Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff dealing with changes
Eric Smith and Brad Smith were bass fishing at a pond in New Jersey two weeks ago, two good friends passing the time as they waited for word on their football futures.
Around the time Eric Smith reeled in his fourth fish, Brad Smith got his first bite of the day, and the biggest one. His agent called his cell phone to let him know the Buffalo Bills had made an offer. Turns out, it was the last time the pair would cast their fishing rods as [URL="http://www.nj.com/jets/"][B][COLOR=#305cb6]Jets[/COLOR][/B][/URL] teammates.
It also marked the end of the “Smith Brothers,” the moniker for Mike Westhoff’s dynamic special-teams duo.
“I don’t think it’s really set in yet,” Eric Smith admitted today.
On offense and defense, the Jets return 18 of 22 starters from last season, a high return rate. But on special teams, more regrouping is needed.
Most notable is the loss of Brad Smith, the ace kick returner and versatile contributor whom Westhoff, the special-teams coordinator, once said he would quit without. The Jets have a kicking competition (Nick Folk vs. Nick Novak), a punting competition (Chris Bryan vs. T.J. Conley), an open holder job and a rookie (Jeremy Kerley) as the early favorite to be the kick and punt returner.
Gone, too, are last year’s top three special-teams tacklers: Lance Laury, James Ihedigbo and Brad Smith. Eric Smith, re-signed as a starting safety, will be taken off the kickoff return team to ease his load.
Westhoff’s take? His special-teams units have perennially been in the top of the NFL. It’s his job to make sure this season is no exception.
“In my mind, I’m not looking at it like, ‘Wow, I just got smashed,’ ”
Westhoff said. “Even though I just got smashed. I think we have a chance to be pretty darn good.”
Now in his 29th NFL season, Westhoff said getting this year’s unit up to speed, in a radically condensed time frame, is not his greatest challenge to date — “but it’s not far down the list.”
He’s approaching the task with method, wisdom and urgency. Each practice, Westhoff said, is being treated as if this is the week before the regular-season opener against the Dallas Cowboys. He must not only evaluate the younger players, to see if they merit a roster spot, but prepare his top unit for games.
Westhoff carries around a list of at least 60 scenarios he needs to cover before Sept. 11, ranging from punt blocks to returns after a safety. Each day, he checks a few more off the list, taking advantage of the morning walk-through and hoping there is time to revisit the plays at full speed during the afternoon practice — an adjustment now that two-a-days have been eliminated under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Working in Westhoff’s favor is that he has fine-tuned a system that is player-friendly. That doesn’t mean it is simple — in fact, it is very complex — but he teaches in a way that requires little memorization.
Westhoff is known for sketching diagrams of his schemes, with arrows clearly indicating where each player is supposed to go. Before sending his players onto the field, he holds up the laminated sheet of the play they’ll run.
“He takes all the thinking out of what we need to do,” long snapper Tanner Purdum said. “He sets out a basic grid, and a basic set of principles, and you play and react.”
Westhoff remembers a time in the ’80s and ’90s, as the special-teams coordinator in Miami, when he might make a single change on a punt team all season.
Now it could be six or seven.
He recognizes that turnover is a part of his realm, and makes the best of it.
Asked about the unsettled kicker and punter positions, he cracks, “I don’t know what the heck I’d do if I had just an incumbent that everyone else was coveting.”
During free agency, Westhoff made calls to Brad Smith, Eric Smith and Ihedigbo, expressing his desire to have them back. But that’s as far as he went, he said. He prefers not to know the salary of any members of the Jets’ roster, because business decisions are not his responsibility.
The math he does involves parsing the players who will be active on game day, determining how many receivers, tight ends and running backs he’ll have at his disposal. As a sign in his office reads, “You can’t win with the players you don’t have.”
“I’m prepared to move on,” Westhoff said. “It’s not easy, and for a while it’s frustrating, and I’m miserable to be around. But once it rolls, once it goes, then I’m ready to go.”