By Jeff Capellini
If they run the ball like this, who cares who the featured back is?
The Jets have a very good problem on their hands. They have a pair of running backs that can not only move the sticks, but also rip off big chunks of yardage to help in the quest for balance in offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates’ outside zone and power run scheme.
Head coach Todd Bowles was true to his word during Monday’s night’s stunning 48-17 dismantling of the Detroit Lions. He said coming in that he would not instruct Bates to dumb-down the offense to ease rookie quarterback Sam Darnold’s transition to NFL games that count. But while Darnold handled his debut with aplomb, one of the biggest reasons why he looked every bit the part of a franchise signal-caller is because the Lions had no clue what was coming from play to play.
That’s because the Jets ran the ball beautifully. The offensive line, a concern coming into the opener, owned the point of attack, pushing the Lions around and creating holes for Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell to do their thing.
“It always helps to have a running game as a quarterback, no matter who you are,” Bowles said Tuesday. “With the offensive line blocking, and the runners doing what they did, I thought it took a lot of weight off of (Darnold).”
Bowles may very well go with the hot hand in the backfield as the season progresses, but it would behoove him to try to use both as much as humanly possible. Having two guys who do basically the same things well is better than one in today’s NFL, especially when the schedule hits the second half, when the temperature drops and ball control becomes paramount for teams with eyes on making the postseason.
No one here is saying the Jets are making the playoffs, but after Monday’s performance there’s nothing wrong with having a little unbridled optimism.
Powell showed Monday that he can still be a battering ram, despite his advanced age. He gained 60 of the Jets’ 169 yards on the ground, averaging 5 yards per carry. He in no way looked like a running back that will turn the dreaded age of 30 in a few weeks. The giddy-up is still there, likely because he’s been part of a platoon for much of his eight-year career. Simply put, he has avoided wear and tear and that’s always a big part of longevity.
If the Jets were to surpass expectations, it would only be fitting that Powell play a big role in the renaissance. He has been part of some awful teams during his career, enjoying just one winning season in his first seven. And as we all know, that 10-6 campaign in 2015 ended with New York on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
Powell may be the most respected Jet among his peers and he’s certainly the most appreciated by the long-suffering fans. If this team ends up doing something of significance this season and Powell is right in the middle of it, there will be a lot of happy people out there saying they had his back from the start.
Crowell’s upside is much higher. It’s actually quite something that the Jets were able to sign a 25-year-old No. 1-caliber tailback in free agency. Those types of players are rarely there come the signing period and general manager Mike Maccagnan was smart to give him a three-year contract.
Crowell can play it any way Bates wants. He’s strong after contact, which makes him a valuable asset in short-yardage situations, and he has the type of breakaway speed the Jets haven’t enjoyed in a while. His 62-yard touchdown run on Monday — the second time he reached the end zone in the game — was impressive due to how quickly he got outside and then pulled away. It was his sixth run of at least 50 yards since 2014, tying him with Mark Ingram for the NFL lead.
“Really, my O-line, they did a wonderful job,” a very diplomatic Crowell said after the game. “They just opened up the hole and I just ran through it. Basically, I’m really speechless about it because it was just wide open. I couldn’t believe it.”
Like Powell, Crowell is hungry to be part of something positive. Perhaps more so. He signed with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and was somehow a contributing member of teams that went 3-13, 1-15 and 0-16 over his final three years.
That’s some serious losing.
Yet Crowell managed to run for 3,118 yards and 21 touchdowns during his four years in Cleveland, and that was with a quarterback situation that was clearly worse than what Jets fans endured before the arrival of Darnold.
While it’s unrealistic to expect him to continue to average 10 yards per carry, as he did Monday, Crowell is going to be a huge part of this offense.
“I have some very talented teammates and coaches and I feel like I know we can do this as long as everybody puts their best foot forward and just plays together,” Crowell said.
Darnold will continue to get most of the attention, and perhaps rightfully so, but Powell, Crowell and a host of others made it pretty clear in the opener that the Jets are a lot more talented than many supposedly in the know gave them credit for.
And they are absolutely heading in the right direction.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapGLJ