It has not gotten enough attention just how detrimental the center position has been for the Jets since late-2016. But with Connor McGovern, what was once a gaping hole is now one of the team’s greatest strengths.
Jets observers can all agree that the team’s offensive line has been a major problem over the past few seasons, but there is one position on the unit in particular that has been a massive, massive problem, yet has not gotten nearly enough attention for it – center.
Nick Mangold made his last NFL start in Week 13 of the 2016 season, a 41-10 loss to the Colts on Monday Night Football. Over the 52 games that have passed since then, the center position has been the weakest on the Jets roster.
Wesley Johnson took over for Mangold, finishing out the 2016 season and holding the job throughout 2017. He was the worst-graded starting center by Pro Football Focus in the 2017 season.
The Jets’ solution in 2018 was to sign Washington free agent Spencer Long, who was coming off of an injury-riddled 2017 season in which he was one of the league’s worst centers when healthy. The results were predictably bad. Long was the second-worst graded center in 2018.
In 2019, the Jets were set to go into the season with Jonotthan Harrison as the starting center. Harrison, formerly of a Colts offensive line known for clobbering the body of Andrew Luck, replaced Long for the second half of 2018 and was mediocre at best. Joe Douglas made the team’s lack of confidence in Harrison clear by signing 34-year-old Ryan Kalil out of retirement to take Harrison’s place about a month prior to the season.
Kalil started only seven games until being placed on injured reserve. He was the second-worst graded center over his time in the lineup. Harrison took over for the ensuing nine games and showed why Douglas felt better about bringing in a formerly retired 34-year-old. Harrison was the second-worst graded center from Weeks 9-17, also allowing the highest pressure rate among centers (5.1%) over that span.
This position’s output has hurt the Jets more than any other over the last 52 games – across both offense and defense. Yes, the entire offensive line has been atrocious, and none of the five positions are off the hook, but no single position on the entire roster has been more consistently brutal than this one.
Fast-forward to the present day, and the Jets might finally have the heir to Mangold’s golden-bearded throne. Connor McGovern is coming off a 2019 season with the Broncos in which he was ranked by PFF as the league’s 10th-best center – including fifth-best in pass protection – in his very first year as a full-time starting center.
The upgrade from the horrors of yesteryear to McGovern is going to be absolutely massive for the entire franchise.
Let’s dig into some examples of just how detrimental the center position was for the Jets in 2019, and then take a look at how McGovern will turn things around.
Kalil looked exactly as you would expect him to look. He was a star in Carolina for a long time, but his performance and durability dwindled over his final few seasons there. So, following an extended period of decline, it would be absurd to expect anything but continued deterioration after coming out of retirement eight months into an offseason.
In the run game, Kalil was an enormous liability, severely lacking power. On this outside zone run, Kalil is knocked four yards into the backfield, forcing Bell to cut back immediately after he secures the handoff.
Following this shotgun snap, Kalil leaves his chest entirely exposed as he engages the 2-technique with way too wide of a punch. The 2T blasts Kalil into the backfield, forcing Bell to make another immediate cut into traffic.
Kalil ranked third among centers with five penalties through Week 8. Here, Kalil is immediately beaten by the nose tackle with a hump/swim move for a would-be easy sack, so he tackles the defender to save face, warranting a holding call.
The Jets offensive line actually does a mostly good job on this duo run. There is potential for Bell to record a long gain on first down if Kalil can seal out stud Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower at the second level to open up the play side A-gap. Unfortunately for Bell, Hightower obliterates Kalil to clog the lane and stop the run at just four yards. To add salt to the wound, in the process of being dominated, Kalil grabs Hightower’s facemask for a 15-yard penalty.
Oftentimes, Kalil did not even offer the veteran savvy that one would think should not evaporate with age. Kalil looks to assist to his left on this play, but there is no work for him there as the 3/4i-tech (who shifted outside before the snap) rushes to the outside shoulder of the left guard (Kelechi Osemele). To Kalil’s right, Buffalo has the 4i and 5-tech linemen jump one gap to the inside. That’s where Kalil’s help is needed. Kalil is far too late to swivel his head to the right side and allows unblocked pressure (Brian Winters blows it as well).
Sam Darnold actually handled that well, but Jamison Crowder dropped it (after a great route). Additionally, you can see Darnold pointing something out on the right side before the snap. It’s impossible for us to know exactly what he is signaling, but based on the timing of when he points, it seems he is aware that the outside linebacker will be coming and adjusts the protection right to account for it. Obviously, the line (Kalil included) didn’t get the message, if that is indeed what Darnold was signaling.
This play against Cleveland sums up Kalil’s Jets tenure pretty well. When you Google “what happened to Le’Veon Bell” (it actually appears as a search suggestion, try it), this video is what should come up.
Kalil was bad, but I think Harrison was even worse. He suffered brutal, play-destroying losses at a dizzying rate that made it difficult for the Jets offense to get any sort of rhythm going.
Leonard Williams crashes down on Harrison from the 5-tech defensive end spot. Williams bulldozes Harrison and gets home for a hard hit on Darnold, forcing an incompletion.
On this play, Harrison is immediately dispatched by the nose tackle with a swim move, leaving Darnold with pressure bearing down on him as soon as he pulls out of the play fake. Luckily, Alex Lewis bails Harrison out. Darnold navigates traffic and makes a nice in-stride throw to Vyncint Smith.
Harrison is ready for 3-technique Ed Oliver to loop inside on him, but he still allows Oliver to bull him into the pocket. He is late with his punch and punches too wide, allowing Oliver directly into his chest, all while lacking any balance in his stance and drifting backward. As a result of the penetration allowed by Harrison, Darnold is forced to scramble and attempt a difficult throw (which he impressively completes).
Harrison allows the nose tackle to beat him to the play side on this outside zone run. Harrison’s hands are way too wide (again) and the NT gains easy control of Harrison’s chest, using torque to propel himself towards the direction of the play. It’s a no-gainer for Bell thanks to the contact behind the line of scrimmage allowed by Harrison.
Harrison blows up another outside zone run as he allows the 1-technique (B.J. Hill) to win the B-gap and knock him two yards into the backfield. As soon as Bell grabs the handoff, Harrison is in his lap and Hill has the play side covered up, forcing Bell to make an awkward cutback into a two-yard gain.
Even after the initial loss, Harrison could have given Bell time and space to save the play by driving Hill towards the sideline, but instead, Hill planted and used Harrison’s momentum against him, throwing Harrison to the ground like a Gronk spike. Hill ended up as the primary tackler. Had Harrison driven Hill out of the play, Bell might have gotten five or six yards. Recovery is a big part of offensive line play – when you lose, stay with it and limit the damage – Harrison failed to recover here.
McGovern is much better than Harrison and Kalil, but obviously, Kalil and Harrison were not always bad, and McGovern is not always good. I could show you some great plays from Harrison and some ugly ones from McGovern.
In a professional league where everyone is at the top-0.01% of their profession, what separates good players from bad ones is simply consistency. Over the course of a full season, the Jets will get far fewer blown reps from McGovern than his predecessors would have accumulated over the same amount of playing time.
It’s not as if Harrison, Kalil, or any other center in the NFL is physically incapable of doing the things you’re about to see McGovern do. McGovern just does them more consistently than most. These high-points of McGovern provide a contrast to the plays shown above that were ruined by Harrison and Kalil, showcasing the effect that the center’s performance can have on the outcome of a snap.
We saw a play earlier where Kalil was left without an assignment and failed to recognize where his help was needed, allowing pressure. McGovern shows here what you want from your center in those situations. When the 1-technique drops into coverage, McGovern wastes no time diagnosing where he needs to be. He checks left and sees two teammates against one rusher. Knowing the left side is secure, McGovern immediately swivels back right. To the right, McGovern sees his right guard in a one-on-one matchup on an island – that’s where he needs to help out. McGovern aggressively ranges over and flattens the rusher.
More great help from McGovern. Once the linebacker over him drops back, he decisively ranges to the weak side, crushing a poor Buffalo soul.
Earlier, we saw Harrison take an instant loss in pass protection to the nose tackle. Here, McGovern is tasked with a one-on-one against the nose tackle, who happens to be Chris Jones, one of the best interior pass-rushers in football. Jones goes for a side-step move, but McGovern does not bite on it and stays balanced. With Jones’ chest open, McGovern initiates contact, digging his left arm into Jones’ chest and using his right arm to grab the shoulder. McGovern takes control and dominates the battle, driving Jones way off the line.
In his film breakdown with the Cool Your Jets podcast, former Jets defensive tackle Mike DeVito mentioned that McGovern being left on an island against Jones is a tremendous showing of confidence in his ability from the Denver coaching staff.
We saw examples of both Harrison and Kalil failing to adequately lead on an outside zone run, allowing their man to beat them to the spot and force Bell into an immediate cutback. Here are two plays in which McGovern gets it done on an outside zone. First, McGovern hops over a gap and beats the 2i-technique (who is in an advantageous position) to the play side, pinning him to the back side to allow the runner to get outside.
Next, McGovern gets a quick burst off the ball and easily carries the play side 1-technique down the field. (Not a good run by Phillip Lindsay, who should have continued following the outside flow rather than going up the middle.)
This next play is so good that it might be fair to say many other centers would be incapable of matching it. McGovern makes an outstanding block on an outside pitch to lead a healthy gain in a situation where most centers probably would have allowed a tackle for loss.
The left guard pulls, leaving the 3-technique unblocked for McGovern to pick up and pin to the inside. McGovern has to hop two gaps to make this play, and he does it. He explodes out of his stance, fires out to the outside shoulder of the 3T, rips underneath the 3T’s outside arm to win the outside (as if he were the pass-rusher), and finally works his way outside to pin the 3T and create a lane. McGovern began on one hash and established the block outside of the other hash. Fantastic.
Typically, centers lose one-on-one battles less frequently than any of the other four positions on the line. That’s simply the nature of the position. At the middle of the line, centers are usually facing larger, meatier, less athletic defenders who are there to take up space rather than to penetrate.
Oftentimes, centers don’t match up with anybody at all and are simply tasked with assisting on a double-team in the run game or finding a teammate who needs help in pass protection. Defenses want to give their most talented players more room to operate, so they usually do not put them in the middle of the line, where a double-team is likely and space is scarce. So, coaches attempt to isolate their stars by putting them further outside rather than in traffic near the middle of the line. That’s why the majority of star pass-rushers make their home on the edge or at the 3-technique rather than the nose or 1-technique.
Here’s the bottom line: the average center should be “losing” (getting beaten badly enough in a one-on-one matchup to destroy an entire play) far less often than the average lineman at any of the other four positions.
That has not been the case for the Jets. Their centers have been allowing defenders to fly into the backfield and shut down plays at the frequency of a bad guard or mediocre tackle. The Jets have had to try and work around this on a weekly basis over their last 52 games.
With McGovern, the Jets will no longer have to work around a towering obstacle in the middle of their offense. Their core stars will have basic freedoms handed back to them. Darnold will have the space to feel comfortable about stepping up in the pocket and throwing with confidence. Bell will have far fewer reps in which he is forced to immediately make a decision, allowing his trademark patience and vision to return.
This Jets roster has plenty of concerns that have each received their share of discussion, but there has not been enough hype surrounding the one very obvious and incredibly important upgrade that the team did make.
The night-and-day difference between McGovern and his predecessors could kickstart a domino effect that pushes the Jets offense – and thus the entire franchise – back to relevancy.