Still Special: Mike Westhoff and the New York Jets Battle NFL Wedge Rule

Angel Navedo@NamedAngelSenior Writer IMay 24, 2009

IRVING - NOVEMBER 22:  Special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff of the New York Jets yells from the sidelines during the NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium on November 22, 2007 in Irving, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

They can completely alter the momentum of a game in less than eight seconds. They can suffocate an offense before the quarterback sees the field. And they can even secure victories while star players are forced to watch from the sidelines.

Yet, the true blue-collar workers of every NFL team are consistently overlooked.

With over 20 years in the league to his credit, New York Jets' special-teams coordinator Mike Westhoff developed his reputation as an architect of game-changing strategies.

Working with a revolving door of backup players and versatile athletes, he has maintained consistency in a game where nothing is ever guaranteed.

Now that the NFL's competition committee voted in favor of a new wedge-blocking rule, he has to develop a new approach to handling kickoffs and kick returns.

Officials are expected to enforce a 15-yard penalty on kick returns when a wall of blockers with three or more defenders lock hands to establish a wall for their return man.

In an offseason dominated by headlines surrounding the Jets' highest profile transactions, there weren't supposed to be any disruptions to the continuity Westhoff brings to the game.

Referees and the Unreliable Judgment Call

The 2008 NFL season was marred with complaints of questionable calls by various officiating crews.

From Ed Hochuli's blunder in Week Two during the San Diego Chargers-Denver Broncos contest to the missed calls in Super Bowl XLIII, the referees can be just as responsible for the outcome as the teams on the field.

"This game is played at a thousand miles an hour," said Westhoff in a feature by Judy Battista of the New York Times.

And he's absolutely right.

Asking referees to determine the legality of a blocking formation while looking for holds and blocks in the back is asking too much. Especially when the officials struggle to catch every infraction already.

With a mandatory 15-yard penalty being enforced, Westhoff has to find another way to protect his kick returners from speeding gunners.

According to Battista, Westhoff met with the NFL's head of officiating, Mike Pereira, to seek clarification on what is now acceptable in return formations.

"Pereira said intent would be the most important factor in determining if a flag is thrown," wrote Battista while paraphrasing Pereira. "If three or four players come together at the last moment to throw a block, that is not intentionally forming a wedge and would not be penalized."

Now, at a thousand miles an hour, it's going to be interesting how the officials actually define intent before throwing their flags.

Within Westhoff's Control

With Leon Washington expected to reprise his role as a Pro Bowl caliber kick returner, Jay Feely returning after the disappointing Mike Nugent draft selection, and the signing of special-teams ace Larry Izzo, it appears as if Westhoff has the weapons to maintain consistency.

He has great gunners in Wallace Wright and Brad Smith, as well.

But there are still significant concerns.

Special-teams players typically come and go as depth charts are arranged every season. That reality serves as a testament to Westhoff's system and the high standard of quality he's established throughout the years.

His intricate blocking arrangements, his ability to coach patience, and a keen eye for talent have all contributed to his reputation.

With the new wedge rule forcing Westhoff to reinvent the wheel, how much experimenting will be necessary to discover open space for Washington within the NFL's new requirements?

Izzo was signed as a free agent from the New England Patriots for his reputation as a wedge buster. With a remarkable ability of breaking through blockers, how will his ability be impacted?

Another underappreciated aspect of a quality special-teams attack rests with the punt game.

Typically, no one ever wants to see the punter on the field. But if his presence is an absolute must, the preference would be for him to make life more difficult for the opposition with well-placed kicks.

After releasing punter Reggie Hodges, the Jets have been turning over rocks looking for someone better than serviceable.

Hodges was signed off the Patriots practice squad in 2008 after former Jets' punter Ben Graham gift-wrapped a victory for Matt Cassel. In Cassel's first NFL start, Graham allowed excellent field position for the Patriots offense.

A punt from Graham usually meant an offensive drive starting close to mid-field, all but guaranteeing points for the opposition. Hodges wasn't much better, punting for a meager 42.8-yard average—good for 22nd in the NFL.

A new cast of unknowns will be vying for the rights to the job during training camp. Competition is healthy for the soul, but the Jets need a best man to win—not the lesser of evils.

With the offense and defense expected to adjust through growing pains, the Jets simply can't afford for Westhoff's unit to be unreliable in 2009.


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