By Jeff Capellini
They felt he wasn’t the same player.
They have been dead wrong.
Some NFL pundits looked at the Jets’ signing of veteran running back Matt Forte during the early stages of free agency as a bit of a reach. They paid homage to his time with the Chicago Bears, but had some issues with his durability off his 2015 season, the most trying of his eight-year career.
The Jets, they claimed, were again attempting to turn back the clock with a running back deemed beyond his sell-by date, the same types of criticisms dumped on the team’s front office back in 2007 when Thomas Jones was recruited, and then in 2010 and 2014 with the contracts signed by LaDainian Tomlinson and Chris Johnson, respectively.
The problem is, many people just don’t seem to understand that the Jets have proven that they know what they are doing in this area. They totally get that the running back position league-wide has morphed into a by-committee endeavor over the better part of the last decade, and that having an older-yet-established running back in the mix can work if all parties involved handle the situation with care.
And while some will say Johnson was a bust, I believe the Jets just weren’t ready to be good when he was brought on board. Hence his misuse and overall disappointing numbers. But as for Jones and Tomlinson, their production during their time in green and white spoke for itself.
The Forte signing, at a paltry $4 million per season for three years, looks like an absolute steal right now. Through two weeks of the season, the smooth-running veteran has been everything the Jets could have hoped for and then some. Forte has been so good, the Jets haven’t needed to lean on veteran Bilal Powell, though it is expected that they will as the season progresses in an attempt to provide more looks to the ground game in addition to preserving Forte’s shelf life.
A hamstring injury early in training camp sidelined Forte for a substantial amount of time. The Jets were smart not to force the issue, though head coach Todd Bowles made it clear on more than one occasion that he needed to see Forte take some hits before he’d feel at ease enough to let him do his thing during game action.
Forte has certainly put the injury behind him since, rushing for 196 yards during the Jets’ 1-1 start. Adept at always knowing where the sticks are, he was nothing short of outstanding Thursday night in Buffalo, bashing his way to 100 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries in the 37-31 victory, a must-win if there ever was one following New York’s disappointing one-point home loss to Cincinnati in Week 1.
With Forte looking a lot younger than his 30 years and Ryan Fitzpatrick seemingly locked in with his trio of talented wide receivers, the Jets have an offense that is poised to cause all kinds of problems in what figures to be a wide-open AFC playoff race. New York is currently fourth in the NFL in total offense, averaging 416.5 yards per game. This off a 10th overall ranking a year ago, when the Jets didn’t have a Forte or a Quincy Enunwa doing what both are doing now.
The depth along the Jets’ offensive line has been considered a problem, but it was anything but on Thursday when starting left guard James Carpenter went down with a calf injury, only to have Wesley Johnson, a center by trade, come in and perform admirably. If the line continues to hold up, this offense should be able to put up more than enough points on a weekly basis to win, regardless of the opponent and the venue.
Speaking of the schedule, something that has irritated Jets fans since the second it was released during the offseason, it doesn’t look as formidable as it once did. Yes, the Jets do play six of their first nine games on the road, but some of the teams that figured to pose very difficult matchups are off to very slow starts.
Take this week’s opponent, Kansas City, for instance. The Chiefs struggled mightily in Houston on Sunday, managing just four Cairo Santos field goals and 291 total yards in the 19-12 loss.
Though star running back Jamaal Charles may return Sunday following a long layoff due to an ACL injury, the running game hasn’t been an area of concern for the Chiefs, thanks to the talented stable of “backups” they have in Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. However, the Kansas City passing offense leaves a lot to be desired. If the Jets can control the clock with Forte, get the pass rush going again and fix some of their coverage problems in short order, winning at Arrowhead Stadium may not be as tough a proposition as once envisioned.
The Jets’ Week 4 opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, are in even worse shape. While we’re used to hearing about the greatness of quarterback Russell Wilson, the perennial NFC powers have looked anything but ordinary so far, managing a grand total of 15 points on offense. The Seahawks may start to get their act together this week at home against San Francisco, but the fact remains they are not the same team they were last year when they transitioned from a smash-mouth offensive operation into an all-out aerial attack.
The Jets have strived for balance on offense for a very long time. Even when they were making AFC Championship games under Rex Ryan back in 2009 and 2010, they were a run-first operation. Over the last five seasons, which each ended without a playoff berth, they were largely missing that needed element on offense.
A true workhorse back.
Forte is that guy now, and, coupled with a passing attack featuring Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Enunwa, the Jets have the ability to move the ball at will. If their prowess in the red zone looks more like it did in Week 2 as opposed to Week 1, they will score a lot of points, thus giving their work-in-progress defense time to work out the kinks.
The Jets didn’t really ask Forte to be part of the passing attack during the win over Buffalo, but his receiving ability has always been the best part of his game. Assuming Fitzpatrick really starts to use Forte as a safety valve, it will just be an extension of a clock-consuming running game. Defenses will have to prepare for it, and if Forte is successful, as he was in catching five passes for 59 yards in the season opener, the Jets’ downfield air attack should get even more opportunities.
If Forte stays healthy, there should be a long line of folks ready to apologize. The benefits of signing him are endless, meaning the Jets have one serious weapon at their disposal.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet