FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Only seven of the 252 players drafted in 2008 remain on active NFL rosters. Two of those seven play for the New York Jets — quarterback Joe Flacco and left tackle Duane Brown. It was one of the first things the ’08 classmates talked about when Brown signed on Aug. 15.
“We joked about it,” Brown said. “It’s a blessing, man. It’s a blessing.”
For them, yes. For the Jets, it might not be a laughing matter.
An organization that prides itself on youth — the bedrock of their entire rebuilding plan — will start the season with a 37-year-old left tackle protecting the blind side of a 37-year-old quarterback, assuming Zach Wilson‘s surgically repaired knee isn’t ready by Week 1.
No team has ever started a game with an offensive tackle (either side) and a quarterback at age of 37 or older, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which has position data back to 1950.
This isn’t how the Jets drew it up, but two knee injuries in a span of five days forced the Jets to alter their flight plan. First, right tackle Mekhi Becton, who is out for the season due to an avulsion fracture in his right knee cap. Then, Wilson.
So break out the cassette tapes and parachute pants — the Jets are going old-school. At least they’re having fun with it.
“I feel like I’m like a dad that’s easy to pick on, and they like laughing at me because of that,” Flacco said of his younger teammates, meaning every player on the team. “I embrace it.”
It sets up a strange juxtaposition on offense. The Jets are incredibly young at the skills positions, with running backs Michael Carter (23) and Breece Hall (21) and wide receivers Elijah Moore (22) and Garrett Wilson (22), but the season could get derailed early if the older dudes — Flacco and Brown — fail to do their jobs.
The Jets avoided the doomsday, season-ending scenario with Zach Wilson, who is expected to miss about a month, but the injury jeopardizes the possibility of a fast start and threatens to erase the positive momentum from a productive offseason. It’s important to keep the fan base happy and interested, showing this won’t be another “Same Old Jets” season. They have lost 12 straight in the month of September, with the most recent win coming in Sam Darnold‘s first NFL start on Sept. 10, 2018.
“Positive Vibes Only” is the T-shirt that coaches and players wear around training camp. Go oh-fer September, and that shirt will be out of style.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface on adversity yet,” said always optimistic coach Robert Saleh. “I think the saying is you get three adverse moments a year — everyone does — so we’re still in the thick of it. I love our group. … I love the makeup of this team and its competitive nature.”
In some ways, they’re lucky to have a player like Flacco, a Super Bowl MVP whose unflappable demeanor sends a “relax — don’t worry” message to the young players. He has lost his winning touch in recent years — 2-11 as a starter since his final season with the Ravens in 2018 — but his résumé still sparkles. He won a Super Bowl with the Ravens a decade ago, when his youngest teammates were in their preteens. They saw him on TV, playing almost flawlessly against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Now he’s on their sideline and in their huddle.
Naturally, they ask him about the “old” days, wondering what it was like to play with Pro Football Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. He gets those questions all the time, and Flacco obliges them with stories. That they open against the Ravens is a delicious storyline if he’s still the QB1.
“I’ve watched him my whole life,” Moore said of Flacco. “When I got here, I was amazed it was him. You should hear some of the guys on the sideline. They’re like, ‘That’s Joe Flacco.’ He’s a legend.”
Now he might have to be a temporary savior, charged with steadying a star-crossed franchise. Things started to unravel at about 11 o’clock on a sweltering Aug. 8 morning, when Becton limped to the locker room. Determined to keep his second-year quarterback protected, general manager Joe Douglas hit the open market and signed one of the most accomplished tackles in the sport. Brown is a five-time Pro Bowl selection who started every game last season for the Seattle Seahawks.
But he turns 37 on Aug. 30, which probably explains why one of the most accomplished tackles in the sport still didn’t have a team in the middle of August.
“If you ask my opponents, they’ll tell you I’m playing at a high level,” Brown said. “But there aren’t many people that play to this age, so those criticisms are well-warranted. I’m not going to talk about what I’m going to do; I just get on the field and prove it. That’s what I plan to do.”
Brown played well last season, allowing eight sacks and committing only five penalties in 969 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Not bad, considering he played in a division that included several elite edge rushers, including Nick Bosa (San Francisco 49ers), Von Miller (Los Angeles Rams) and Chandler Jones (Arizona Cardinals).
Look at the tape, and you will see that three of the eight could’ve been coverage sacks. Only one of the sacks came on a bull rush (Whitney Mercilus, Green Bay Packers). He got beat a couple of times to the outside, and once on a spin move, but it still was an impressive year.
“He has become a great technician,” said Jets offensive line coach John Benton, who coached Brown from 2008 to 2013 with the Houston Texans. “That has created his longevity and success.”
Thing is, Brown’s odometer has more than 12,000 career snaps on it, so the engine could blow at any time. Since 2017, only four offensive linemen in the 35-and-up category signed in July or later, according to Sports Info Solutions. There’s a reason why it doesn’t happen often.
Not only is age a factor, but so is the calendar. Still getting into football shape, Brown has yet to participate in team drills and won’t play Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). There are only 10 practices remaining before they face the Ravens in Week 1.
The starting five on the offensive line still haven’t had a full practice together, and that could spell trouble with two new players (Brown and left guard Laken Tomlinson) and two players learning new positions (right guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and right tackle George Fant). The only holdover from last year in the same position is center Connor McGovern.
Benton acknowledged the “sense of urgency,” adding, “It’s imperative that we work together — a lot — for the continuity issue.”
The Jets bet on Becton, their 2020 first-round pick, to stay healthy after he missed virtually the entire 2021 season due to knee surgery. The decision backfired. Suddenly, Becton, one of Douglas’ key building blocks, has an uncertain future.
With limited in-house options, Douglas turned to Brown, necessitating Fant’s move back to right tackle, his 2020 position. A natural left tackle, he can’t be thrilled with the 11th-hour change, but he took the high road, saying, “You have to be a pro in certain situations.”
Basically, the Jets are playing with two left tackles and two left guards. No disrespect to Flacco, but the reshuffled line has to be solidified by Wilson’s return. His health and development mean everything to the franchise, which made him the focal point of their rebuild by drafting him second overall in 2021. If Wilson doesn’t improve on a disappointing rookie year, it will be an indictment of Douglas and Saleh.
“He had a lot of great growth last year,” Saleh said, “and we’re expecting to have continued growth this year.”
A lot will depend on Brown, his blindside protector. The 2008 draft hasn’t been kind to the Jets, who used the sixth overall pick on all-time bust Vernon Gholston. Years later, they dipped into the ’08 pool again, trading for former first-round tackle Jeff Otah. He flunked the physical, aborting the trade. In 2016, they attempted to replace retired left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson with another ’08 first-rounder, Ryan Clady. The trade backfired; his body broke down almost immediately.
Once again, they’re relying on ’08ers, Brown and Flacco.
“I don’t view myself as an old person,” Flacco said, “but every now and then, when these guys come up to you and say something to you, I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, you think I’m like 50 years old. I got it.’”
He was smiling.