By Kristian Dyer
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Wayne Hunter please come on out, the cheering crowd awaits you.
Rather than a cheering crowd and a supportive organization backing the embattled right tackle, the Jets unceremoniously demoted the player on Thursday, giving bloodthirsty fans exactly what they wanted. Hunter was a role player before becoming the Jets starter last summer and his treatment now is the direct opposite of how the team treats their biggest stars.
Last November before a Week 12 home game against Buffalo, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was booed by his own team’s fans during player introductions prior to the game. Sanchez, who often receives one of the biggest cheers of any of the Jets players, was coming off two consecutive Jets losses where he was largely panned for sub-par performances. Following the rude introduction, his play improved slightly, including throwing a career high four touchdowns but that wasn’t enough for the Jets organization. Players responded angrily at the fans booing a player before the game’s first snap, criticizing the fan base.
The next home game two weeks later, the Jets were supposed to introduce the defense to the fans but instead, head coach Rex Ryan and management asked for the offense to run out of the tunnel and be introduced again. During the week leading up to the game against Kansas City, Ryan asked that fans cheer rather than jeer Sanchez. The crowd erupted with an over the top ovation and the Jets cruised to a blowout win over the Chiefs.
Where was that kind of support for Hunter? Demoted by the Jets on Thursday to a utility role and their jumbo tight end, it was announced that Austin Howard is the new starting right tackle.
By his own admission, Hunter has struggled since signing a contract extension last year to become the Jets starting right tackle. He’s had a handful of good games, some average and a few very bad ones. Hunter admits it and doesn’t deny it and Ryan always seemed to have Hunter’s back.
But never, never did they go over the top to support Hunter like they have done with Sanchez, a player who has been billed as the face of the franchise.
Let’s look at the facts. Sanchez struggled during the second half of last season and if he faltered, there was a viable backup last year in Mark Brunell, a veteran of 19 NFL seasons. It wasn’t an ideal situation as since 2007, Brunell has thrown only 43 passes with only 24 completions, but he was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and a highly respected quarterback. He knew the offense and certainly didn’t lack in experience.
Behind Hunter is the unproven Howard, an undrafted free agent in his third year in the league, whom the Jets plucked off the Baltimore practice squad last fall. He has four games played to his name with just one start, hardly a resume that speaks of being able to step into the starting lineup of a team with playoff caliber ambitions. Yet the Jets were willing to prop up Sanchez and boost his ego, even with a viable backup behind him but with Hunter, they’re all too willing to go the route of promoting an unproven right tackle.
Benching Hunter seems to make sense. He struggled last year and in his preseason debut last Saturday, he conceded three sacks. But there was no vocal support for Hunter, no rabid histrionics to affect public perception and create a false aura of support as done with Sanchez’s introduction before the Chiefs game.
Instead, Hunter was swept aside, set up to fail as the scape goat for last year’s disappointing 8-8 season and perhaps the whipping boy for the poor showing of the offense in preseason.
This isn’t to dispute that Hunter wasn’t the right fit at the right tackle position; his own words echo that sentiment. But the catch here is that Ryan has built a reputation as a player’s coach and the lack of support given to Hunter stands in stark contrast to the coddling of Sanchez late last season.
Say what you will of Hunter’s play, he has owned up to every mistake and only ever worked hard at his craft. He deserved better.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the NFL and college football for Metro New York and contributes to Yahoo! Sports as well as WFAN. He can be followed on Twitter here.
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