Leon Washington has yet to meet Bruce Harper, but he knows who Harper is and is very much aware that even if he staggers and falls forward on his first kickoff return Sunday, is touched down immediately, and doesn't see the ball again against the Dolphins, he will take away a franchise record that Harper has held for three decades.
"It definitely would be something I'd like to accomplish," Washington said of Harper's all-purpose-yardage record of 2,157 yards set in 1978. "It's not something that I think about all day long and during the game. I'll let the game take care of itself and if it happens, it happens. It's an accomplishment.
"A lot of people compare me to Bruce Harper," Leon said with a laugh. "I'm sure Bruce is like the undefeated Dolphins. He's sitting there watching, not wanting me to break it."
Harper is definitely paying attention, but he's no Mercury Morris chilling the champagne to the optimum temperature should Washington not get the 7 yards he needs to pass him or the 6 he needs to tie.
"It's wonderful, man," Harper said earlier this week. "I really enjoy watching Leon. Many times people have made the comparison, I guess because we're both 5'8" and both multiple threats.
"But to watch him, I really wonder: Was I as fast as he is? That guy just shoots out, he takes off. People ask me sometimes if I was as good, and it's really hard for me to say. I didn't watch me. But I'm watching him. That guy can go. He is something."
For those who watched both No. 42 in the late Seventies and early Eighties and No. 29 the past three Jets seasons, there are many similarities. Washington is 20-plus pounds larger, Harper perhaps slightly faster, but they were both around the same 4.4-in-the-40 speed in their primes, incredibly quick, shifty and multitalented. And each has a team MVP award in his trophy case, a testament to the spark that made the Jets of different eras a better team.
For Harper that era was the doldrums of the late Seventies. The Jets had just suffered back-to-back 3-11 seasons and were about to embark on a third such dreary campaign when Harper, a North Jersey native, took the short trip from Kutztown State in eastern Pennsylvania across New Jersey and New York City to the Jets' then-Hofstra University base of operations to try to make the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
Harper recalled his mindset heading into the '77 training camp, and that is perhaps the major difference between him and Washington 30 years later.
"When I came in, I wanted to be a running back," he remembered. "I did not return punts and kickoffs in college. They told me that the only way I would make the team was if I could return punts and kickoffs and play special teams. So I kind of learned how to do it.
"I know I was not nearly as exciting as this guy. Returning wasn't my interest. I wanted to carry the ball more from scrimmage. I just did that because I had to."
There was great reason for Harper's desires — he turned out to be one of the most exciting pass-catching backs of all time. He averaged 11.0 yards on 220 receptions, which is the 16th best average by a qualifying back in NFL history. And from the 1970 merger to present, that 11.0 average is the best among the 109 backs with at least 200 catches.
Washington, on the other hand, may secretly want to be a feature back and many fans and reporters want to see him touch the ball more on offense. But Neon Leon has always said he loves the game's many facets and never wants to leave the field.
"I was looking at *rivals.com *recently and when I was coming out of high school, I was the No. 1 cornerback in the nation. I was No. 1 and Devin Hester was No. 2," he said. "Just playing a bunch of positions, doing a bunch of things, using all those skill sets I learned as a young kid on offense, defense and special teams, now it's panning out for me in the NFL. Initially, people have to develop their roles, and for me to be doing well in all of them, it's satisfying."
Harper, although he might have been the reluctant returner, did all of them well. In fact, he set the NFL record at the time in combined kick return yardage in that record-setting 1978 season, with his 1,658 yards snapping Chuck Latourette's 1968 mark of 1,582 for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Now Washington is on the move, leading the NFL in all-purpose yards and about to break Harper's franchise mark, a record that, he said, "definitely shows the multiplicity that I bring to the game. Especially if we get a win Sunday along with that, it could be a real neat deal."
And Harper will be very happy to pass Washington the baton.
"Will I celebrate if he doesn't make it? No way. No way," Harper said. "I'm rooting for him."
Here's a Washington/Harper comparison (*needs 7 yards to break franchise APY record):
|Washington||TALE OF THE TAPE||Harper|
|26*||Age When Broke APY Record||23|
|1||Jets Team MVP Awards||1|
|.....||Final NFL Season||1984|
|4.43||40 Speed as NFL Rookie||4.40|
|Florida St.||College||Kutztown St.|
|Round 4, 2006||Draft Position||Undrafted, 1978|
|Jacksonville, FL||Hometown||Englewood, NJ|
|47||Career RS Games||99|
|4.8||Career Rushing Avg.||4.9|
|7.9||Career Receiving Avg.||11.0|
|9.4||Career Punt Return Avg.||9.7|
|25.9||Career Kickoff Return Avg.||22.3|
|4||Career Return Touchdowns||1|