3:17 pm Oct. 15, 2012
It's hard to remember now, but Shonn Greene figured prominently into the optimism surrounding the Jets after the 2009 season.
Go back to his clinching run in the Jets’ second-round playoff victory against the Chargers that year, a 53-yard buck ‘n’ rumble that he punctuated by mocking then-Charger LaDainian Tomlison’s ball-flip celebration. Unlike the prolific Chargers, the Jets were an unapologetic running team in a passing league. Regular-season offensive pyrotechnics weren't their thing, but who could pick against them in a postseason war of attrition?
They were a throwback, just like their running back of the future: Greene was an old-school ball of muscle with a straight-ahead style, bruising and blunt. He had won the Doak Walker Award as college football’s best running back the year before but had slipped to the third round of the draft. This gave him a chip on his shoulder to match the attitude of a franchise tired of kissing Bill Belichick’s rings.
Fast forward two-and-a-half years. The excellent run-blocking, despite the Jets' relatively similar personnel on the line, vanished. Greene himself no longer looks like a prototypical power back so much as one of the many non-dynamic mediocrities with which Mike Tannenbaum has stacked the Jets’ offensive cupboard.
And so he came into this weekend, clinging tenuously to his job. He was averaging 2.85 yards per carry, compared to a league average of 4.2, and hadn’t averaged better than 3.5 yards in a single game. More damning were the advanced stats: According to Pro Football Focus’s Elusive Rating stat, based on a formula that includes making defenders miss and yards after contact, Greene was last in the league going into yesterday.
All evidence indicated that the Jets coaches were taking heed, and had begun phasing him out of the offense. In the first three games, Greene had averaged 19 rushing attempts per game. In the last two games, he had 19 rushing attempts total.
A third of the way through the final year on his contract, there seemed to be little incentive for the Jets to keep feeding him the ball. Better to move on to Bilal Powell, who cuts a similar profile to Greene but without the mileage and the tinge of disappointment. Or give Joe McKnight yet another chance, in keeping with this year’s emphasis, embodied by the use of Tim Tebow gadget plays, on offensive expermintation.
Still, in the face of questioning, Ryan expressed confidence in Greene last week.
“Have I lost confidence in Shonn Greene? The answer is no,” he told reporters last Thursday. “He’s working extremely hard. I just think it’s a matter of time before he starts popping.”
At long last, something popped on the Jets’ second possession yesterday, when Greene burst 21 yards through a aircraft-carrier-sized hole. It was Greene’s first run of 20 yards or more this year, and just his sixth since 2010. By comparison, in 2009, he had five 20-plus yard runs. And while it didn’t showcase any special ability (he was tripped up by safety Antoine Bethea because he didn’t put a move on) it at least gave him and the running game a much-needed shot of confidence.
“Yes, I think they’re close with the run game,” CBS analyst Phil Simms said after the play. “This Colts defense, they’re not great, when comes against the rush; 25th in the N.F.L against it. This is an opportunity to get your so-called ‘ground and pound’ going.”
The Jets seized the opportunity. Greene sledgehammered up the middle for four more on the next play, and ran three more times on the drive for 15 more yards. The Jets scored a touchdown on the drive to take a 7-3 lead, capping off a six-minute, 49-second drive, the Jets’ second-longest of the season. This was how it was supposed to be.
More Greene on the next drive, after an Antonio Cromartie interception (the touchdown return portion of which was nullified by a terrible call of unnecessary roughness on Aaron Maybin). With the Jets facing a 2nd and 1 from the Colts’ ten-yard line, Greene decisively cut away from congestion and into an open seam, running over Colts safety Tom Zbikowski before carrying him and another Colts defender far enough to stretch the ball across the plane. It was 14-3 Jets, and after a month of slogging struggle, Greene and the Jets were busting out.
Everything was going according to plan. Greene for 19 around the corner to start off their next series, then Greene for a more-impressive six yards, in which he broke a couple of tackles. A Tebow fake punt later, and the Jets were up 21-6 going into the half.
Three series later, toward the end of the third quarter, the clincher: A four-yard run by Greene, on which he pirouetted away from Bethea to loose himself for the score. It might have been the most elusive move of Greene’s pro career.
When it was over, Greene had gained a career-high 161 yards, and the Jets had completed a victory that showcased their best selves: Mark Sanchez was zipping throws into tight windows, the run defense rebounded from an awful stretch by allowing 2.4 yards per carry, and the pass defense knocked rookie sensation Andrew Luck down a peg by forcing two interceptions and a dismal rating of 51.3.
The Jets are 3-3 now, not elite but not awful. Rex Ryan’s Pied Pieper path to a Super Bowl it isn't, but with the Patriots struggling ahead of an unlikely first-place showdown next week, a playoff berth is certainly possible.
Significantly, Greene averaged five yards per carry yesterday, which is what he averaged as a rookie but hasn’t come close to matching since. With Powell, his backup, having dislocated his shoulder, and McKnight having sustained a possibly serious ankle injury, Greene will have to keep it up for the Jets to have much of a shot in the coming weeks.
He may not be the long-term answer the Jets thought they had after 2009, but as he and his team showed yesterday, all is not lost.
More by this author:
- Gary Cohen, the anti-Michael Kay, also broadcasts during his time off
- Blue blood: The harsh logic behind the cutting of Bradshaw, Canty and Boley