One of several motivations for Joe McKnight's emergence as a potential triple threat on the field is just receiving a little love.
"I'm working hard," he said after making the key punt block in the Jets' opening-night comeback win over the Cowboys back on Sept. 11, "to get people to like me."
How do we like him now?
The shame of Sunday night's game at Baltimore was that the Jets lost to the Ravens. Had they won, McKnight would be an even bigger story than he already. After all, he began that game by forcing a fumble on Baltimore's opening kickoff return, then recorded the longest play in Jets history and one of the longest in NFL history for the Green & White's first touchdown, then surprisingly showed up on a blitz off the edge that led to Joe Flacco's hurried interception to David Harris for the second TD. Whew!
Before we immerse ourselves in Jets-Patriots week, here's one last look at McKnight's night, in particular that lightning-strike kickoff return, and what it may portend for him and the Jets down the road.
McKnight may have gotten his chance because Antonio Cromartie, who many worried would sustain an injury that would hurt his play as the starting corner opposite Darrelle Revis, bruised his rib and lung making a defensive play at Oakland. That opened the door for McKnight to return that game's last kickoff, which he did skillfully behind excellent blocking for 50 yards.
"Any opportunity I can get I'm going to take advantage of," he told Bob Wischusen on Monday night's "Inside the Jets" on 1050 ESPN Radio. "Coach Westhoff gave me the opportunity this week to take kickoff returns and I try to make the best of everything I do."
That best came through when he was shot out of a cannon through the onrushing Ravens on his first return Sunday night. The historic nature of the return has been referred to before. Here are two charts. The first shows all the 100-yard players in Jets/Titans history (ROOKIES in CAPS):
And here are the longest plays in NFL history, including rookie Randall Cobb's 108-yard kickoff return for the Packers on their opening night and McKnight's return. Note the name at the top of the list. Cromartie owns the longest play in league annals, a 109-yard missed field goal return when he was a Charger:
The only thing McKnight hasn't done this year so far is contribute on offense. But he knows he can do it, based on his 32-carry, 158-yard outing in last year's regular-season finale vs. Buffalo.
"Against the Bills I kind of had a breakout game. Thirty-two carries — that's the most I ever had as a football player," he said. "I told myself after that game to just keep making progressions, try to show the coaches I can make plays."
Head coach Rex Ryan has noticed a lot more of the good things the last 13 months or so than he did during McKnight's first offseason and preseason with the team in 2010, as anyone who watched "Hard Knocks" will remember.
"I wasn't that high on Joe back then," Ryan said Monday. "I think we knew he had the physical capability, and when I don't see him showing it for whatever reason, I'm not blind, either. On an honest evaluation, he wasn't ready. And then as the season went on, the thing that impressed me was not just as a scout-team offensive guy but as a scout-team defensive player. That was when I realized, hey, this kid is ready for a bit of a role.
"You can't take away his God-given talent. That's something he has. He's also shown that he's got playmaking skills. Forcing a fumble, blocking a punt, returning a kick 107 yards, forcing an interception. The kid has talent."
The kid also has patience. McKnight was asked by Wischusen if there's more ballcarrying in his near future.
"I hope so, but right now I've just got to be patient," he said. "If they really want to put me in there, they'll put me in there. Right now I've just got to take advantage of the opportunities I have, try to make the best of them and try to open the eyes of the offensive coordinator and the offense to put me in there."