Shonn Greene does it the hard way, almost always

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Shonn Greene. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Jets or Giants play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Shonn Greene, who played running back in the Jets’ 24-6 win over the Miami Dolphins.

Last night’s uninspiring win over the disjointed Miami Dolphins temporarily got the Jets out of the crisis mode that had accompanied their three-game losing streak. But the same can’t be said about the team’s running game, the most severe of the Jets’ problems this year, which is fronted by third-year back Shonn Greene.

Greene struggled for much of the night, as he has all season. His final line wasn’t awful—21 carries for 74 yards, for an average of 3.5—but it was padded by some late-game carries, including a season-high 20-yard-run, during which the Dolphins defense seemed resigned to the fact that no matter what it did, their offense was incapable of scoring points to narrow the deficit.

This was against a Miami defense that is poor against the run, despite what conventional statistics indicate. Yes, the Dolphins came into the night ranked 13th in rushing yards allowed. But the more advanced stats of FootballOutsiders, which adjusts raw stats by situation and opponent, showed the Dolphins ranking 24th against the run.

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It’s not as if Greene’s backup LaDainian Tomlinson did any better, averaging 3.6 yards on seven carries. (Even though Greene gets more carries, he only sees around five more snaps per game than Tomlinson, who is the better receiver.) The pair has produced lackluster numbers all season long, combining for 3.3 yards per attempt, the second-worst in the league. That’s a steep drop-off from last year, when Jets running backs were the eighth-best in the league with an average of 4.4 yards.

To a point, Greene and Tomlinson’s equal unproductiveness as runners indicates that the problem is the offensive line. This makes sense considering that center Nick Mangold, the team’s best lineman, missed two games with an ankle injury and came out late in last night’s game for precautionary reasons, a sign that he isn’t fully healthy. Former right tackle Damien Woody, who was considered the anchor of the team’s running game last year along with Mangold, was cut this past offseason for salary-cap reasons and then retired. (“This offense is offensive!!!” he wrote on Twitter, about the Jets, during last night’s game.)

But the poor starts of Greene and Tomlinson also indicate that the Jets backs aren’t really helping themselves much, either; they don’t get many more yards than what the offensive line gives them. Between the two of them, Greene and Tomlinson only have two carries of 20 or more yards this year. During the 2010 regular season, Greene had only one carry of 20-plus yards (though he had two in the playoffs). Of all backs with as many carries as Greene had last year, only Greene and Ronnie Brown—the former Dolphin who now plays for the Eagles and whose name is synonymous with the concept of an over-the-hill back—couldn’t break at least two 20-plus yard runs.

The “ground and pound” philosophy that the Jets espouse is well and good, but at a certain point it starts to seem like an excuse for not getting more big plays out of the running game. It’s not as if the Jets are compiling first downs one grinding scrum at a time and executing an attritional game-plan in the Bill Parcells mold. It took the Jets 24 minutes to get their first first down last night. (Before then, going back to last week's game, an astonishing 15 of their previous 19 possessions had been three-and-outs.)

In Greene’s rookie year of 2009, he averaged a team-high 5.0 yards per carry, and looked like the perfect back for a ball-control offensive system whose best attribute was its offensive line. But since the line has fallen off, Greene’s style looks less “steady” and more “plodding.”

Running backs are famously considered to be football’s most fungible assets; there are a lot of decent ones out there who can be had at relatively low cost. If Greene continues to poke along, getting what the offensive line can carve out for him but not much more, it wouldn’t be shocking to see that the Jets have gone in another direction by this time next year.

Greene’s modest 2012 salary of $565,000 would seem to make his roster spot secure. But the presence on the team of two explosive young backs—burgeoning kick-return specialist Joe McKnight and 2011 fourth-round pick Bilal Powell—makes Greene’s status as a starter much less so.