The Green & White phase of Ben Hartsock's NFL career began with a small miscommunication. The sixth-year tight end, who had just signed with the Jets last Wednesday, didn't think he was suiting up the next night for the final preseason game against Philadelphia. Then it was suggested he throw on the uni, minus the helmet, "just to look like a teammate."
Hartsock knew exactly how to do that.
"Really, I just tried to get in Mark's ear," he said about chatting up rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez on the sideline during the first half, "just try to talk through plays as they were going into the huddle. I know it's advantageous for him to explain it to someone, jut like I needed to hear it."
Hartsock (6'4", 270) could be Sanchez's new best friend. Jets head coach Rex Ryan had spent the summer trying to find that TE anchor for his running game, but on final cuts Saturday the team waived all three backups behind Dustin Keller (Jack Simmons, Kareem Brown and Kevin Brock). But no need to leave the end-of-the-line blocking up to tackle Wayne Hunter when a proven commodity such as Hartsock was available.
"We hadn't even targeted him. We thought for sure he was going to be on that roster for Atlanta," Ryan said on his Saturday conference call. "But he became available and our guys knew enough about him. We reacted quickly. We weren't the only team who wanted his services, but we were fortunate enough to get him. We think we have one of the better blocking tight ends in the league right now, so we're excited to add him on our roster."
Hartsock is excited to be here. He said "four or five teams" called him Tuesday after the Falcons released him, but the Jets rose quickly to the top of his short list. "I think it was the best fit, I think it was the best opportunity, I think this is the team with the best situation right now," he said, "so it was really a pretty clear-cut choice for me."
He was impressed initially when he said the Jets showed they had done their homework, which is to say their video work. Tight ends coach Mike Devlin, he said, "got to see some film on me. I spoke with him the day I was released, I spoke to Coach [Brian] Schottenheimer. They both said they had seen some film. So I felt like that was a good situation.
"So many times when guys are going from team to team, your scouts and personnel department finds a guy and they say, 'Here's your guy.' It was nice to know there were some coaches that had seen some film that had some knowledge of me."
He'll also be playing on an O-line that has a center in Nick Mangold, his center at Ohio State, and a guard in Brandon Moore whom he's gotten to know through NFL Players Association activities.
Why was Hartsock available in the first place? As Ryan and Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum and everyone else around the NFL knows, this is the time of year that good players get cut. It could be about money or about a new scheme.
In Hartsock's case, it was probably both. Atlanta had just begun a new regime last season with head coach Mike Smith and O-coordinator Mike Mularkey. After Hartsock injured his toe and missed the final seven games, Mularkey turned to Justin Peelle, whom he coached with Miami the previous two seasons. Then the Falcons brought in Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez this off-season.
But at the time of the injury, Smith said, "It's going to be tough to replace Ben. He's done a very nice job blocking. He's an integral part of our running game."
Here's a chart showing some evidence of his influence on the Atlanta ground game. The numbers aren't overly dramatic, but perhaps Hartsock's absence was felt the most in the Falcons' 30-24 NFC Wild Card loss at Arizona, when they ran for 60 yards on 21 carries:
|ATL's 2008 Run Offense||Atts||Yards||Y/A||Y/G||TDs|
|First 11 games||380||1,667||4.4||151.5||16|
|Last 6 games||204||836||4.1||139.3||8|
Perhaps more striking is the fact that he's been a contributing member of three consecutive top-five rushing teams: Tennessee, fifth in 2006 and again in '07, and Atlanta, which finished second last season.
An obvious similarity between Hartsock's situation last season and now is that last year his blocking aided in the development of another wunderkind QB in Matt Ryan.
"One thing I can already see in the short time I've been with Mark is just the confidence," he said. "So many times in this business you don't necessarily feel like you know what's going on. 'Fake it till you make it' has kind of been the motto.
"But out there I got to talk to Mark and you can see that he's already comfortable and confident in this offense. A guy like him who has that much talent, the world's his oyster right now."
Aw, shucks, Sanchez might say. And thanks a lot, Hartsock does say about being released when he was, four days before final cuts when it's a little easier to find an upscale new home in this league.
"I've been able to go to a team that has a need," he said, "and I think I can fulfill that need."