Commentary

It's Baxter or bust for Sanchez, Jets

With Mangold out, QB's bruised arm on line in Oakland behind neophyte backup center

Updated: September 21, 2011, 9:55 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Jets are playing a dangerous game -- the most dangerous game.

On Sunday, they will put their franchise quarterback behind a center whose NFL resume will read like this: 42 total plays and nine practices with the team. This will happen in Oakland, in the Black Hole, where the Silver & Black crazies always seem to be frothing for human carnage.

If The Colin Baxter Experiment fails, Mark Sanchez won't be munching on a hot dog at the end of the game (a scene from their 2009 blowout win in Oakland). He'll be eating dirt. Or worse.

Colin Baxter
Icon Sports MediaWith Nick Mangold sidelined, the Jets will turn to Colin Baxter to protect Mark Sanchez on Sunday.

GM Mike Tannenbaum and his staff decided a few weeks ago that, instead of acquiring an experienced player to replace backup center Rob Turner (broken leg), they'd go with youth and potential. Turner was hurt in mid-August, so they had plenty of time to prepare an insurance policy in case Nick Mangold got hurt.

At the time, there were some veteran centers looking for work, namely Shaun O'Hara and Casey Rabach, but the Jets were happy to pick up Baxter on waivers Sept. 4 after he was cut by the San Diego Chargers.

Well, now it's Baxter or bust -- for this week, anyway -- because Mangold has a high-ankle sprain and he could be down for at least a couple of games.

Tannenbaum and his pro-personnel department, led by assistant GM Scott Cohen, have a proven track record as talent evaluators. They're right a lot more than they're wrong. They identified Baxter and rookie guard Calen Schlauderaff, acquired on the final cutdown in a trade with the Green Bay Packers, as developmental players with upside.

But upside isn't going to block an A-gap blitz.

This isn't about trying to win a game Sunday; it's about protecting your most valuable asset for the long term. Because without Sanchez, the Jets aren't the Jets.

"I don't think we're being reckless or careless," Tannenbaum told ESPNNewYork.com. "We saw an issue there and we went out and got two guys we liked. You could sign a veteran, but 16 games from now, he could be graduating [via free agency]. So why not get a guy we can have for two or three years and develop?"

The Jets haven't reached out to O'Hara, the former New York Giant, according to multiple sources. Barring a miracle recovery by Mangold, who told the coaches that he wants to play, they're going with Baxter in Oakland.

If he stinks up the joint, Tannenbaum will be on his cell phone -- presumably to O'Hara's agent -- before the team boards its cross-country return flight.

Naturally, a lot depends on Mangold's recovery. They need to be at their best in the middle for Weeks 4 and 5 because they face two of the best nose tackles in the business, Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens) and Vince Wilfork (New England Patriots) -- both on the road.

Line depth was an issue before the preseason, and they took a double hit at center. But they had time to react, and they should've gone for more experienced insurance.

"I don't disagree with you one bit," said retired Jets lineman Damien Woody, now an ESPN studio analyst. "That's the one thing that scared me going into the season -- depth -- and now it's rearing its head at a crucial time, a tough road stretch."

Tannenbaum has tremendous faith in his scouts and offensive-line coach Bill Callahan, who has the toughest job of them all this week. They did a lot of homework on Baxter before the draft and gave him a late-round grade. He was a four-year starter at Arizona. He's tough, smart, coachable.

They're probably right; Baxter probably will develop into something. They think he can be another Turner, which would make him a great find.

But this is no time to find out. The time to find out is in the preseason, when he's snapping to a third-string quarterback.

The Jets have been spoiled over the years. Until Week 15 last season, when Woody injured his knee and missed three games, they hadn't lost a starting lineman to injury since early 2006 -- an incredible run of durability. And it was a terrific line, maybe the best in the league. But now cracks are starting to show. Right tackle Wayne Hunter, Woody's replacement, is struggling, and they've got a neophyte at center.

Tannenbaum says his charge is to win today, develop for tomorrow. You can't argue with the results. He has the courage of his convictions, which makes him a good GM. He believes Baxter can help them win now, but he acknowledged there's no guarantee.

"I'd give us a grade of incomplete," he said. "We'll see. Baxter played three quarters against a real, live NFL team, and he'll have to continue to play. I'm not saying we won because of Baxter, but we didn't lose because of him, either. I think he's going to play well. That's the standard. If not, we'll keep evaluating the situation."

Tannenbaum mentioned that other teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, are starting unheralded rookies on the offensive line. The Cowboys have two, Phil Costa and Bill Nagy.

They also have a quarterback with cracked ribs and a punctured lung.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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