Changing of the Guard

A quick Google search of Jets Left Offensive Guard Matt Slauson will turn up some pretty damn intimidating pictures.

In a few snaps Slauson, clad in Nebraska red, cuts an intense form, borderline otherworldly. Face decorated in white and black paint, eyes etched into a fixed, intense gaze, shoulder pads nearly bursting from his jersey, this is a portrait befitting of an ancient warrior, dodging flaming projectiles from a faraway catapult, across a sword and shield strewn field.

Instead, these are modern times, and Slauson’s obvious, overflowing intensity found a place in professional football.

But first impressions are often proven incorrect, simplified caricatures. In terms of game-time temperament, Slauson may be perfectly suited to assist his fellow teammates blowing open holes in an opposing defensive line. But the carefully considering, humble second-year Guard interviewed this afternoon surely belied that frightening figure in old photos.

Slauson essentially replaced the departed Alan Faneca. Faneca, a Hall of Fame bound lineman, was a natural leader and magnificent run blocker. When assessing the spectacular successes of the 2009 Jets running game, it would be downright criminal to overlook the importance of Faneca. He was an excellent communicator, serving as a conduit between his lane mates before the snap, while also diagnosing opponent schemes. When it came to exploding off scrimmage and knocking onrushing defensive tackles and ends off their center of gravity, Faneca was still a virtuoso. Unfortunately for both he and the Jets, the veteran Guards’ pass protecting skills had slightly eroded, rendering him a liability. Considering his high price tag, and Mark Sanchez’s knee related fragility, the Jets parted ways with Faneca during the offseason, an unpopular move in the locker-room also panned in many media quarters. His potential replacements didn’t exactly enhance instant reaction to the maneuver.  Matt Slauson, labeled a disappointment following a minimally impactful rookie campaign, would compete with incoming neophyte Vlad Ducasse, drafted out of UMass in the second round. Ducasse, a touted physical specimen, was expected to win the job. But he developed more slowly than anticipated, allowing the overlooked Slauson to claim victory.

Many believed the Jets had unnecessarily tinkered with a well-oiled machine. The mere chance that Slauson could fail, thereby disrupting the entire line, may not have been worth the risk. In an uncapped season, Faneca could have been retained, rather painlessly in a financial sense. But the Jets, like the rest of the league, refused to alter their usual business methods in spite of these altered circumstances. They would gamble on youth, probably banking on Ducasse, but still believing in Slauson.

If the Jets indeed possessed unwavering faith in Slauson’s talents, and their actions seem to corroborate such a theory, then their respected offensive line coach Bill Callahan certainly was a factor in the decision-making process. Callahan was a brilliant addition to the coaching staff in 2008. A gifted offensive mind, he saw his coaching stock lowered while overseeing the downward spiral of an ancient Raiders team in 2003. Oakland fell apart after a crushing Super Bowl loss, to their former coach Jon Gruden and his Buccaneers. Callahan lost the locker-room, made controversial comments to the media, and was surprisingly ousted only a year after winning the AFC. He moved on to Nebraska for a short stint before hopping over to the Jets, a highly qualified Offensive Line coach. Among his many players at Nebraska was a guard named Matt Slauson. The two’s history together would lead the latter to New York, eventually a pivotal cog for team that just may prove special.

Slauson had high praise for Callahan. In a professional world of unending transience, the long-term coach and player relationship between Callahan and Slauson is unique. Slauson had high praise for his coach.  “It’s great,” he said when asked about their communication. “He knows exactly what I can do. He pretty much saved my life in college, because coming out of high school nobody really wanted me, and he gave me a shot. It was the same thing now. I really wasn’t sure where I was going to get drafted, if I was going to get drafted at all. And he kind of stuck his neck out again, and said, ‘I like this guy, I think we should bring him in.’ So it’s great working with a coach I know, I know the system, and that he has so much confidence in me.”

Slauson was consistently considerate in his responses. Players can’t be blamed for using doubters within the fan-base and media for sources of anger and motivation, but Slauson had a more mature, acceptant attitude, instead citing high standards within the organization as a catalyst for consistency.  “I was untested, I was unproven,” he said, acknowledging the thought processes of his cynics.  “I’m replacing possibly the best guard that ever played. There’s a lot of pressure for a sixth round pick, that no one knows who he is, to come in and take over. I know what I can do, Coach Callahan knows what I can do, so I think it’ll only be a matter of time before everyone says this guy’s doing a great job.” Slauson continued. “I kind of let it [doubt] fuel me. Because I do know that last year we were the number one rated offensive line and I have to replace Alan Faneca, so I kind of let it fuel me. And I’m terrified every week, I’m scared of going out there and being the weak link, I don’t want our o-line to drop off at all, I want to improve upon it, and continue moving in the right direction, and win a Super Bowl.”

Matt Slauson has answered the call, answering one very pivotal question mark for the New York Jets.

Imagine that. The Wildman in those images acknowledging his own fear. But there’s obviously more to Matt Slauson than snap judgments can provide. Perhaps if certain Jets fans had looked closer before the season started, they would have saved themselves a ton of unnecessary fretting. It just may have been the perfect time for a changing of the guard.

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Rex Ryan was in a comedic mood during today’s press conference. Perhaps jovial due to his team’s impressive 5-1 record; or a nearly clean injury report [Calvin Pace is the sole question mark for Sunday after being limited in practice], Ryan had some fun at the expense of special teams coach Mike Westhoff, who got into a minor war of words with embattled Denver Broncos boss Josh McDaniels. Westhoff eventually claimed that he had “invented” the onside kick, leading Ryan to hand out a jokey pamphlet today about the history of such innovations as the single-wing formation, the blitz, and yes, the onside kick. In place of the true originators, the pamphlet had cross out names replaced with Jets assistant coaches. So yes, Bill “Pop” Callahan may now be credited with the invention of the single wing, in place of Glenn “Pop” Warner, Bob Sutton should be acknowledged as the mastermind behind the blitz, instead of Don Ettinger, and cementing the theme, let it be known that in 1907, Mike Westhoff wrote the book on “The Forward Pass and the On-side Kick,” and not Eddie Cochems.

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