There has been a singular, almost maniacal focus on the Jets’ quarterback situation through the offseason and into this, the fourth week of training camp. But there are plenty of other issues facing a team in transition, and unless they are sorted out quickly, the expectations of a brutal season eventually will become a reality.
An area of concern nearly as big as who plays quarterback: Who plays on the offensive line?
It once was taken for granted as one of the Jets’ bedrock units, but questions about the line persist. It might not matter who plays quarterback unless the blocking improves. Todd Bowles was particularly disappointed about the line’s performance in Saturday night’s 16-6 loss to the Lions at Ford Field. It was an especially big concern in the first half, when second-year player Christian Hackenberg, in his first start as a pro, struggled to find time to throw.
“He really didn’t get a chance,” Bowles said of Hackenberg, who was 2-for-6 for 14 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. “That’s not a fair evaluation of a kid, because he didn’t get a chance on the couple pass plays he had. They had a lot of pressure on him.”
Complicating matters was the shuffling at center and the tackles, because making in-game changes at three vital positions can be tricky. Even so, Hackenberg looked shaky, to the point that he might not be ready to take over as the Week 1 starter at Buffalo. If that’s the case, Bowles is expected to go with 38-year-old Josh McCown, who never will be mistaken for Tom Brady but is the most functional quarterback on the roster.
The running game also will suffer if the blocking doesn’t improve. Against the Lions, Bilal Powell had only 32 yards on nine carries. Matt Forte, bothered by a hamstring injury, hasn’t even played in the preseason.
The only givens along the line are left guard James Carpenter and right guard Brian Winters. Left tackle is up for grabs between newly acquired Kelvin Beachum and Ben Ijalana, while Brent Qvale and Brandon Shell have alternated at right tackle. Wesley Johnson and Jonotthan Harrison are battling at center. If the season started this week, the likely starters would be Qvale, Beachum and Johnson, but Bowles said he hasn’t decided.
No matter which combination it is, these Jets are a long way from the days of a reliable line that included center Nick Mangold and tackles D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Breno Giacomini.
“It’s day to day with different combinations,” Ijalana said. “We rotate in practice. It’s not the biggest deal. We have lots of guys who have starts and who have played in this league, which is good for depth purposes. We’re a bunch of pros. It’s not like the new kids on the block, because everyone has played.”
Winters acknowledged that it can be challenging playing alongside different people week to week, or even practice to practice.
“Times like this, we’re working on communication, working with each other, perfecting our craft,” said Winters, who signed a contract extension in the offseason. “We have a lot more depth this year as an offensive line, and I’m excited to see what we have. [Rotating] can be difficult at times, because you lean on one player and another new player comes in.”
Winters remains optimistic that once the right combination is found, things will settle down up front. But the Jets are running out of time before the games start to count, and if Saturday night’s underwhelming performance was any indication, the struggles might continue longer than he hopes.
The Jets might get an even better sense of how far along — or how far off — they are up front this Saturday. The Giants have one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts, so things might look even worse when Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison get through with them.