Ryan Kalil thought his playing days were over when the Panthers’ season ended in New Orleans last December. Retirement was calling, and Kalil was moving on after an accomplished 12-year career.
Then Jets general manager Joe Douglas called, and everything changed.
Kalil is back snapping footballs, thanks to Douglas. He helped bring the five-time Pro Bowl center out of retirement to bolster the Jets’ offensive line and be Sam Darnold’s eyes when needed.
Kalil will make his Jets debut in Saturday’s preseason game at MetLife Stadium against the Saints. The moment isn’t lost on him.
“Just getting back into it, thinking that you were done and almost having a second chance,” said Kalil, 34. “We all love this game. Sometimes it takes walking away to really realize how much you love it. I got that opportunity and obviously I’m very fortunate to get another chance to get back out there.”
The Jets feel fortunate, too. They were comfortable with Jonotthan Harrison being their center, but he doesn’t have Kalil’s resume. Kalil was voted first-team All-Pro twice, played in the Super Bowl and was Cam Newton’s center for the quarterback’s entire career.
Kalil is still learning the Jets’ plays and terminology, but they already can see the kind of impact he will have on Darnold and the offense.
Darnold said in practice this week that Kalil recognized the safety rotation and middle linebacker and alerted his quarterback.
“He sees stuff,” Darnold said. “He’s got his head up all the time looking for guys. So it’s good to have a guy like that that’s been around some football and who knows his stuff.”
Said Adam Gase, “Ryan has a large library in his head of things that he’s seen over his career.”
The Jets have brought Kalil along slowly. He had done only individual work until Sunday, when he started participating in team drills for the first time.
Gase will continue to take it slowly. Kalil is slated to play roughly a quarter in the Jets’ third preseason game. It probably will be his only preseason action; starters generally don’t play in the fourth preseason game.
Darnold was able to move the ball down the field and quickly in the first two preseason games, scoring touchdowns on the opening drives in both. Gase wants to maintain that tempo, so Kalil will have to rely on smarts until he has the playbook down.
“I think every day is probably a huge jump for him,” Gase said. “You can go back and watch tape. Him getting in there on Sunday was big. Now when he comes back, evaluates that film and then comes back out, he’s got an idea of how it sounds, how it feels when you’re going a little more up-tempo.”
Kalil said he’s “a lot more giddy” than other players who have gone through all of camp and admits he still has some catching up to do.
He said he’s getting his timing back and picking up the calls and the playbook a lot better. Some things never go away, though.
Jets defensive end Leonard Williams went up against Kalil once during Sunday’s Green and White practice and said Kalil literally hit him with something he hadn’t experienced.
“He’s really savvy,” Williams said. “I was lining up on him one play — he snaps the ball and hits at the same exact time. I was getting hit in the face and I was like, ‘What the heck? What is that?’ It catches you off guard a little bit. That’s just some of the savvy vet stuff.”
Darnold isn’t a savvy vet yet, but Kalil sees maturity and more in the second-year quarterback.
“He’s really good in the huddle, he’s really good at the line of scrimmage,” Kalil said. “He’s fast, he’s efficient. He does a good job making IDs, telling us what he wants, what he sees. He’s real hard on himself. I think that’s very impressive. He’s hard on the guys, too. Guys respond well to it.
“I’m really impressed with the way he’s able to manage and handle himself, especially being a second-year guy.”