In a system entrenched in balance, collaboration, and flexibility, it should come as no surprise the Jets have gone without the dependence of a primary running back all season long. Instead, the 7-5 Jets have used a steady attack from a group of individually unique rushers, all of whom have the talent and determination to start on any given day.
Dating back to well before the preseason, head coach Eric Mangini stated that hard work and competitiveness was to be expected from his players all season long. Now well into December, Mangini still grants playing time based primarily on productivity, awareness, and effort. While it took fans some getting used to, it didn't take long for his players to catch on.
"It really didn't take us time to believe what he was saying because he did tell us that training camp was going to be tough," said running back Cedric Houston. "And when that was over, we figured out quickly how tough it really was so everything he told us afterwards - we pretty much knew that it was going to go that way."
During a sometimes grueling camp, much debate surrounded some assumed vacant starting positions on the Jets' depth chart. Mangini insisted that no matter what was done in the past, each and every position was in fact available and had to be earned. As seen all year-long, the youngest coach in the NFL has stuck to his guns.
"It's performance-based, and if you perform well, you play more, and if you help us win, you play more," Mangini said. "And that has been consistent. I don't think it was a function of whether or not it had to be a belief system as much as this is really the way that things are going to operate and it's really not going to change week-in and week-out."
And how do those weekly auditions go?
"We will practice them on Wednesday," explained Mangini. "They get a pretty good mix of the different plays. We take a look at that and evaluate the tape and then the next day. I'll go in; I'll ask questions. It could be a blitz pick up, it could be alignments or motions to gauge where they are on the questions, and then the next day it's the same thing. You get a pretty good feel for who is leading the pack as the week unfolds."
Running backs coach Jimmy Raye has seen his unit successfully and cooperatively make the most of it on a weekly basis.
Houston, Kevan Barlow, and Leon Washington have been seeing the bulk of snaps all season long, with Washington's 511 yards rushing leading the way. Barlow started off the year as the go-to guy, rushing for a team-best six touchdowns. In the blink of an eye however, Washington took the reigns for a mid-season hot streak right before Houston pounced back onto the scene after an injury, and now appears to be the hottest back.
Even after setting career-highs of 105 yards and two touchdowns in last week's romp over Green Bay, Houston isn't promised anything. No matter how well he or any other player performed a week ago, it still takes another hard week of practice and proof to earn back the bulk of plays this weekend against the Bills.
"Everything we do over the course of the week - as far as answering questions in meetings, practicing, special teams, anything - it all pretty much is taken into consideration," said Houston. "If you get out here and you're messing up on your pass protection or if you're not running as hard as you normally do, they take that stuff into consideration once Sunday hits."
"The main thing is," added Washington, "if you prepare yourself at practice and work hard throughout the week, when your opportunity comes you should be ready for it and that's all it is. That's what we believe in, and that's how we approach things."
With the loss of Curtis Martin to injury, Mangini has stuck to the committee approach at running back. Looking at the success of the backfield monster now, it seems as though such a system wasn't at all forced, but planned all along.
"You have three good running backs and it depends on what type of defense we're going against that week," Houston said. "So a certain player will probably get a few more touches than the other guys."
Looking at the rushing statistics from last game compared to four games ago paints a pretty accurate picture of the current situation in Mangini's backfield. Against the Packers, it was Houston leading the way all around, with 22 carries for 105 yards. In perhaps the most impressive win of the season, Barlow had his most productive outing, rushing the ball 17 times for 75 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots while Houston wasn't even activated.
"I think all the guys have good weeks throughout the season, and I know Coach is going to put the right players in the right situation at the right time and that's all you can ask for," said Washington. "You go there and prepare yourself at practice and if your name is called 20 times on Sunday or if it's called seven times on Sunday - just take advantage of the opportunity and make plays."
"You have to know how the system works, you have to know how the coaches coach," said Houston. "The way Eric runs this team, you can't really get discouraged by it, and you just have to go out the next week and just have a great week of practice again. That is pretty much how it works."
Thursday Injury Report Jets
Questionable: FB B.J. Askew (foot), CB David Barrett (hip), LB Matt Chatham (foot), Eric Smith (foot) LB & Bryan Thomas (shoulder)
Probable:*RB Kevan Barlow (calf), *CB Andre Dyson (neck), *DE Shaun Ellis (ankle), *RB Cedric Houston (knee), DB *OL Pete Kendall (knee), *WR Justin McCareins (foot), *DL Rashad Moore (hand), *QB Chad Pennington (calf) & *WR Brad Smith (shoulder) & *S Rashad Washington (illness)
Bills Out: LB Angelo Crowell (fibula)
Questionable: LB John DiGiorgio (ankle), RB Willis McGahee (ankle), CB Terrence McGee & S Donte Whitner (hamstring)
*Denotes players who participated in practice