Receivers coach Shawn Jefferson tried to liven up his virtual meetings by creating games of “Jeopardy” and “Cahoots” for his players. Offensive line coach Frank Pollack devoted time in each session to non-football conversation, hoping to build chemistry by letting his players “yuk it up like a normal meeting room environment.”
The New York Jets did their best to adapt to the new normal in the offseason — no practice, no in-person meetings due to the coronavirus pandemic — but you can’t run an 18-yard “dig” route on a computer screen and you can’t block an outside zone running play with a mouse.
The Jets missed football in the spring, missed it dearly.
Especially their offense, which has many new faces.
Only 60% of their offense is returning (based on 2019 snaps), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only team with a lower return rate is the Carolina Panthers (58%), who have a new coach and a new quarterback — a major challenge in the NFL’s COVID-19 world. The Jets have those two elements in place, which helps, but the upheaval on offense will be exacerbated by the lack of practice time.
The problem will get bigger if the league decides to shorten the preseason, a possibility now that the Hall of Fame Game has been canceled. With potentially six new starters — four linemen and two wide receivers — the Jets need reps, lots of reps.
The early schedule won’t help. The Jets open on the road against the Buffalo Bills, one of the better defensive teams. New York managed only 29 points in last season’s two meetings between the teams, so you know it won’t be easy. After that, the Jets return home to face the San Francisco 49ers, also strong on defense. Will rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton be ready to block Nick Bosa?
The unprecedented offseason, coupled with the looming uncertainty, makes it tough on the coaches.
“Practice reps, preseason game reps, they’re all extremely valuable,” coach Adam Gase said. “The more you have, the better you feel, especially heading into the season. That’s why, sometimes early in the season, you see sloppy play. Mistakes are made and cost teams games. As the season goes on, a lot of them get eliminated and fixed. It’s going to be about what teams can do a good job of making those adjustments and doing them quickly in a short period of time without a lot or reps.”
Coaching will be more important than ever, especially the teaching aspect. The good news for the Jets is the coaching staff remained virtually intact, with Gase and his three coordinators returning for a second season. That continuity, coupled with quarterback Sam Darnold‘s experience in the offense, should mitigate some of the growing pains.
“I think we do have an advantage in having Sam in the system for a second year,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said.
On the flip side, the offensive line will have a new look — and lines need time on the field to build chemistry. The only holdover from last season’s Week 1 starting line is right guard Brian Winters, who could lose his starting job to newcomer Greg Van Roten.
Van Roten and center Connor McGovern, another free-agent addition, are seasoned starters. In the virtual meetings, they impressed Pollack with their football IQ. They asked “master’s-level-type questions” in what Pollack described as a “100-, 200-level class.”
So that’s encouraging, but Van Roten and McGovern still haven’t met. There will be a lot of introductions when the team reports to training camp July 28.
The Jets are counting on two rookies to make contributions, Becton and wide receiver Denzel Mims, which could be dicey. The jump from college to the NFL always is tough; imagine doing it without an offseason program. It will be a challenge for Mims, who will see more sophisticated coverages than he saw at Baylor.
“It’s good that we had this amount of time as far as the virtual offseason goes for him to learn things,” Gase said. “The hardest part is us not being on the field where he could run routes and run concepts and line up and do those things with the guys he’s actually going to be playing with. Everything is going to be put in fast-forward when we hit training camp.”
The unusual offseason resulted in more meeting time than a normal offseason, according to Gase, who believes that will benefit the team. For instance, Loggains said he and Darnold had time to review every play from last season. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said the offseason reminded him of the 1980s, when there was no offseason program, only a short minicamp. He said they managed to get by.
Of course, those were the days of long training camps, two-a-day practices and no salary cap. Football has changed. The 2020 season figures to be like no other. The teams that adapt will thrive. The others will crumble.