FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
In a league dominated by coaches and quarterbacks -- both on and off the field -- we begin our look back on the Jets' dominant performance in Sunday's opener in what might seem to be an unusual place: one of the most underpublicized and underappreciated places in all of sports, no less the NFL.
We begin at right tackle, where the seeds of the Jets' 48-28 rout of the Bills were planted and allowed the coach and the quarterback to bask in the glow of the biggest opening-week offensive explosion in franchise history.
Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez took well-deserved bows after the Jets dismantled a Bills team that had gone to great lengths to improve its defense, most notably by signing defensive end Mario Williams to a six-year, $100-million contract in the offseason. But if it weren't for unheralded right tackle Austin Howard, the results might have been much different.
Howard, who replaced the much-maligned Wayne Hunter after the Jets' second preseason game, so thoroughly dominated Williams that the Bills didn't even come close to sacking Sanchez. The quarterback had one of the finest games of his career, throwing for three touchdowns and a 123.4 rating, largely because he was able to sit back in the pocket and zing the ball downfield without having to run for his life as he did in the preseason.
It was therefore no coincidence that the very first player Ryan singled out Monday after watching video of the game was Howard.
"I thought Austin Howard had a great game," Ryan said. "There's no two ways about it. He had an outstanding game. That was impressive."
The Jets can thank the Giants for helping to set the stage for Howard's emergence. After all, had Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora not spun Hunter around like a top throughout the first half of their Aug. 18 preseason game, the Jets might not have made the decision to bench (and subsequently trade) Hunter and replace him with Howard.
It turned out to be the Jets' most important decision of the preseason.
If Hunter were still in the lineup, there's no telling what sort of havoc Williams might have caused Sanchez on Sunday. But Howard physically dominated Williams, and the prized free-agent defender was left to whine about the replacement officials and accuse Howard of deliberately using an illegal tactic of pushing his hands into Williams' face mask.
"Pass blocking doesn't include hands to the face," Williams said. "When someone tells the officials that, and they just walk away, or they don't call it, that is disheartening," Williams said of Howard, "He's a hands-to-the-face guy and they don't call it, so he will continue to do it."
Ryan's take after studying the game video closely?
"I'll say this: Mario Williams is a great football player, but I disagree with him on this."
Sorry, if you're that good of a pass rusher, you need to do better than Williams, even if there was some merit to his complaints. Defensive ends and linebackers are routinely held and disrupted in ways that can be called as penalties. But the truly good ones, such as Michael Strahan, Tuck, Pierre-Paul and Clay Matthews, are able to fight through it and maintain their effectiveness.
"All I know is there were no flags thrown," Howard said. "And I didn't hear too much complaining during the game, either. The game is going so fast that you can't purposely put your hands anywhere every single time. That's impossible. We had really good battles. If he feels that way, I didn't see any flags, and I didn't see it as much on the film, either."
Replacement officials or not, that was a monster performance by Howard, at a time when Sanchez needed good protection to produce this kind of statement game. Not bad for a kid who could only have imagined earning a starting job after coming into camp as a virtual unknown. An unsigned free agent in 2010, Howard spent one season in Philadelphia before moving to the Ravens' practice squad, where the Jets signed him to their active roster last Nov. 25.
"All I know are the expectations I have for myself," Howard said. "And those were to give 110 percent every day, work hard and let the chips fall where they may."
The chips fell perfectly.
For Howard and for the Jets.
The performance even caught the attention of former Jets right tackle Damien Woody, whose retirement before last season prompted the Jets to promote Hunter in the first place. Woody noted on his Twitter account just how impressed he was, then offered some advice to the young tackle. "Keep away from the press clippings & he'll be just fine!"
Memo to Howard: If you're still reading, tsk tsk.