Jon Jansen lined up at left guard. As a backup.
That's right. The player nicknamed Rock, the team's longest continuous serving veteran who has unquestionably owned the right tackle spot when healthy since 1999, was adjusting to an unexpected demotion. Days before his first regular season game as a head coach, Jim Zorn announced that second-year player Stephon Heyer now has Jansen's starting job.
"Disappointed," Jansen said. "Disappointed that I'm not going to be out there. I still believe in myself to be the right tackle here. It's not going to be that way on (Thursday), and that's what I have to deal with."
Jansen didn't miss a game in his first five seasons in the league, but he is no longer Mr. Reliable. He sat out the 2004 season with a torn Achilles' tendon, played with two broken thumbs in 2005 and labored with a torn calf muscle for much of 2006. Last year, he missed all but one game with a broken leg and dislocated ankle.
This year, there have been too many times when he has not looked like his old self when pass blocking, and a minor foot injury last week opened the door for Heyer to overtake him with a solid performance in the final preseason game.
"I just wanted to give Stephon an opportunity," Zorn said. "I think he's really showed in his pass protection that he can anchor, and that's kind of how we're going to go."
Zorn called the decision "very tough" and recalled how he felt when he got a pride-swallowing demotion in 1983 after 7 1/2 seasons as the Seattle Seahawks starting quarterback.
"It's harder because you have to come in and face your teammates," Zorn said. "It's very difficult. I think Jon did an excellent job today working through those issues because it is very emotional, and it's trying. Things changed, and he has to be able to live up to that and keep working hard."
At 32 years old, Jansen will now carry the dreaded title of "utility backup" -- and an expensive one at that. The player who signed a five-year, $23 million contract extension last year now has to be ready to fill in at tackle or guard, even though he had never gone through so much as a drill at guard until Sunday.
Jansen said he wasn't satisfied by the coaches' explanation for the switch to Heyer.
"There were some reasons thrown around. Nothing that I felt was reason enough," Jansen said. "But they're the coaches, I'm the player, and we'll go out there and do what we're supposed to do."
The news continues a remarkable run for Heyer, who last year made the team as an undrafted free agent from Maryland and ended up starting five games because of various injuries. Still, he was thought to need at least another year of development before becoming a starter, so he entered camp this year as the backup to left tackle Chris Samuels.
Heyer then stretched a knee ligament in the preseason opener and missed two games, yet he came back and managed to impress the coaches enough to move ahead of Jansen. He said he was excited about playing against the Giants, but he's already had so many twists in his brief career that he wasn't too surprised.
"That's why I never come in with any different mind-set than 'Anything can happen,"' Heyer said. "Because so many things happened last year for me."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press