A lot of attention has been paid to the the quarterback position this off-season, with the concerns at right tackle and the revolving door at wide receiver also taking their turn in the spotlight. But interestingly enough, there is another element to the Jets 2012 offense that has not received nearly enough consideration, and it is one that could ultimately prove to be the most significant: The running game.
Head coach Rex Ryan and new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano have promised to return to the tough, physical, smash-mouth style of football that the Jets found success with in Rex’s first two years as head coach. That’s right. Ground and Pound is back.
With a league-wide trend towards pass-happy offenses, the Jets will be one of the few teams in the league employing a true run-heavy system. The vast majority of the media has questioned how effective such an offense could be in today’s NFL, but with run defense on the decline, my question is not whether the system can work, but if we have the personnel to make it possible.
Shonn Greene had a career year last season, yet opinions still vastly differ on him and just how capable he is of carrying the load in a run-first offense. There are those that believe that Greene is poised for the best season of his career, while others fear he does not have the durability and talent of a true lead back. Among those Greene doubters is Evan Silva, who recently went on a rather lengthy Twitter rant about Greene, saying “he leaves yards on the field”, “runs like he’s stuck in the mud” and that, despite the fact he “looks the part,” Silva “truly didn’t see anything good in Shonn Greene.”
Greene is also in a contract year (which tends to be some of the most productive) and he has one more season behind a now healthy offensive line to show that the 2010 playoffs weren’t just an aberration.
But Ground and Pound is about so much more than just Shonn Greene. The rest of the backfield has to step in and play their part. Joe McKnight showed flashes of the #2 back we so desperately need last season with his speed, elusiveness and ability to catch the ball. (This is saying nothing of what he adds on special teams, which is also of great importance). The skills are there, but the problem with McKnight has been his ability to take a pounding week in and week out.
In an effort to correct this, McKnight added 15 pounds this off-season. The weight gain, in theory, will help McKnight handle a higher volume of carries, but there is also a concern that the weight could take away some of what makes McKnight special. It’s hard to say for sure exactly how a bulked-up McKnight will play, but all accounts suggest that the Jets plan to use him in the role vacated by LT, and roll out a Greene-McKnight 1-2 punch.
Unfortunately, if one of these two backs is injured, things could quickly run on empty, and that makes the battle for the remaining spots that much more significant. If the Jets are really going to run the ball as much as they have suggested, they’re going to need a solid insurance policy.
So who do they look to?
A great deal of the national media has penciled in Bilal Powell as the next running back on the depth chart, but this seems hardly set in stone. Powell only saw 14 touches last season and those few opportunities on the field were not overly impressive. Due to the small sample size, it’s difficult to completely evaluate Powell and where he will end up, but it seems unwise to rely upon someone so unproven.
I have been one of the few who has been very optimistic about the rookie running back from Baylor, Terrance Ganaway. Ganaway, a big power back, has been described by Rex as being similar in style to Shonn Greene and there’s a possibility – provided he performs well in camp – that Ganaway could be the third runner of a trio. And, because Ganaway is so similar to Greene, the two backs would complement each other quite nicely.
That said, Ganaway is a rookie with only one year of college experience as a starter, coming from an option offense. Again, unproven.
There is also John Conner, Fui Vakapuna and John Griffin, but all three of these runners offer the Jets little in terms of reliability.
Lack of experience at the position is the common theme, and while I love young talent with upside, a system so incredibly reliant upon the running game cannot enter the season just hoping someone steps up. Training camp will tell us a lot about how this position battle will shake out, but if it does not become immediately clear that one of these guys is ready, the team may need to look to a player not presently on the roster.
The most obvious choice? Cedric Benson. If you’ve been following along on Twitter, you’ve no doubt heard the name once or twice. Recent reports indicate that the Jets, among other teams, have “checked in” on a former Bengals running back.
Benson is hands down, the best running back left on the free agent market, coming off his third 1,o00 yard season in a row. Benson has held up well after several seasons as the primary back for the Bengals, averaging 298 carries per season since 2009, with a running style, again, very similar to Greene. In fact, Benson and Greene had nearly identical stat lines last season, outside of fumbles. Greene had one; Benson had five.
Because Greene and Benson are so similar in style and production, it makes sense to add him for depth. Benson could easily supplement Greene on a week to week basis and provide insurance barring an injury. Having a Benson and Greene tandem would also free up McKnight to really do what he does best without being overworked.
Outside of his age – he’s almost 30- Benson’s biggest “downside” is off-the-field issues, and these two factors may be part of the reason Benson has struggled to find a team that willing to pay him more than the veteran minimum. But there is no doubt Benson is still able to produce, and it would appear he is just the type of runner the Jets need.
Another option is former Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant. At 29, Grant is a proven all-purpose back. He has had his share of injuries and there are certainly durability concerns, but in his last season in Green Bay he averaged 4.2 yards on 134 carries. Grant is also solid in pass protection and much more versatile than Benson, though a very different type of runner.
There are several other options out there (you can view a list of all available free agents here), but after examining all of the options it appears that the reliability of an experienced veteran may be the best way to go.
There is, however, one more football player presently on the Jets roster that will inevitably play a role in the running game and that is, you guessed it, Tim Tebow.
A recent ESPN report explains that “team insiders” have revealed the Jets plan to use “Tebow in the Red Zone, where they can replace Sanchez with another player/blocker to bolster the running game.” My interpretation of this is that in the Red Zone, they plan to have Tebow actually do the one thing we know he can actually do really well. Run.
Mark Sanchez did demonstrate amazing mobility last year, but having 250-pound Tim Tebow as a runner or blocker in goal-line and short yardage situations is not only maximizing the talent on the roster, it’s also on point with their brand of offense. Whether Tebow will be used in any other capacity in the Red Zone remains to be seen (and is a topic for another column), but I wonder if by the end of the year, he actually leads the team in rushing TDs.
Just imagine how effective and unpredictable a running game featuring Greene, a reliable-veteran free-agent–running-back-to-be-determined, McKnight as the third round back, and Tebow would be. With several legitimate running threats to opposing defenses art their disposal, the Jets offense could safely return to the solid formula that was their ticket to back-to-back championship games: Shut-down defense, hard-nosed, Ground and Pound offense.
Now that’s a game plan that can score more than 13 points, Merril Hoge.