Matt Cavanaugh was not exactly hanging by the telephone, but he was pleasantly surprised when the call came.
"I always felt like people are going to ask you, 'Are you done?' " he told reporters. "And I said, 'I am until somebody calls and says would you like to come and help out?' "
So, the man who played 13 seasons at quarterback for four NFL teams took a call from the Jets -- one that he anticipated, but one that was bittersweet nonetheless. Hired as a senior offensive assistant, Cavanaugh had been close to Greg Knapp, the coach who was charged with mentoring rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. Knapp died after a bicycling accident in July.
"I knew Greg Knapp very well," Cavanaugh said. "He and I worked together in 1996 with the 49ers and we became very good friends and stayed good friends. We talked to each other a lot, kept track of each other. We never got to work together again, but anytime we'd go to Indianapolis for the Combine we'd hang out. Just a tragedy. I'm not here to replace him, I don't think I can replace him. I promise I'll just try to represent him well. Work hard, do the best I can and hopefully make him proud."
After his playing career, which included Super Bowl victories with the 49ers in 1984 and the Giants in 1990 as a backup QB, he moved into the coaching ranks. He landed with the Jets and head coach Rex Ryan from 2009-12 as the quarterbacks coach when the Green & White advanced to consecutive AFC championship games.
The call from first-year head coach Robert Saleh rekindled a football flame that has burned since Cavanaugh's rookie season in the NFL in 1979.
"When Coach Saleh was kind enough to call me and ask, 'Would you be interested in coming up and taking a look? Could you come and see if you like it, we'll see if we like you?' " he said. "I mean I was excited to do it. My last season was 2019 with Washington, so I sat out all of 2020, wasn't sure what 2021 was going to bring, closing in on retirement age and, when somebody calls and says, 'Would you like to come take a look?' I knew about him, I knew his reputation, I didn't know him personally, or I didn't know him personally, but I knew his reputation and thought it would be a great opportunity."
That opportunity will include the QB portfolio working with Wilson and Mike White. It has been a quick adjustment for all concerned as the Jets' regular-season opener, at Carolina on Sunday, inches closer.
"You see a lot of young quarterbacks that have arm strength, that have mobility, but to get a young guy, what I've noticed is that for a young player, he's got a real good awareness of what goes on on the other side of the ball, which is unusual," he said referring to Wilson. "They all come in knowing an offense, they know how to call a play, how to throw balls. But, when you got a good understanding of what a defense is doing, I think you're a step ahead."
Cornerbacks Under the Microscope
So much is new for the Jets as they embark on the 2021 NFL season. And while the focus may be on the Green & White's rookie QB on Sunday at Carolina, the outcome of the season opener for the Jets will also hinge on the play of the team's young group of cornerbacks.
Bless Austin was released last week, which means that Panthers' QB Sam Darnold will contend with six first- or second-year CBs, all battling for playing time. The four rookies are Brandin Echols, Isaiah Dunn, Jason Pinnock and Michael Carter II. That makes second-year men Bryce Hall and Javelin Guidry the grizzled "veterans" of the group.
"You can't predict what happens in this league," Hall said. "It's like you grow up quick. Obviously, last year I got thrown into the fire and I was playing already."
Hall, drafted out of Virginia, spent the first half of the 2020 season rehabbing from an ankle injury sustained playing for the Cavaliers. He started seven of the Jets' final eight games last season, showing his quickness, nose for the ball and promise for the future. That future is now.
"Obviously we're very young, but I have complete confidence in this group," Hall said. "I love this group. I'm excited for what our potential is and the pieces we have. Even though we're young, we're very hungry, I don't think we try to (pay) too much attention to the outside noise. It's us stepping on the field, not them. We have a bunch of hungry dudes, we've got the right people and we know we can get it done and be successful."
Saleh on Monday declined to say who would team with Hall at corner, adding "we'll wait until Sunday."
The View From Charlotte
The Panthers' second-year head coach Matt Rhule presided over a 5-11 team in the 2020 season, improving a defense that allowed the second-most points in 2019 to No. 15 last season. The Jets and Carolina each would like to start the season with a victory.
"We know the first game, we really have to prepare for everything right now," Rhule said. "So we're preparing for a lot of different looks, a lot of different things knowing what they have drawn on. I think the biggest thing with Coach Saleh is you can tell the players are going to play hard, they're going to be locked in. He's going to run a great organization and it will be a tough game on Sunday.
"Carrying that over now, they're going to get after you, they're going to be physical, they're going to run to the football."