By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — The weight of the Jets’ brave new world is believed to be squarely on Mark Sanchez’s shoulders. It’s no secret that nearly every expert believes this group of guys will only go as far their third-year quarterback takes them.
I’m a bit more traditional than most. While having a more effective passing game will only make the Jets’ offense a more balanced and dangerous unit and will alleviate the pressure on the defense to feel the need to be perfect on a weekly basis, running the football should remain this team’s bread and butter.
If Sanchez is forced to throw more than 30 times a game something is wrong. What you want from him is more accuracy and a higher completion percentage, not more attempts. With this defense being what it is, or really what most believe it will eventually become, there’s no reason why the Jets should abandon that which has become their calling card on offense — run, run and then run some more.
Santonio Holmes was re-signed to make big plays, something he showed last season he’s quite adept at doing. He wasn’t brought back to catch 7-10 balls and put up 100-plus yards per game. Plaxico Burress was brought on board to be a red zone presence, not to become a guy he’s no longer and, for some time now hasn’t been — a 1,000-yard receiver. Derrick Mason wasn’t acquired because he has 924 career receptions. On the contrary, he was signed because of all those catches, only 66 have resulted in touchdowns while another 600 or so have resulted in first downs.
Each Jets receiver has a distinct purpose and not one of them is here to turn Sanchez into a 4,000-yard passer.
The reality is as much as people want to think the entire 2011 season hinges on Sanchez, it really shouldn’t. Shonn Greene has to be the horse that carries the knight into battle and then remains at the ready when times get tough.
And, make no mistake, times will get tough.
Greene had just five carries during Monday night’s preseason opener at Houston, but in that brief debut he showed signs of what could come, ripping off 32 yards with a burst of speed and quickness not seen all that much last season. He looked leaner and meaner, as if he spent his time during the lockout doing what needed to be done to trim the excess fat off of his wrecking ball frame. On Monday night his footwork was better and his hands were better. It’s almost as if Greene has said to himself, “I still don’t mind running over people, but if I get the chance to actually shake and bake, well, wouldn’t that surprise a few folks?”
The Jets have banished LaDainian Tomlinson to third-down and goal-line duty, and rightfully so. Tomlinson went above and beyond last season as he was thrust into a starter’s role on the other side of 30 because Greene had an unspectacular preseason followed by a nightmarish regular season opener. Once a guy with the resume of a Tomlinson locks his hands on a featured role, he’s not going to give it up, mostly because he’s made a living on being “the guy” and because coaches simply have more faith and trust in the player that’s been there and done it before.
It’s Greene’s turn to be that guy. He’s been told he’s getting 300 carries. Now we’re going to see if that trust was warranted. Maybe he wasn’t ready last season. He has slightly more than 1,300 yards on slightly less than 300 carries in two full NFL seasons. Make note of those statistics for they are exactly what you want from him this season, over 16 games.
And contrary to popular belief, Greene is not alone in the Jets’ backfield. The aforementioned — and hopefully rested — Tomlinson will be called upon to get the tough yards, primarily in short yardage situations and in the red zone, but don’t dismiss Joe McKnight and Bilal Powell. Both could spell Greene from time to time and each has the requisite skill set to be more than a backup.
McKnight is still an enigma, but there’s no questioning his abilities. Right now he’s a player without a position because he’s third on the backfield depth chart and likely will not be called upon to return kicks, not with rookie speedster Jeremy Kerley Looking like the real deal. McKnight may get some looks returning punts, but that’s such a pressure-packed role the Jets may be better suited giving it to a guy on their hands team for the time being.
McKnight had a terrible rookie camp and had just seven carries all season leading up to that 32-carry, 158-yard performance against the Buffalo Bills’ backups in Week 17. While that effort was downplayed due to the circumstances, it had to have given McKnight some confidence that, yes, he can play in this league. And all indications are this camp is going much better than last season’s. He did nothing to truly stand out on Monday night, but he also didn’t do anything to hurt himself in the eyes of the Jets coaching staff. But all that said, McKnight has to be ready because if Greene goes down, Tomlinson is not going to become the full-time featured back again.
Powell, a fourth-round pick out of Louisville, is built like Greene but appears to be quicker and have better hands. He had 52 all-purpose yards on Monday night and showed some nice ability running in traffic and in the open field. While I’m not saying this kid can be counted on should injuries mount, I almost feel like he’s ahead of where McKnight was last season.
So the Jets have a little bit of everything in their backfield. Their “ground and pound” personality should not be abandoned just because the calendar says it’s time for Sanchez to begin to become all that he can be. It should be offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s job to keep things balanced and to use every last player he has confidence in. Not one of the Jets’ running backs is at this time a liability. If the idea is to keep Greene fresh for the second half of games and the stretch run — the times he’ll be most counted on to end things before too many outside factors come into play — then the all-hands-on-deck mentality should be employed.
I mean, why else are they here?
It’s been said a team’s best offense can be, at times, its defense. Well, in the case of the 2011 Jets, their best offense will come to the fore only if they stay true to the blueprints of the past as a compliment to the newfangled plans of the present and future.
Run the football.
Please read more columns by Jeff Capellini.
What do you expect from the Jets’ running game in 2011? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.