Curtis charting a course past a Panther in '05
The National Football League's fourth all-time leading rusher has in all likelihood played his last game as a professional. After 14,101 yards and 3,298 carries, Curtis Martin held court at his locker Monday for the final time.
"I've come to grips with the fact that my career is probably over," Martin told reporters. "As I said, I'm grateful that I put in my all and I put my heart out on the field. I've done everything I can to help my team win games and at the end of the day, that's something I can leave the game with - no regrets."
Martin missed the entire 2006 season with a right knee condition that left him unable to make cuts necessary to play football. After starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List (PUP), Martin had hoped to make a return this fall. But on November 1, the Jets placed the 12-year veteran on the Reserved/PUP List, effectively ending Martin's season. He has said his bone-on-bone condition could only get worse, but there is still a yearning to play again.
"I think the competitor in me is always going to have a percent of hope, which probably isn't any good," Martin conceded. "But the reality of it is that it probably is over."
Even though he didn't record a statistic in 2006, Martin was still a part of the team. He was a familiar face at Weeb Ewbank Hall, sitting on meetings and working out on his own. The 33-year old product of Pittsburgh came away impressed with the work of first-year head coach Eric Mangini.
"The thing I was most impressed with was that he stuck to his guns, even when a lot of us didn't agree with the way things were changing so rapidly," he said. "It was that change that got us this far. I know we wanted to go further, but I think for this team to accomplish what we had this year says a lot."
Mangini led the Jets to 10 wins and a playoff berth even though the club lacked a true feature back. It was odd not to see #28 in the backfield as the Green & White adopted a committee approach.
Rookie Leon Washington, a fourth round selection from Florida State last April, led the team with 650 rush yards and added 270 receiving yards. Cedric Houston saw his backfield time increase later in the season, and he pitched in with 374 rush yards and five touchdowns. Kevan Barlow paced the Green & White with six rushing touchdowns, but he didn't play a lot down the stretch due to Houston's production and injury.
"The guys we had here, we understood that things may not be a traditional package but a package that we could definitely be successful with," Mangini said prior to the playoffs.
With the season on the line in New England – the place where Martin started his career – Mangini turned to the versatile Washington, a 5'8", 202-pound dual threat. He ran 11 times for 50 yards, averaging 4.5 yards a clip. He also was a factor in the passing game, grabbing four balls for another 25 yards against the Pats. Conversely, Houston participated in one play and picked up zero yards on a rush.
"Leon has done a lot of different things really well. He's caught the ball out of the backfield effectively at times, even if it's not necessarily a designed route - if it's just a check down where he's the outlet, and the fact that he can make things happen with the ball in his hands after he gets it in space," Mangini said of Washington in early January. "I think he's done some nice things on the perimeter runs and draws.
"The other thing I like about him is he's done some runs that traditionally big backs run and he's done well with that because he's got a good sense now of pressing the hole, where the cutback lane will be, and that takes some time and that takes some real effort to understand that and how it's all going to fit together up front, and that's part of his maturing and consistent work."
You can expect the Jets to add to the backfield competition in the offseason through free agency and/or the draft. Martin, the Jets' all-time leading rusher with 10,302 yards and owner of 43 regular-season 100-yard games with the Green & White, would still like to be involved with the organization in some capacity.
"There may be some way I can stay involved with the team," he said. "The team is like my family now. I've been here so long - I feel more like a big brother figure to most of the guys here."
In the coming months, Martin is expected to announce his retirement from pro football. Someone else will probably take his locker next year, but the warrior's presence and spirit will remain.