FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Before blocking, there was bonding, 2020 style. Before strapping on the pads Monday for the first time in training camp, the New York Jets’ offensive linemen spent three weeks getting to know each other in a race against the NFL’s abbreviated calendar.
With no preseason games and only one month before the start of the regular season, the big fellas — most of whom are teammates for the first time — have used modern technology in an attempt to build fast chemistry. They’re in touch 24/7 via group text, which is filled with memes, jokes and non-stop commentary on pretty much everything. They also play a lot of video games at the team hotel during breaks.
“When you’re done watching film and you’re shutting your notebook, you can jump on Xbox together a little bit,” Jets center Connor McGovern said. “It’s actually kind of funny how something as simple as playing Call of Duty as a group of four of us, how much that brings you together because you’re joking the whole time.”
Xbox might be terrific for camaraderie, but the video game doesn’t teach combination blocks and slide protections. Any grizzled football expert will tell you the same thing: When it comes to the offensive line, there’s no substitute for live reps, especially under these circumstances.
Six of the Jets’ top nine linemen are new to the team, including four projected starters. That would be a massive turnover in a normal NFL season. But there’s nothing normal about 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has caused a significant decrease in practice time, from spring to summer, making it that much harder for the Jets to achieve adequate cohesion on their offensive line.
“In my opinion, it’s damn near impossible,” said retired line coach Bill Muir, who coached on seven teams (including the Jets) over three decades in the NFL.
Muir wasn’t commenting on the Jets’ talent or coaching — he’s a fan of Jets line coach Frank Pollack — but rather the number of new players and lack of practice time. The only thing he could equate it to in his career was the 1987 strike, when the NFL had two weeks to coach up scab players who had come off the street. Muir, then with the Detroit Lions, said his left tackle was a dishwasher from a local hospital.
Obviously, the Jets are in much better shape than that, but what they’re trying to pull off is unusual. The last time they had this much turnover on the line was 1994-96, when the only holdover was center Roger Duffy. In that era, they had two-a-day practices in training camp. Now, the Jets have 14 padded practices to prep for opening day.
“Call me old school,” Muir said, “but some of the things the offensive line will have to accomplish individually and as a group can only be taught and corrected with very aggressive-type practices, which have to be physical.”
Muir said one of the keys will be Jets coach Adam Gase’s willingness to “dumb it down and be basic” on offense.
“Then,” Muir said, “you might have a chance.”
He said a team typically has six to eight pass-protection schemes, with multiple adjustments off each scheme. That, Muir said, could be burdensome for a new group. Thing is, some coaches can be stubborn; they believe it’s their mission in life to outsmart everybody. In the end, they outsmart themselves.
Gase said he “saw this kind of coming” in the spring, when the pandemic hit and the offseason went virtual. As a result, the Jets tweaked their plan, trying to make sure they didn’t flood the players with information. They have done it methodically, in steps.
“In the spring, the staff talked about doing a better job of having a really good teaching progression,” he said.
Gase mentioned the 2011 NFL lockout as a point of reference. The lockout ended on the eve of training camp, creating a scramble to get players ready for the regular season. The one difference between then and now: There were no player/coach meetings during the 2011 offseason. At the time, Gase was the receivers coach for the Denver Broncos, who made the playoffs that year with Tim Tebow at quarterback.
This time, the players and coaches had more meeting time than ever, albeit virtually. That has helped.
“Thankfully, we’re all veterans and we’ve played football before, so it’s not our first time on the field,” Jets right guard Greg Van Roten said. “It’s just going to be our first time next to each other. We all speak football, but we might call things by different names. We just have to get on the same page if we want to be effective and hit the ground running. So there’s going to be a learning curve, but I don’t think it will be this insurmountable obstacle that we can’t figure out.”
Van Roten and McGovern came from the Carolina Panthers and Broncos, respectively. Right tackle George Fant came from the Seattle Seahawks. The left tackle is rookie Mekhi Becton, the only lineman with a first-round draft pedigree. The only holdover in the starting lineup is left guard Alex Lewis. Returning backups are right tackle Chuma Edoga and center Jonotthan Harrison, the team’s longest-tenured linemen (2018).
This is a crash course in Chemistry 101.
McGovern acknowledged “it’s a little bit difficult” to do something of this magnitude on the clock, but he believes they have made a concerted effort to overcome obstacles. Take the group text, for instance. It’s full participation, not just one or two players. Van Roten spices it up with his “high-level humor, being an Ivy Leaguer,” said McGovern, alluding to his teammate’s University of Pennsylvania education.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know if it’s the group of guys [general manager] Joe Douglas brought together or the pandemic or what have you, but this is one of the closer groups as a whole I’ve been around,” McGovern said.
This rebuilding project is Douglas’ brainchild; not that he had much of a choice. The 2019 line, undermined by ineffectiveness and injuries, was like the old musical group Milli Vanilli — it had to be broken up after a short and infamous run.
Now comes the hard part — the rebuild.
“The best offensive lines, regardless of talent level, are the ones that have feel for what each [player] can do or is unable to do,” Muir said. “You learn to adjust and compromise. That takes time.”