Tailback Begged For The Ball, And Now Gang Green Must Let Him Keep It

By Jeff Capellini

There was nothing pretty about how he did it, but it was effective nonetheless.

The Jets and their fans waited almost three months to see if Chris Ivory was worth the investment. And while some might say a fourth-round draft pick isn’t the steepest price in the world to pay for a potential impact player, when you are the Jets and you are in the throes of a rebuilding era, any pick parted with better bring back a worthwhile return.

Ivory showed everyone on Sunday he is worth the price the Jets paid to the New Orleans Saints.

Signed to a three-year deal worth $6 million upon joining the Jets, Ivory was largely overlooked during the first six regular-season games. He had a combined 22 carries in the first two games, but then had just 12 over his next three games. (He missed one due to a hamstring injury.) And he was none too pleased about it.

But that all changed this past Sunday.

It was ugly at times, but in a lot of ways Ivory’s performance was quintessential 2013 Jets — workmanlike. Ivory bashed and battered his way to 104 yards on 34 carries — an average of just 3.1 yards per pop — in the 30-27 overtime win over New England, but the effort far outweighed the lack of artistry.

Ivory simply ran angry. He was not about style points.

“Chris is the perfect man for — you can say — our pound and ground. You give him the ball, it doesn’t matter, just two, three yards. Every game he’s giving it his all. He had a great game for us, kept going, put his head down and kept going. First down after first down,” defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson told WFAN on Tuesday.

The fourth-year running back had a career average of more than 5 yards per carry prior to the trade, and judging from the holes he’s had to work with as a Jet, it’s pretty obvious he’s making due with what little space he’s getting.

Like he did against Atlanta a few weeks ago, Ivory on Sunday showed a flash of explosiveness. He had one key 17-yard run and looked within a broken tackle or two of breaking away from scrimmage on several other occasions.

It’s probably just a matter of time before he really shakes loose. And the scary part is Jets fans really don’t know what this guy is capable of yet in the open field. Well, I’m here to tell you that if he gets behind the linebackers, he’s gone. This dude is a wrecking ball with breakaway speed. At some point you will likely see the latter.

If you really want to know what Ivory’s performance on Sunday signified, you have to look beyond the numbers. He made Bilal Powell, the Jets’ feel-good story of the early part of this season, a non-factor. I kept searching around to see if Powell was hurt or something because series after series he was nowhere to be found.

He wasn’t injured. He ran the ball all of three times for 6 yards and then was a spectator — and not because he was doing anything wrong, considering the offensive line’s issues with opening the monster running lanes. Powell went into Sunday averaging better than 4 yards per carry, but had been given the ball by offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg for the sake of being given the ball just to give the illusion of balance.

On Sunday the Jets saw what their ground game is supposed to look like, sans Mike Goodson, who would have been the perfect pass-catching option. But the way it is currently constructed — featuring Ivory as the workhorse and Powell as the second fiddle who can also be used as the change-of-pace guy — is clearly the best approach. I suspect Powell will not be marginalized any further. As long as Ivory stays healthy, which, of course, is always the million-dollar question, Powell should see some meaningful carries regardless of the opponent.

But Ivory will be the guy asked to shoulder the load.

The Jets, however, will need both backs to contribute, because at this point, asking rookie quarterback Geno Smith to do everything is unfair to him, even though he has shown way more upside than previously given credit for. It’s no coincidence that Smith had zero turnovers in the win over Atlanta and just one against New England, because the Jets had a highly-effective running game, as in a move-the-sticks and wear-down-the-opposition running game, in both contests.

And as a testament to Smith’s abilities, he still managed to throw for 230-plus yards in the win over the Patriots despite the fact that the Jets ran the ball an astonishing 52 times for 177 yards.

Would Mark Sanchez have done that? I highly doubt it.

But as I was saying, the Jets’ offense now has the personnel in place to be as effective as it can be. Ivory as the lead back, Smith not feeling the need or being asked to do too much, wide receivers like Jeremy Kerley and David Nelson making plays, especially on third down, tight end Jeff Cumberland repeatedly being open all over the field and Josh Cribbs — and not Powell — running the wildcat offense.

While all of those names are hardly elite and should not be expected to put up incredible numbers, they are likely the best group the Jets can put on the field at this time. Count on Santonio Holmes being a major boost to the proceedings when he returns from his hamstring injury and Stephen Hill becoming more of a factor down the field if the Jets continue to establish their running game as the ground-and-pound attack they want it to be.

If Smith is the guy who makes the Jets go, Ivory must remain his right-hand man, the dude that does the dirty work. Because balance will breed even more creativity from Mornhinweg. Smith looking down the field and Ivory carving up the line of scrimmage will only open up the offense for the Jets’ unheralded receivers to show further that they are not nearly as bad as everyone first thought.

The Jets have alternated wins and losses since the start of the season. Sooner or later, if they plan on taking this season to another level, they’ll need to go on some kind of run. Their next two games — at Cincinnati on Sunday and home for New Orleans next week — will be extreme tests of both their physicality and mental makeup. But if they can go into their Week 10 bye no worse for wear, perhaps 5-4, the schedule the rest of the way suggests they could be a factor come December — something no one, and I mean no one short of a few adventurous souls, thought was possible when this season started.

But without that No. 1 running back setting the tone — that the Jets so desperately need to complement a quarterback beginning to come into his own and a defense that has the potential to be elite — the Jets will likely fall short of shocking the world.

Ivory, despite being anything but a household name, was brought here to be that guy. He showed you Sunday he’s up to the challenge.

He has all the makings of being a steal, not just a decent investment.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet

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