An air horn sounded, and the Jets jumped. Eleven offensive linemen hurried to the back right corner of the practice fields to join their coach, Rick Dennison. Practice started with a focus on pre-snap stillness.
âFeet on the line!â Dennison said. Three linemen crouched into a set position to block. Dennison shouted, âHut!â They took one step to begin a kick slide drill. He repeated his order, and they went back two steps.
The line danced as one this day. Three days before, it was another story. Three of their flinches resulted in flags for false starts during a 34-20 loss to the Bears. The defeat meant the Jets were mired in another slow start: 3-5 for a third straight year.
To correct the missteps ahead of Sundayâs A.F.C. East game against the Dolphins in Miami, Dennison demanded synchronicity and harped on the need for blockers to trust their muscle memory. He employed positive reinforcement.
âThat is so much better,â Dennison said.
âBetter, better, better,â David Diaz-Infante, the assistant line coach, said.
It could hardly get worse. In all, referees whistled five Jets for five false starts in Chicago. Quarterback Sam Darnold deemed the mistakes âdrive killers,â and head coach Todd Bowles called them âthe most disheartening thing of the whole ballgame.â
Even with Khalil Mack, the Bearsâ most disruptive defender, sidelined with an ailing ankle, the Jets failed to find a balance between anticipatory and antsy motions.
Bowles dismissed the idea of blaming cadence or center Jonotthan Harrison, who started in place of the injured Spencer Long. Three linemen â James Carpenter, Brandon Shell and Kelvin Beachum â and two tight ends â Chris Herndon and Neal Sterling â cost the team five yards apiece.
âItâs individual each time,â Bowles said. âYou can coach it all you want, but the player himself has to concentrate, and it was a different one each time.â
There was no particular pattern to this most basic of penalties. The Jets committed the same infraction on the second play of the first drive, the first play of the second drive and the third play of the third drive. They were flagged for false starts less than a minute into the contest and with 18 seconds left in the game.
It happened on the left side of the ball and the right, as well as in the middle of the line. Herndon, a rookie, actually moved twice on his miscue. The first shift went uncalled by the official despite Bears pass rusher Aaron Lynch pointing out Herndonâs move. The official blew the play dead when Herndon moved a second time. Herndon, who also scored a touchdown in the loss, accepted the blame, as did his compatriots.
âItâs just, especially when youâre going snap after snap, itâs just timing up when that head bob goes,â Beachum said. âThereâs a lot of anticipation that goes with it. Sometimes you get a little antsy and jump. No excuse. Something I canât have.â
Bowles oversaw a particularly anxious unit in 2015, his first season as head coach, when the Jets committed 1.44 false starts per game, the fourth most in the NFL. In 2016, they calmed and were tied for 20th in the league. Last season, they committed 14 false starts in 16 contests.
The false start is not the teamâs only problem. It is also not necessarily indicative of failure. The Chiefs, now 7-1, are tied with the Texans, who are 5-3, for most false starts this season. The Broncos, also 3-5, have committed two false starts â the fewest in the league â through eight weeks while the Jets have committed 12 and are ranked third worst in the NFL.
Darnold allowed that he could âcommunicate a little better in the huddleâ and insisted that the use of silent counts and various cadences was necessary to keep counterparts at bay.
âYou donât want those guys teeing off or to get a running start,â he said.
In Chicago, the Jets went with a silent count for a road game, though it was not particularly loud in Soldier Field. Darnold knew that timing was key because his linemen can get a little antsy looking out the corners of their eyes to see him raise his right leg or the center to snap the ball back to him.
âWeâve just got to hold our water a little better,â Darnold said.
Bowles knows that the road ahead will only get louder as the Jets fly to Miami to face a 4-4 Dolphins team in the first of three straight divisional games.
âItâs an AFC blood bath game,â Bowles said.
One of the few Jets to stand still this week was general manager Mike Maccagnan. After working the phones Tuesday, he did not make a move before the trade deadline. On Thursday, he sat in a conference room on the second floor of the teamâs training facility and expressed frustration and disappointment at being 3-5 again. The Jets have not made the playoffs since 2011.
With half of the schedule still to play, he acknowledged that having significant salary cap space will help him to be âvery activeâ next off-season, whenever it comes, to improve the roster. Behind him, the current team walked through plays as he spoke about balancing his postseason aspirations with patience, a virtue that all in the organization â from offensive linemen to the general manager â must practice.
âWe want to get there as soon as we can get there,â he said. âHonestly, we want to get there this year.â