NFL preseason openers, despite the insistence of some fans and some talking heads, are never meaningless. But the level of meaning varies from team to team and player to player.
On the Jets, tonight's summer splash in steamy Houston against the Texans has a little extra going for it — it's the first of six primetime appearances for the Green & White this season. It probably doesn't mean as much to those Jets who've seen a career full of these games come and go, such as 11th-year Hall of Fame running back-to-be LaDainian Tomlinson and 15th-year WR Derrick Mason.
But it means a whole lot to a whole lot of players on the bubble, fighting for jobs such as the Jets' backup linebackers and offensive linemen, for instance.
And then there's a class of players who figure to be on the roster yet still have reason to view this game with excited eyes. Two of many who come to mind are rookie quarterback Greg McElroy and veteran safety Jim Leonhard.
Bigger Debut Than Imagined?
McElroy's pro unveiling tonight appears to have expanded into a role not anticipated last week. The word Sunday was that Mark Brunell, the 19th-year vet who is Mark Sanchez's first backup, made the trip with the team to Houston but will not play due to a left finger injury sustained in practice. Head coach Rex Ryan hasn't publicly revised his QB rotation, but the Brunell injury leaves McElroy and first-year man Drew Willy to shoulder the load after Sanchez sits down.
Before Brunell's injury was revealed, McElroy talked with newyorkjets.com about how he's approaching his first live action in the NFL.
"I'm calm right now," he said Sunday. "At the same time, if I didn't feel a little nervous, a little antsy, then I wouldn't feel normal. That's just the competitor in me and what I've been taught growing up playing this game for as long as I have. So I feel a little pressure and some nerves. It's a comfortable feeling."
His first pro camp has mirrored his status in this year's QB draft class. Some days he looks like the 208th overall pick as he struggles to decipher coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's scheme and to put his career 66 percent college passing accuracy on display.
But McElroy's a winner — his 24-3 career record as a 'Bama starter includes a national championship performance two years ago — and lately he's been showing some mastery of the offense. He'll need that tonight when the Texans try to rattle him in the pocket.
"I'm just trying to improve every day," he said. "I pick three things every day that I focus on and I try to improve on."
What has he been most successful at lifting up to a pro level?
"I think I've been happy as far as just going through my reads and my progressions," he said. "I've been happy about going through everything that Coach Cav [Matt Cavanaugh] and Schotty are asking me to do and trying to simulate what Bru and Sanchez are doing as well.
"At the same time there's still a lot of things I need to improve on. I'm trying to get faster and get used to the speed of the game, playing with more confidence, things like that, which will come with time."
"Definitely" Waiting for That First Hit
We mention Leonhard in this preview because while he's been around the pro block a few times, this year is different. He hasn't faced contact with serious intent on the football field since he broke his leg in practice last Dec. 3.
"Nerves? Yeah, that's the way it is waiting for that first hit every year — every game," he said last week. "Being eight or nine months for me, I'm definitely waiting for that first one."
Leonhard is listed as one of the Jets' safety starters, and as Ryan said, "I think let's go, let's let it rip. You see Jimmy out there, he's doing great."
Leonhard's road back began with the first weeks of rehab during last season and postseason, accelerated when he loaded up on information from the Jets' doctors and trainers before the March lockout began, and then continued with some help from former Jet Leon Washington, who had a similar but more severe leg injury in 2008.
"I talked to Leon early in the process about when he was able to do this and do that. And I give the Jets training staff credit for setting up a great plan," Leonhard said. "I don't feel anything different than I did before. It was great to know that I would be fine."
And Ryan, after easing his safety back into action at the start of camp — and insisting he won't be returning any punts in games for the foreseeable future — sees the same thing: "He's moving around great. I don't think any of us would sense a difference in him."
Leonhard's and McElroy's stories are different, yet they share one thread: Their progress this offseason, everyone's progress, took a hard hit from the labor impasse. This summer has hardly been a normal one for anybody who put on an NFL game uniform this past weekend. Even McElroy, who's never been through a "normal" NFL offseason before, knows that instinctively.
"With this being camp, without having the luxury of OTAs and rookie minicamp," said the QB who will be thrown into the fray tonight, "it's full speed ahead right now."