New York Jets run-game coordinator Rick Dennison may just serve as that X-factor this offensive line desperately needs.
FLORHAM PARK, NEW JERSEY—There’s simply no chance these guys remain unaware of the smack currently dished out. As a prideful, nasty group up front, there’s just no way the fact Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 31st among 32 NFL squads isn’t common knowledge within the locker room. There’s no shot they aren’t aware of the junk about how disastrous each of them remains as one of a five-man unit.
The New York Jets offensive line is, of course, the topic at hand and must be walking around Florham Park, New Jersey with a monstrous chip on its shoulder. Considering the unit showcases mainly returning players, how could not there be serious fire?
Only six teams relented more sacks than the Jets in 2017. Only several teams showcased far less consistency when rushing the ball. Seemingly no team allowed more free runners salivating en route to Josh McCown. And no team allowed a Bryce Petty sack sandwich (see Miami Dolphins bookends).
Yet through it all, Mike Maccagnan stunningly only addressed the situation with a signing in the form of Spencer Long at center—a guy whose familiarity with the training room was the norm in D.C.
The above all-too-familiar O-line neglect would be true if players represent the only part of the puzzle. (After all, Maccagnan has remarkably only drafted two offensive linemen in 28 total draft picks as Jets GM.)
Fortunately, players aren’t the only piece of the puzzle. In fact, in such a hardened salary-cap league, talent levels across 32 organizations usually remain similar. Oftentimes, front-office personnel and coaching make the greatest impact (hello Bill Belichick, the mysterious Ernie Adams and the great Dante Scarnecchia who’s insanely allowed Tom Brady to live a clean football life year after year).
Meet Rick Dennison, the Maccagnan hire flying incredibly too far under-the-radar.
Other than the personnel, everything is different up front. Out is the power running style that John Morton deployed a year ago, leading to a hit-and-miss rushing attack that finished 19th in the league with 109.4 yards per game (that was boosted by 14 rushes of 20-plus yards, ranking sixth in the league), and in is the speedy and deceptive zone-blocking system that’s worked so well at the big-boy level for the last two-plus decades.
Remember, Dennison is a Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak disciple. He was a part of both Super Bowl champion Shanahan teams in the late 1990s and then again recently as Kubiak’s offensive coordinator just a few seasons ago.
After his second Denver stint and prior to today, he filled the offensive coordinator duties for one season with the Buffalo Bills. The playoff-bound AFC East surprise of the season finished sixth in the league in rushing under Dennison.
This season he might be taking on his greatest challenge yet—especially now that left tackle Kelvin Beachum and running back Elijah McGuire are sidelined.
The week leading up to the Atlanta Falcons on Friday night offered more insight into the running attack. While the zone system is firmly entrenched, allowing the Jets lighter more flexible linemen more success, the outside attack seems to be a tremendous priority.
“Good. I think that fits the players up front, and the runners that we have, Brian Winters said in response to the question of how they feel that the zone rushing focus seems to be focused outside a bit. “I’m excited … we’re all excited and Friday’s the first test.”
— Elite Sports NY (@EliteSportsNY) August 8, 2018
Winters, 27, is one of Dennison’s interesting subjects at the moment. Playing severely injured all of last season, the man struggled through 13 games. And playing alongside center Wesley Johnson didn’t help anybody (as communication and line calls in 2017 left much to be desired). Should Winters come back strong next to a stout center in Spencer Long, two-fifths of the O-line equation will undoubtedly make that 180-degree turn.
Trenton Cannon is another factor. While Isaiah Crowell acts as the tackle-to-tackle man and Bilal Powell is the Swiss Army Knife, the rookie has impressed everybody this summer. Not only will he be returning kicks and punts, but taking those stretches in Dennison’s zone scheme fit the Virginia State product like a glove.
There’s no question the Jets O-line deserves an eyebrow raise or four heading into this season. To not even sniff around free agent prizes Nate Solder or Andrew Norwell while possessing over $100 million in cap space deserves at least one eyebrow raise. To then not draft a single lineman in the middle rounds when so much help was needed adds extreme curiosity to the pile.
But hey, that secret weapon in the Shanahan/Kubiak disciple was brought in.
The only thing that remains to be seen is whether or not the plan works. Can talent along the O-line be sacrificed under the salary cap if coaching and scheme is spot on?
Friday against the Atlanta Falcons will serve as the first test.