Monday, November 7, 2011
High-school scrapper and late-blooming pro Wayne Hunter begins to put it all together
By Greg Hanlon
5:52 pm Nov. 7, 2011
Each time the Jets or Giants play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Wayne Hunter, who played offensive tackle in the Jets’ 27-11 win on Nov. 6 over the Buffalo Bills.
Football people often talk about how the benefits of the running game can’t always be captured through conventional statistics. Such was the case yesterday, when the Jets averaged an unimpressive 3.6 yards on their 35 designed running plays against the Buffalo Bills, yet largely have the running game to thank for their overall impressive offensive performance.
Consider that quarterback Mark Sanchez posted his best completion percentage of the year yesterday, hitting on 20 of his 28 passes. According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, Sanchez’s numbers were heavily bolstered by plays involving a faked running play, on which Sanchez hit on 11 of his 12 passes for 129 yards and his only touchdown.
The Jets lined up a fullback nearly 60 percent of the time yesterday, compared to a season average of 32 percent before yesterday, according to ESPN. Also, the Jets' lopsided advantage in time of possession—they had the ball for nearly 38 minutes—was largely attributable to a running game that kept their offense “on schedule” and kept Buffalo’s explosive offense off the field.
Thus, despite the Jets’ pedestrian rushing totals, reports of the triumphant return of “ground and pound”—the offensive philosophy that emphasizes a punishing, bread-and-butter running game over passing pyrotechnics, reflecting the swaggering machismo of Rex Ryan’s team—are well-founded.
If you’ve been following the Jets this year, you probably know the storyline: Wanting to expand the role of quarterback Mark Sanchez and having acquired Plaxico Burress to round out a talented group of receivers, the Jets changed their offensive approach at the beginning of the year and started passing more. It didn’t work, and now they’re back to doing what they do best.
“I think I was kind of set up and enamored with those three-wides and, when we looked at it, we said that might suit our personnel better,” Ryan told reporters during the Jets bye week before the Buffalo game.
“But what’s really best for the Jets is the ability to run the football, maybe play more regular personnel [groupings] and two-tight end personnel groupings,” he said.
Along with the change in the type of formations they’re using has been a change in their blocking schemes, according to Damien Woody, the former Jets standout offensive lineman who now works as an analyst for ESPN. (Woody was considered one of the Jets best run-blockers, but he was cut for salary-cap reasons and decided to retire rather than come back at a reduced price.)
Woody told me that from 2009 to 2010, the Jets running game had evolved include more zone-blocking schemes, rather than man-blocking. In man-blocking, each lineman is responsible for blocking an individual player. In zone-blocking, the line moves as a unit as if on a moving chain, and each lineman is responsible for blocking any defender who attempts to breach that chain.
That trend continued in the early part of this year, but with poor results.
“Sometimes, you incorporate different schemes early on in the year and things don’t mesh as well," he told me. "It came to the point where they were running a lot of zone-blocking schemes when you’re moving more east-west than north-south.
“But now, when I saw the San Diego game, it was more of a man-blocking scheme, more just firing off the ball and going mano-a-mano, or combo blocks. It’s a matter of scouting yourself and seeing, ‘Here’s what we do best, let’s focus on it, and let’s get back to it.’”
STILL, SCHEMES DON'T MATTER MUCH if the players aren't playing well. Which brings us to Wayne Hunter, the Jets’ 30-year-old right tackle, who is a starter in the league for the first time in his eight-year NFL career.
Hunter’s season got off to a disastrous start in Week 1 against Dallas. Rob Ryan, the Cowboys defensive coordinator and Rex’s Lebowski-ish twin brother, intentionally isolated superstar linebacker DeMarcus Ware on Hunter. Hunter didn’t handle it well, allowing one sack and six quarterback pressures while being publicly pitied on national television by NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth.
“I think it was a good challenge,” Hunter told reporters afterward. “It’s all upside from here.”
But things got worse before they got better. Hunter followed that up with two more poor games. According to Pro Football Focus, which grades every player after every game, Hunter was nearly off-the-charts-bad in those first three games. It was clear: The Jets offense didn’t resemble the physical unit of the previous two seasons, and the new right tackle seemed to be a big reason why.
But quietly, Hunter shook off his poor start. According to Pro Football Focus, each of the four games he played going into Sunday since those ghastly first three were above average. He even had his redemption in a nationally televised game when he stonewalled the Dolphins' Pro Bowler Cameron Wake in one-on-one protection, earning praise from the television analysts.
The Jets running game began to round into form too, showing signs of life against New England and Miami before producing 162 rushing yards on Oct. 23 against San Diego. That game, plus yesterday’s 126-yard output (in net yards, including Mark Sanchez scrambles and sacks), represented the only time the Jets rushed for more yards than the league average of 115.
Yesterday, Hunter allowed an early sack to Buffalo’s Alex Carrington. On the play, it looked like Hunter was late getting off the snap because he was confused about the count. Later in the game, Hunter committed a false-start penalty, also because he didn’t know the snap count.
Those were the plays visible to the casual viewer. If you watched Hunter carefully, though, you would have seen that he executed his job an overwhelmingly high percentage of the time and played outstandingly, both in run-blocking and pass-protection. He was part of a Jets effort that controlled the line of scrimmage so thoroughly that it’s surprising the Jets didn’t blow the game open much earlier than they did.
IF HUNTER IS RE-WRITING THE STORY OF HIS SEASON, THE SAME applies to his career, which began about as dismally as possible. Hunter was a third-round draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2003, but didn’t make a smooth adjustment to the pro game and played in just two games in three years.
All the headlines he made were off the field. During his time in Seattle, he was arrested twice, once for domestic violence and once for a bar fight. The Seahawks released him and Hunter was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he didn’t do much with his second chance. He failed to make the team in training camp of 2006, and then he missed all of 2007 with a knee injury.
It seemed like a bitter end to football life that Hunter was drawn into by his circumstances, when Kelly Sur, head coach at Radford High School in Hawaii, heard about the lanky freshman with a reputation for fisticuffs. The kid had spent much of his childhood in a single-family home the projects in the rough Kalihi section of Honolulu. His mother, a New Zealand native of Samoan heritage, had worked multiple jobs to move her family to a better neighborhood. But Hunter brought the quick-to-violence mentality of Kalihi to his new school.
“He wasn’t a troublemaker, but he wouldn’t back down,” Sur remembered of Hunter, who, like so many NFL players, considered himself a basketball player in his youth.
“I approached him and said, ‘You’re a quiet guy, but I know you’re not afraid to rough it up. Why don’t you come out for football? You can rough up anyone out here and not get into trouble.’”
Hunter excelled on the field and in the classroom. He started his college career at UC-Berkeley, then transferred to Hawaii.
But it was all set for a disappointing ending before the Jets took a flyer on him before the 2008 season. They saw his athleticism and potential for growth, even at an advanced age. When the Jets cut Woody and Woody subsequently retired, they handed the job to Hunter.
“I’m proud of his progress,” Woody told me. “Wayne was a high draft pick but things didn’t work out. We came to the Jets the same year, and Wayne kinda resurrected his career. And now look at him: He’s starting. Wayne’s a late bloomer. He always had those athletic skills, and now he’s putting it all together.”