This is the second of eight position reviews of the Jets' 2010 season that will be appearing in the next several weeks on newyorkjets.com.
The personnel changed dramatically in the Jets' offensive backfield, but the running backs kept churning out the yards on the ground in 2010.
Thomas Jones (331 carries, 1,402 yards, 4.2 avg., 14 TDs) and Leon Washington (72-331-4.6) departed in the offseason via free agency and trade respectively after the Green & White paced the NFL with 2,756 rush yards in 2009. The Jets brought in future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson in free agency to pair up with Shonn Greene at RB and then they went for youth in the draft with the additions of RB Joe McKnight, a fourth-rounder from USC, and FB John Conner, a fifth-rounder out of Kentucky.
The 31-year-old Tomlinson had a very good season, pacing the club with 912 yards on the ground and six rush touchdowns. He caught 52 balls, a number that more than more than doubled the combined output of Jones (25) and Washington (10 in an injury-shortened season) from the year prior, and his blocking prowess was often overlooked.
"He's just been awesome," said offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer of Tomlinson. "Obviously, his ability to catch the ball coming out of the backfield is great. The thing he does not get enough credit for is the ability to pick up blitzes."
Tomlinson chose the Jets over the Vikings after the recruiting process largely because he was comfortable in Schottenheimer's system from their days together in San Diego. He fit in well from the start after nine seasons with the 'Bolts and was voted the Dennis Byrd Most Inspirational Player by his teammates.
"He's a guy that doesn't say a lot, but you know from the minute you walk on the practice field that he's a guy that's got a serious look on his face because he realizes it's all business," Schotty said. "He's been just a great influence on all of our young players because of the way he works. Then on gameday, obviously, he's a guy that gets them going."
The 5'11", 226-pound Greene, In his second NFL season, increased his regular-season workload by 77 carries (108 to 185) as his yards per carry slipped from 5.0 to 4.1. After going reception-less as a rookie, Greene did haul in 16 passes and worked very hard on his hands and route-running.
Despite turning in a 117-yard rush effort in a Week 4 trampling of the Bills, Greene got off to a relatively slow start before getting hot when the temps turned cold. His 198 yards and 45 rush attempts during the Jets' three-game postseason run were team highs as the bruising runner averaged a healthy 4.4 yards a clip. He was the NFL's third-ranked rusher in postseason play after ranking first with 304 yards in the '09 playoffs.
"We had two great backs and we were going to use both of them," said head coach Rex Ryan. "Once it was clear that we got into the playoffs, we wanted to be fresh at the end of the season and that's what we did. LT was running it primarily at the beginning, and as the year went on maybe Shonn picked it up a little bit."
Behind arguably the game's top offensive line, the Jets rushed for the fourth-best total in all of football with 2,374 yards. But there was more of a balance in the playcalling as Mark Sanchez's development and the acquisition of more talent around the young quarterback meant that Schotty dialed up runs 48.6 percent of the time in the regular season compared with 59 percent from the year before. The Jets' 4.4-yard per-carry average was almost identical to their 4.5 from '09, but they produced fewer runs of 20-plus yards as that number dipped from 19 to 11.
"Let's be honest, I'd rather run it 95 percent of the time," Ryan said. "What we always talked about is having an offense that will run the ball when we decide we're going to run it. No matter who —we can still run it and no matter what you do — we can still pass it. That's when you know you've really got something."
McKnight showed something in the regular-season finale against the Bills, carrying 32 times for 158 yards. He struggled initially with the transition from the college ranks to the pros, but there's no doubting his talent and the Jets like the mindset he took on throughout the year.
"The arrow is always up on him. He was down a little bit with the fumbling, but now he's picked up," said Ryan of the former Trojan who was active for nine contests. "He wanted to learn how to protect the ball better. He worked on hitting it in there and driving the legs. He worked on his pass coverage. You name it, he did whatever. He can do that as a receiver, a running back, you see him on special teams. He's just an outstanding athlete. Can he help us? We'll see. I think he can."
The Jets also think John "The Terminator" Conner can help them as well. He saw a lot of special teams duty as a rookie and may now be called upon to be the No. 1 man at fullback. Unrestricted free agent Tony Richardson has had an excellent three-year run on the field and away from the gridiron with New York's AFC representative, but the Jets could elect to move on with the young knockout artist.
Once a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached, the Jets will have plenty of decisions to make as they're expected to have 17 UFAs. Tomlinson is under contract and expected back although it's not a certainty.
"With any of these players, unexpected things could happen, from contracts to other acquisitions you may make," said Tannenbaum. "We expect LaDainian back and I expect him to contribute for another year in 2011."
"I'd love to have our team intact," Ryan added. "When you look at those two guys, that's quite a combination."
The Jets in 2009-10 rushed for 5,000 yards and averaged more than 160 yards per game in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. Here are the Jets' top five team rushing yardage totals in consecutive seasons: