- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The members of the Mushroom Society meet each spring in Cincinnati, lugging overnight bags and obscure documents dedicated to the study of run-blocking and pass protection. Among the participants in the annual clinic for offensive line coaches—Mushrooms, they call themselves, for their ability to flourish under grimy conditions, in the shadows—is the Jets' Bill Callahan, former coach of the Raiders and of Nebraska and now the brains behind the most dominant offensive line in the NFL.
On Sunday, about 250 miles north of Mushroom headquarters, Callahan huddled with his troops on the sideline at Cleveland Browns Stadium, deep into an overtime that had tested them in every way. They had won the ball-control battle. They had sprung New York running backs for timely gains. They had protected second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez. With 24 seconds left Callahan's line stood firm one last time, and Sanchez, releasing quickly, found wideout Santonio Holmes on a quick slant that turned into a 37-yard touchdown and a 26--20 victory. Said right tackle Damien Woody, "We were dead tired. It felt like playing two games in one. But Coach Callahan told us we were going to win the game right here, and I was just hoping and praying he was right."
The play set off a celebration worthy of the weeklong buildup. Coach Rex Ryan lit cigars with New York general manager Mike Tannenbaum outside the stadium, sending ribbons of smoke into the dark sky, a reward for beating Rex's predecessor, Browns coach Eric Mangini, and his twin brother, Cleveland defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, whom Rex had playfully mocked during a midweek press conference by donning a blond wig and an XXXXXL Browns sweatshirt. Callahan and his linemen? After the game they walked to the buses silent as monks, their duty for the week done. "They work more than they yap," Jets defensive end Trevor Pryce says of the O-line. "You can't get a word out of them. They beat you up, they score, and they walk off the field."
The Jets' offensive line may prove to be the decisive unit in a wide-open race for the Super Bowl title. Powerful in the running game and precise in the face of pressure, its brilliant play has become a staple in a league lacking a clear bully. Three years after the Patriots' perfect regular season, and one year after the Saints and the Colts both flirted with the same, the season's last unbeaten team, the Chiefs, fell quietly in Week 5, highlighting a season of parity and unpredictability.
The elite teams that ruled the last decade have returned to the pack. The Steelers started out swimming strongly against the current of their quarterback's own misdeeds but have dropped two of their last three games. The Patriots are transitioning on defense from a veteran group to a young, feisty and, occasionally, error-prone one. The Colts have had to break in a raft of new skill players, and their defense has been beset by injury.
Not that every franchise has taken advantage of the buckling giants. The 49ers and the Texans are perpetually intriguing and dependably disappointing. The Chargers are bungling their special teams play during the season instead of waiting for the playoffs. The Vikings and the Cowboys, two NFC powers that entered September with Super Bowl aspirations, have been embroiled in soap operas.
Still, the logjam of mediocrity gives almost every team hope for a late-season playoff dash. As Browns running back Peyton Hillis said last week, framing Cleveland's rise in terms its fan base will appreciate, "Every dog has its day."
At 7--2 the Jets have weaknesses like every team—Sanchez's occasional impetuousness, cornerback Darrelle Revis's balky hamstring, placekicker Nick Folk's fickle foot—but the offensive line will not be the place to look for softness. The unit is a mix of tough, intelligent players, a group that has remained largely intact. That continuity breeds comfort and a propensity for recognizing and neutralizing the schemes they see from week to week.
"You're essentially outnumbered every snap," Callahan says. "The defense is always going to bring one more than you have. Finding solutions to those problems becomes critical, so it's important to have smart guys who can see them."
What New York has is a sturdy foundation: