- Last Updated: 4:45 AM, June 17, 2012
- Posted: 12:03 AM, June 17, 2012
Wayne Hunter still can see the play in his mind.
First-and-10 on the Jets’ 22; a national TV audience watching as the NFL season kicked off on the anniversary of 9/11; Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware rushing from the outside straight at him, forcing him on his heels, then pushing him to his right and charging inside toward quarterback Mark Sanchez.
“And down goes Sanchez,” Al Michaels said on TV, sounding like Howard Cosell calling Foreman-Frazier.
It was the first offensive play of the Jets’ season. It was the first play of Hunter’s new job as starting right tackle of the New York Jets, after taking over for Damien Woody, who retired before the season. It was the play that cemented his place among the media and Jets fans.
“I was a piñata,” Hunter said last week in an interview with The Post. “You’ve got to look for someone to take the [garbage]. I’m the new guy filling in for one of the better right tackles that had been playing here in a long time. It makes sense why it was me. That doesn’t mean I like it. “
Hunter never recovered from that first play.
Fans and media focused on No. 78’s mistakes for the rest of the season — and he would be the first one to admit there were plenty of mistakes (11 sacks allowed, according to ProFootballFocus.com). But there were good games, too, that got overlooked because Hunter became a punching bag.
Hunter admits the pressure got to him in 2011. A career backup before last season, he stepped in for the popular Woody. Suddenly, he was no longer a spot starter or an extra lineman used a few plays a game. Now, he was expected to be consistent on every play — something he admits he wasn’t.
The 30-year-old heard the criticism. He would try to ignore the TV and newspapers, but every once in a while he would check the Internet to see what was being said about him, and the words would sting.
Hunter said after another poor performance against Jacksonville in Week 2, he began to worry about his job.
“That was the low point,” Hunter said. “I was like, ‘If I don’t perform, they’re going to pull me out and put Vlad [Ducasse] in or bring someone else in to play the position.”
Hunter leaned on some of his teammates, who could identify with the scrutiny. Sanchez, backup quarterback Mark Brunell and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson all gave Hunter advice. The trio, who have all faced their own criticism, told Hunter to shut out the outside voices and put bad plays behind him.
He took the advice and he began to play better, running off a streak of good games in late September and through October. But the team was struggling at the beginning of the streak, and no one seemed to notice Hunter’s improved play. When he suffered poor games again later in the year, the critics circled.Follow @NYPostsports