(Long Island, N.Y.) The skill position players garner all the headlines in football and were probably the guys dating the pretty cheerleaders in high school. But even at that level, the big guys up front dictate whether the machine runs smoothly or not.
When the New York Jets brought in the 6’3″, 330-pound Damian Woody in 2008, the veteran right tackle was expected to be a steady influence on a team in transition and it became even more important once Mark Sanchez won the starting quarterback job as a rookie the following season. Keeping the USC product upright and opening holes to make the running game the focal point of the offense were key ingredients in the Jets two consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game.
After having a difficult end to the 2010 season due to injuries, Woody was an offseason salary cap casualty, but also a player the Jets had full intentions on bringing back into the fold with a restructured contract.
Unfortunately, Woody decided to retire after 12 productive campaigns and will be joining ESPN as an NFL analyst. “I’m grateful for all the support over the years from my family, the fans and the league,” the two-time Pro Bowler said. “I’m excited to start the next phase of my career, moving from the NFL family to the ESPN family, and I feel blessed to continue to be part of the game of football.”
His last head coach reflected on what he meant to the team. “He’d get the tough assignments, all that kind of stuff, and never flinch one bit,” Rex Ryan said of Woody, who started at three positions on the offensive line during his career. “He’s one of the great centers in the game, a Pro Bowl center. He really could have been a Pro Bowl tackle. He played guard, did all of it.
“You can fit him across the line anywhere you want, and that’s unusual.”
One of Woody’s line mates knows what the loss will mean. “He had a hell of a career and picked it up even more at the end when he came here,” guard Brandon Moore commented. “He was a pleasure to play with for a guy of that caliber, because you don’t get an opportunity to do that a lot during your career.”
Wayne Hunter took over when Woody went down last year and will be the starter from Day One. He will certainly have big shoes to fill, with Woody walking away with 166 starts (173 games total) of experience, as well as winning two Super Bowls in three years during his days in New England. The Patriots selected Woody as a center coming out of Boston College with the 17th pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
The Jets have been able to persevere after losing a respected veteran on the O-line before. Alan Faneca was released in 2010 in a salary cap move and Matt Slauson was able to do a good job in his place. Ryan has to feel confident that Hunter can repeat that success.
And keep Mark Sanchez’s face pretty by doing so.