While the Jets were in the midst of losing their Week 2 battle to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Leon Washington wasn't seeing the field as much as he might have wanted. This week against the Dolphins that probably won't be the case.
Washington accounted for just one punt return, for 6 yards, plus three fair catches. Thomas Jones got the start in the Jets backfield and was responsible for every New York rushing attempt with the exception of quarterback Kellen Clemens' three scrambles.
With kickoff returner/cornerback Justin Miller landing on injured reserve Tuesday, the Jets' special teams unit will likely look to Washington to shoulder the return load from here on out.
"I look forward to doing whatever it is I need to do to help this team win," said Washington, who had five kickoff returns in Week 1. "I did it before in the past so I look forward to doing it now. We're very sorry to not have Justin with us but we have had guys working hard all year long and now we have the opportunity to make plays for our team."
Miller, who left Sunday's game against the Ravens with an injured right knee after being tackled by Baltimore's Gary Stills on his second-quarter kickoff return, was the lone Jets representative at the Pro Bowl last season. The Clemson product returned two kicks for touchdowns: a club-record 103-yarder against the Colts in Week 4 and another for 99 yards at Cleveland just four weeks later. Miller racked up 1,304 kickoff-return yards in 2006 and his 2,929 career return yards puts him third in club history.
Fortunately for the Jets, Washington has been an astute observer of Miller's production and even had more kickoff returns and yards than Miller prior to the injury. Additionally, nearly every practice since his rookie training camp, Washington has been alongside Miller during special teams drills, learning continuously.
"Just watching him and learning things from him in the past year and a half has helped me grow every day," Washington said. "I have been watching Justin since back in college when he was at Clemson and how he lit Florida State up for almost three TDs in one game."
Eric Mangini was impressed with Washington's returning prowess when scouting the 5'9" tailback at FSU. When Washington first arrived to training camp, however, his ability to hang onto the football during returns became an issue and the rookie ran a multitude of laps. Since then, the second-year head coach has seen a very impressive turnaround.
"Leon, I think he's really made strides from last season both as a punt and kickoff returner," said Mangini on Wednesday morning. "We didn't know where he would be at the start of last year in those areas. I like what he's done not just last year but through the preseason — he worked at it."
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised in my efforts because the coaches did a very good job preparing me and have been on top of me and my progress," Washington said. "I enjoy it. It's a critical part of the game. You can put your team in good position and it can give your team the edge."
Washington welcomes the challenge of taking over the kickoff return duties for however long it takes. His experiences both as a specialist in college and as a running back in the NFL have given him enough confidence to be special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff's go-to guy if called upon.
"It helps me a lot being a running back," Leon said. "I'm used to running in a clutter all the time so that's another advantage for me. I'm just preparing myself naturally."
Even without the absence of Miller, it would seem impossible to keep Washington off the field this Sunday. Last time the Jets and Dolphins squared off, it was Washington's miraculous 64-yard screen-pass reception that set up the game winning field goal last Christmas night in Miami. Although that performance may have given Washington a bit more poise, it doesn't mean anything to him heading into this weekend.
"Last year is last year. It's a whole different year now," he said. "Obviously it was good for us, but this year's a whole different ballgame. Hopefully it will carry into this game."