Lichtenstein: Jets’ McKnight Switch A High-School Move
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By Steve Lichtenstein
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Why don’t we just get it over with and relegate the Jets to the Public Schools Athletic League?
I know, that’s out of line considering that they’re 2-1 and in first place in the AFC East going to into Sunday’s match with the 49ers. What I mean is that the Jets act like they have so few athletes on the roster that the best ones have to pull double duty, even if they’re forced to play out of position. That’s what high school teams do. All NFL teams play under the same salary cap rules, so why are the Jets the only team that can’t seem to find enough players to fill the depth chart at every position?
Running back Joe McKnight’s switch to cornerback is just the latest example. With star cornerback Darrelle Revis likely out for the season, coach Rex Ryan is really looking outside the box to find someone who can cover NFL receivers.
Then again, this is the Jets way, instead of, you know, developing your players so they’re ready when injuries inevitably put them on the front line.
At first, it was cute when Ryan sent out Tim Tebow to start at tight end on Opening Day against the Bills. I thought it was just Ryan’s way of sticking it to everyone who mocked the Jets for acquiring the hot-button backup quarterback.
But Ryan was dead serious. Apparently having Tebow serve as the punt protector was not enough proof that he’s “a football player.” So for last week’s Dolphins game, Tebow was on the field for 11 plays where he was an eligible receiver. After watching quarterback Mark Sanchez’ pass hit Tebow in the back of the helmet in the third quarter, I would venture to say that Tebow has not had a lot of time to perfect the timing required for that short out. I find it hard to believe that this was the best personnel package the Jets could send out for third-and-three in a tie game.
Now I know that starting tight end Dustin Keller has been sidelined since midway through the Buffalo game with a hamstring injury. But it’s not like the Jets don’t have anyone else who can play there. Jeff Cumberland was a second tight end on the play, but where was Konrad Reuland, Sanchez’ boyhood buddy? If he’s not as good as Tebow, what’s he doing here? If he was unavailable, well, call for a different package. You don’t trust a neophyte to make a play in that situation.
I didn’t think it would be possible, but I feel bad for Tebow. I believe that he is earnest in his desire to improve as a quarterback, but the Jets brass acquired him so they can show him off like he’s on America’s Got Talent. They have taken the wild out of the Wildcat by never letting Tebow throw (for heaven’s sake, the Bengals opened their game in the Wildcat with wide receiver Mohamed Sanu throwing a 73-yard touchdown bomb), which allows defenses to tee off on Tebow as soon as he fields the snap.
Now they’re screwing around with McKnight, who also happened to lead the NFL last season in average yards per kickoff return. Despite being chosen in the fourth round in the 2010 draft, McKnight has never earned Ryan’s trust as a running back. But then Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell haven’t exactly been piling up the rushing yards in the first three games of Ground and Pound either, with Greene’s meager 2.8 years per rush especially disappointing.
You would think the Jets could use a player with McKnight’s speed to put some juice in a sputtering offense. Instead, they want to translate that asset to teach him how to play NFL defense. What team thinks that’s an easy transition?
This is a “Next Man Up” League, yet the Jets walk into every season unprepared for any injury. The Jets should sneak a peek at the other office in their stadium to see how the Giants succeed with unheralded players, how they seamlessly plug in an Andre Brown or Ramses Barden as major contributors in victories when starters go down or are ineffective. Really anywhere you turn you can find guys who were undrafted or low-round picks becoming household names when given the opportunity.
Not here. For all of Ryan’s early success, I dare you to name a player who has come out of nowhere on his watch to contribute like that. Ryan may be a terrific motivator and a wise defensive game-planner, but his staff has done a poor job of developing players.
That includes his high draft picks, such as Kyle Wilson, another one from the 2010 class. The late first-rounder has not lived up to his billing as a shutdown corner. His results covering slot receivers have been mixed, to put it kindly. He gives too much cushion, not a wise move for a corner generously listed at 5-foot-10. With Revis out, Wilson has won the starting job by default. Unaccomplished Ellis Lankster and Isaiah Trufant are the only other corners on the roster.
So here comes San Francisco, a team with Super Bowl aspirations with a boatload of accomplished receivers plus a star at tight end in Vernon Davis and running backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield.
What is Ryan’s answer for Sunday? Not to talk up Wilson, Lankster and Trufant as prepared to play up, but to send signals that he has no faith in them by working out McKnight in the defensive backfield. If Ryan and his staff haven’t been able to get Wilson ready for the NFL, I have no idea why he thinks he can do it on the fly with McKnight, who hasn’t been a regular there since he was in high school.
And if McKnight actually has to play a lot on defense Sunday, the 49ers will make the Jets look like they belong back there.
What do you think of the switch? Let us know in the comments below!