s dominant. The anchor of that squad was Center Kevin Mawae, one of the first FA acquisitions of the Bill Parcells era. Mawae was strong and athletic; a lead blocker on many running plays, outpacing even the fullback and the pulling guard. Mawae provided leadership for the team as a whole. Tuna drafted Tackle’s Kerry Jenkins and Jason Fabini in 1997, and converted Jenkins to guard. Randy Thomas and Ryan Young were both drafted in 1999. Jumbo Elliott was replaced at Tackle, and the line-up was complete: Mawae, Thomas, Jenkins, Young and Fabini. All you had to do was keep them together.

Enter Terry Bradway and Herman Edwards. Tuna left them with a solid O-line, two rookie DE’s drafted in round one, a veteran QB, a QB of the future, a HOF RB, a plethora of linebackers, and a good secondary. But he also left them with a salary cap nightmare. Bradway’s big plan to get under the salary cap was simple: let offensive lineman after offensive lineman walk in free agency. He never found suitable replacements, and on the rare occasion that he did (Kareem McKenzie), he let that players contract expire and also lost him to free agency. From 2001 to the present, the Jets offensive line has never had the same 5 guys from one year to the next. Every year, a new body was inserted, and by 2005, the only player left at the same position he started at was Kevin Mawae. Herm treated the offensive line like it was a game of musical chairs. Bradway treated linemen like expendable, replaceable parts. Is it any wonder that the Jets franchise QB has more bruises, scrapes, broken bones and surgeries than Evil Kneivel did over the same number of years?

It all came to a head last season, when the Jets infamously ended the season (and possibly the career) of the first string and second string QB, a mere 7 plays apart in the same game. That was unprecedented in NFL history. Somebody had to be made accountable for such a debacle. Herman Edwards had already conned his way out of New York and into Kansas City before his head could be put on a chopping block, and left Terry Bradway to bear the brunt of the fallout, just like he always did. Herman Edwards was never called to task for much of anything- not by Woody, not by a large contingency of fans, and definitely not by the media. But the game of emperor’s new clothes that everybody was playing could no longer be reconciled with Herm’s total lack of accountability and obvious incompetence when Kevin Mawae was placed on IR.

His back-up, Jonathan Goodwin, who had been on the roster for three years, and was penciled in as the second string Center- was inefficient. He simply was not prepared. Herm panicked, and forced Pete Kendall- who went through training camp as a guard and hadn’t played center since his days at Boston College- to take over. Herm gave him one week to prepare! Goodwin then replaced Kendall at Guard, and proved to be just as inept at that position as he was at Center. In one move, Herm compromised the integrity of two positions on the offensive line, a line that was already volatile. This incident was just a microcosm of the overall dysfunction and incompetence that exemplified Herman Edwards leadership. I guess Herm just figured Kevin Mawae would never get hurt, so it really didn’t matter if he kept a backup center on the roster for three years, even though the guy couldn’t even play the position. And if Kendall was the defacto backup center, how come he never got any snaps during training camp? Of course, the Mark Cannizzaro’s and Dave Hutchinson’s of the world never bothered to ask that question.

Thankfully, the charade that was our HC for the past five seasons is over. Terry Bradway has also been given a reduced role. Eric Mangini comes from an organization that understands the importance of protecting the QB. Kevin Mawae and Jason Fabini, the last two linemen left from the 1998 team, have been released. I think that decision was made for no other reason than age, and it’s not a reflection on their ability to still play at a competitive level. Adrian Jones, Brandon Moore, and Pete Kendall are all that remains from last season. The priority for Mangini and Tannenbaum is crystal clear, bring in some young offensive linemen, either through free agency or the draft, have them compete for the starting jobs, and then get those five starters signed to serial contracts where the core players contracts overlap in such a way so as to keep this line intact for at least three seasons at a clip. I realize injuries happen, and sometimes it can’t be avoided that a new player has to be inserted into the line-up, but there is no excuse for not preparing for what you do have control over. From 2001 through 2003, my fellow Jets fans and I suffered abject humiliation, watching a putrid run defense that was embarrassed week in and week out. So much time and energy was placed in trying to build the defense- first round picks like DeWayne Robertson and Bryan Thomas, that never panned out anyway- while during that same time period, the offensive line was allowed to whither on the vine, to the point that it is at now.

It’s not complicated; the game is won or lost along the line of scrimmage. It’s not won in the backfield, it’s not won in the secondary, it’s won or lost in the trenches.

Build an offensive line, Eric.

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