D’Brickashaw Ferguson watched from the sidelines as the Jets lined up for one final desperation play in a season-ending game against the Dolphins in 2008. With the Jets trailing 24-17 and facing a must-win situation against their longstanding divisional rivals, Ferguson and the rest of the Jets’ offensive linemen were removed from the game and replaced by some of the team’s faster players in a bid to somehow move the ball from their own 4-yard line for an unlikely touchdown.
Lined up at Ferguson’s left tackle position: cornerback Darrelle Revis.
The play failed after a series of five laterals, the Jets lost, and the Eric Mangini era would come to a close. But who knew the kind of significance that single play would ultimately hold in Ferguson’s career. It turned out to be the only snap that Ferguson ever missed during a brilliant 10-year run that came to an end with Friday’s news that Ferguson had decided to retire.
It’s a fitting postscript to a career that has been long on consistency, and short on appreciation. Ferguson was one of the greatest offensive linemen in Jets’ history, even if his understated personality made you take him for granted far too often. But that’s the way it is with terrific offensive linemen; once you plug them into the lineup and they perform admirably, you simply come to accept it and worry about something else — in most cases, the quarterback.
Offensive linemen are part of a tight-knit community in the NFL, and they perform their thankless and grunt-inducing tasks of blocking the opposition with diligence and patience, and nary a complaint crosses their lips. It is as loyal a group as you will find in professional sports, and Ferguson is at the head of the line when it comes to fulfilling his obligations and fostering the kind of loyalty that tackles, guards and centers invariably demonstrate.
Many linemen will joke about their membership in what they call “The Mushroom Society,” a place where you are kept in the dark and fed a lot of junk. Well, they use another word for junk, but you get the idea. The giants of the NFL trenches take pride in making things better for the receivers and tight ends beside them, and the quarterbacks and running backs behind them. They are the ultimate givers in pro football, and they are content to celebrate in the success of others.
Ferguson’s remarkable ironman streak of never missing a play to injury — and only one because of an unusual set of circumstances — is the hallmark of a career that was as accomplished and successful as almost any player you’ll ever come across. And while his performance level may have diminished somewhat last season, something that prompted the Jets to ask him to consider playing at a reduced salary in 2016, his presence on the line was almost always an asset.
One of the best leaders by example you could want, Ferguson was not only there on game day, but on practice day, too. Incredibly, he did not miss a single practice in training camp or the regular season. Ever. In a sport that beats you up — and Ferguson acknowledged as much, especially after seeing the movie “Concussion” last year, something that made him think seriously about retiring with his mind and body intact — that is an incredible feat.
Ferguson’s on-field performance is matched by his intelligence, his capacity to give back through charitable endeavors and the respect among his peers — not only in the Jets’ locker room, but throughout the NFL. He will surely be missed.
So, where do the Jets go from here? Well, it’s obvious they don’t have a starting left tackle on their current roster, but there are two veterans to consider. One is Broncos tackle Ryan Clady, who missed the 2015 season with a knee injury and is expendable now that Denver signed Russell Okung as a free agent. Clady has had injury problems in recent years, but is one of the league’s top pass blockers when healthy.
The other alternative is former Giants left tackle Will Beatty, who also missed the 2015 season with pectoral and shoulder injuries. He is healthy now, however, and general manager Mike Maccagnan wouldn’t have to give up a draft pick to get him. Beatty had one of his best seasons in 2014 and could provide a smooth transition from Ferguson.
Another byproduct of Ferguson’s retirement is some salary cap breathing room that could make it easier for the team to re-sign quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Jets don’t view the retirement as a signal that they’re ready to substantially change their offer to the 33-year-old quarterback, but the salary cap implications at least make it somewhat easier to fit a deal into the team’s salary structure.
Plenty of potential consequences, to be sure. The biggest one of all is Ferguson himself. A career with that kind of productivity and consistency, and a man with that kind of respect won’t be easy to replace.