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Jets’ Long redeems himself at guard after center struggles

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Spencer Long was frustrated, angry and thoroughly embarrassed.

He had gone from being the leader of the New York Jets’ offensive line to an unexpected punchline.

Long was all over the blooper reels and social media — the center who simply couldn’t snap the football.

“It was a tough, challenging time that I don’t think a lot of people knew exactly what was going on,” Long told The Associated Press on Friday. “My reputation was on the line.”

Long was already dealing with a lingering injury to his right hand — his snapping hand — early in the season when he hurt a tendon in his middle finger against Jacksonville in Week 4. It made for a painful combination — “kind of just a chain reaction,” he said — that produced sometimes unpredictably ugly results.

There were a few wayward shotgun snaps, and Long tried to push through his misfires before sitting out one week.

Then came a disastrous game at Miami in Week 9.

“Any time you put your hand on the ball and it doesn’t feel right, it creates an issue, especially for a guy that’s only been playing for so long at that position,” said the 28-year-old Long, who was a guard in his first 2½ NFL seasons in Washington. “I gave the impression that I was ready to go that week and throughout practice I was fine, all my snaps were fine. And then we go into the game and re-injury happens and then you’re in panic mode, you know? And, it was tough.

“It was a pretty (awful) time.”

The Jets ran an inside zone play against the Dolphins when Long was hit in the back and his right hand was engaged with another player. That’s when he felt a familiar searing pain in his finger.

“There it goes again,” Long recalled, “And this is in the middle of a drive. I’m not going to pull myself out during the drive and create dysfunction in the flow.

“But obviously, it was a risky decision that didn’t pay off.”

Long had at least six errant shotgun snaps to rookie Sam Darnold, including one that soared over the quarterback’s head. He was replaced by Jonotthan Harrison on the next series — and hasn’t snapped in a game since.

Long, who signed a four-year, $27.4 million contract last offseason, became a popular target of frustrated fans, with the snaps mockingly turned into gifs and memes on social media.

“I felt bad for my teammates and coaches for putting that out there,” he said of his performance. “For the fan base, too, because they deserved more than that from me. I’m a guy that’s supposed to be an addition and not a subtraction to this line.”

Some blamed coach Todd Bowles for not pulling Long sooner. Others thought offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates should have called for fewer shotgun plays.

“It was on me,” Long said. “It was completely on me. I made a decision that maybe wasn’t smart at the time. But I thought until it happened, I was getting through it. It was a (lousy) situation. It was really hard for a while there. I mean, I get it. I understand. I’m a pro center. I’m not supposed to have issues like that. I understand why people would be frustrated. Nobody was more frustrated than me, I can promise you that.

“It was tough for me, but, you’ve just got to stick it out.”

That, however, was far from easy.

His hand was betraying him. And that put him in a dark spot mentally.

“It was probably the most stress I’ve ever had playing football,” Long said. “It just kept getting worse because I was using it. I couldn’t protect it. It was a tough month there. It was probably four to six weeks until I was able to move on and be the person that I know I can be, and come back and contribute to this team without that worry.”

Starting left guard James Carpenter went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 10 against Buffalo, creating a void on the offensive line. The Jets shifted Long to guard — where he has started three of the last four games.

“It’s crazy how things rearranged themselves via an unfortunate circumstance, but I’m just glad to be playing ball again,” Long said. “I know that I could play both positions at a high level, so whatever the team needs me for.”

Bowles has seen Long grow more comfortable at left guard during the last month, and his teammates praise him for bouncing back from a situation in which some players might have withered.

“He’s a fighter,” Harrison said. “The fact he was able to push through all he had going on, come back out there and keep on fighting, we’ve got all the respect for him.”

Long’s future with the Jets is uncertain. He’s due to make $3 million next season with a $3.5 million roster bonus due in February. It’s unclear if he’d be move back to center after an offseason of healing and rehab or stick to left guard. There’s also the likely possibility that there will be a new coaching staff in place.

He insists he isn’t thinking about any of that right now. Long is focused on ending what had been a brutal season for him on a positive note.

“This was a tough time and it all really tested me,” Long said. “I feel like I’ve come out on the other side with a lot more knowledge about the game and what it takes to get through stuff because of it. It makes the game uncomfortable when you’re not playing with the swagger that you need to have.

“But you know, I’m not a quitter, so I just keep going.”

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