When the Jets lost dynamic kick returner Justin Miller for the season with a knee injury in Week 2 of the 2007 season, nobody guessed second-year player Leon Washington would fill his shoes so decisively.
A year and a half later, Washington is the NFL's second-leading kickoff returner with a 29.6 average and is drawing praise from the coaching staff for his work ethic.
"Just knowing the way to work and how it prepares you for the game, it definitely translates," Washington said today.
"He's a great player," said running back Thomas Jones. "He has great speed, he has great vision. He can do it all — run the ball, catch the ball and return. He's a great player and I'm glad to have him on the team.
"He has a great personality, very humble. He's just a great person, he works hard and he comes to work every day, doesn't complain and doesn't gripe. He goes out there and does his job. I think any coach would love to have him on his team."
In his news conference, Jets head coach Eric Mangini described how Washington's attention to detail is exemplified in special teams coach Mike Westhoff's meetings.
"Mike will have players present to the rest of the group," Mangini said. "And Leon, whenever he presents, it's like a coach. It's so thorough. He's the returner and he could easily say 'The kicker's going to offset here, the ball's going to come out to the 5, it's going to be this hang time.'
"But he goes through block by block, how we have to block it, who the guys are we need to target, why we need to make sure we have those guys covered, what the reads are, what the adjustment is if the ball is kicked somewhere where it's not supposed to be.
"It's really satisfying to me to see. He's one of the guys that came in with me, and to see his growth and development is great."
Washington and Mangini reflected on a recent conversation they had in which the player told his coach he didn't initially realize the value of off-the-field work in determining a player's on-the-field productivity.
"I thought it was just pure talent," said Washington. "When I got here, and you watch guys like Laveranues Coles, Jerricho Cotchery, Darrelle Revis, Kerry Rhodes, those guys work extremely hard in practice and you see how it translates in the games. It was big learning that and knowing that we all are talented and gifted in this sport but the guys that work the hardest and put forth the effort tend to perform better in the games."
Mangini also pointed to Washington's training camp, as he's done several times in the past, to show how far he has come as a player in a short time.
"It's good for the laugh," said Washington, "but at the same time, I was telling LC back a while ago, I appreciate that. I'm glad I didn't come into a system where the coach really doesn't say anything to the players and then expected them to go out there and perform.
"But I appreciate that Eric has been on top of me the whole time since I've been here, especially earlier in my career, because it definitely taught me a lot of how to be a professional on and off the field and how seriously practice is taken."
Jets fans watched in frustration during Week 2's matchup vs. the New England Patriots as last season's team MVP was stifled by Stephen Gostkowski's six kickoffs, the first five of which resulted in touchbacks.
So it was extra-special to see Washington set a franchise career record in Thursday's win over the Patriots with his fourth career kickoff-return touchdown.
"Later in the year the balls don't go as far in the National Football League," said Washington. "It's colder and kickers can't kick as far. We've returned against a lot of teams in our conference, but really not New England. They've really had the upper hand the last couple of years on special teams, so it was good to go out there and win that phase of the game, especially with that kickoff return. It helped us out a lot."
Special teams could be a major factor in the outcome of Sunday's game at Tennessee. The Jets are second-best in the NFL in kickoff return average and fifth-best in punt return average (Washington's 12.9-yard average is fifth among individual returners), while the Titans are No. 31 in kickoff return average allowed and No. 26 in punt return average allowed.
"If we get our blocking assignments, get the right guy, play the right plays, we're going to have a big return," said Washington. "One thing I'm really thankful for this year, with the guys we have, is that we rarely have a guy come scot-free on the return. Pretty much every guy gets his assignment. I'm so thankful to have a unit like that.
"Special teams is something this time of year that, if you can really focus on and do it well, that's the extra phase of the game that you can help your team win."