When future Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list last summer, the shortest member of the roster was right there to help fill the biggest shoes on the Jets' offense.
Rookie Leon Washington, all 5'8" of him, led the Green & White ground attack in 2006 with 650 rushing yards and 270 receiving yards. He became the first Jets back to lead the team in rushing since Blair Thomas led the 1990 Jets with 620 yards. Washington was able to accomplish this on a team that used a running back by committee approach. Cedric Houston and Kevan Barlow also had well over 100 carries this season in the backfield, but it was Washington who stole the show.
"I just try to use the ability that I've been blessed with and go out there and try to have fun and just make plays," said Washington, a fourth round selection in last April's draft. "Just getting out there in the NFL and getting an opportunity to play and help the team - it's definitely exciting."
Washington came on strong in his rookie season, but only after a bumpy start. His name was called often in training camp and not always for the right reasons.
"When he first got here, he probably put the ball on the ground more than anybody else. I was on him every single day. I got sick of saying his name and he got sick of hearing it," said Coach Eric Mangini. "Whether it was him as a receiver dropping a pass, him as a running back where they'd rip the ball out, or him as a punt returner - he ran more laps than anybody. He could have run the New York Marathon after just the rookie mini-camp."
"When I first got here, I struggled early on learning the system, learning how to be a pro, and how to handle myself in the National Football League," said Washington. "The coaches worked with me and stuck with me every day and pushed me. I was able to endure that, but I'm still young and have a long way to go."
The transition from college ball to professional football didn't intimidate the young Jacksonville native. Washington worked hard at his craft with running backs coach Jimmy Raye and the extra effort paid off. The rookie was an eager listener, which is something Mangini feels is one of Washington's most effective qualities.
"Leon does a good job just absorbing that information, taking the coaching and making progress," said Mangini.
Not only did he absorb an abundance of information from the coaching staff, Washington turned to Martin, the Jets' all-time leading rusher. Although inactive all season, Martin attended most team meetings and soon took Washington under his wing.
"When I first got here, it took a little while to get used to it because I was a little star-struck," said Washington of Martin. "It took about two weeks to talk to the guy, but finally we got a chance to speak to each other and I had a chance to work out with him. He has basically been teaching me how to be the best I can do to help my team win and that's the best motivation I've had so far.
"He would come in the locker room and talk about the games on Mondays. Stuff like that has been a big help."
After Washington accounted for no stats in the season opener at Tennessee, he rushed just once for zero yards against New England in week two. In week three however, Washington turned some heads after he averaged 3.6 yards per carry and added a 47-yard reception on a well- executed screen pass in Buffalo.
Then, in week five, Washington raced into the record books in his hometown against the Jaguars.
On 23 carries, Washington busted out for 101 rushing yards in front of an estimated 100 family and friends. Even though the Jets found themselves on the wrong end of a one-sided decision, Washington made a statement and it couldn't have come at a more appropriate place.
"When I walked out of my apartment complex where I grew up, I could see Alltel Stadium. I could see the JumboTron, so that should give you a pretty good picture of how close I was," Washington said, referring to his childhood days in Jacksonville. "It has been my dream since I was a child to play in the National Football League and to get a chance to play at home right in the area that you grew up in."
The Jets rebounded from the aforementioned loss in Jacksonville by winning their next two games at home - first over Miami, 20-17 and then over Detroit, 31-24. Against the Lions, Washington broke out with a season-high 129 rush yards and his first two NFL touchdowns.
"You should always be excited about getting an opportunity to play in this league. Some of these guys never get a chance to play; there are only 45 guys on the roster," said Washington, who was always one of the first ones on the practice field. "That is the way I view it. I go out there and try to do my job to give us the best chance to win."
During the second to last regular season contest, Washington accounted for one of the most memorable plays of the Jets' season. On Christmas night in Miami, Washington ran for just 26 yards but caught four balls for 108 yards. The Jets needed to win that Monday Night Football game to remain in the hunt for the playoffs and a 64-yard screen pass from the rookie sealed it.
After the Dolphins knotted the score at 10 with just over two minutes remaining in a rainy fourth quarter at Dolphins Stadium, the Jets needed someone to step up. On the first play of the series from their own 20-yard-line, quarterback Chad Pennington dumped it off to Washington, and that's what the show started.
"It was a lot of Leon," Mangini joked after the game. "We had guys out there; they were getting in Leon's way."
After delaying blitzing linebacker Donnie Spragan with a quick backfield block, Washington broke through four Miami defenders and was finally tripped up by Renaldo Hill at the Dolphins'16-yard-line. Four plays later, kicker Mike Nugent came on with seconds left and put the Jets ahead to stay.
"I just try to pick up a defender's eyes and make a cut and whatever happens after that is instinctive," Washington said of his joystick-like moves on that play. "Our offensive line did a great Titans knotted the opener at 16 in the fourth quarter with a 16-point run, Pennington calmly marched the Jets downfield. He culminated a 57-yard scoring drive with a 12-yard strike to tight end Chris Baker for the deciding score and just 2:12 remaining.
"Chad has done a great job in preparing himself and getting himself back to the point of being our starting quarterback," said receiver Laveranues Coles after grabbing eight catches for 153 yards. "I'm just happy that he now has a game under his belt and showed he's back."
24-7, Pennington threw a short pass across the middle to Coles, who would later be voted his Team's MVP. The 5'11", 193-pound Coles hauled it in and painted a masterpiece, cutting inside and then outside before somehow landing in the end zone after eluding approximately a half a dozen of would-be tacklers. It was Coles' longest touchdown reception of his career.
"Chad gave me an opportunity to catch the ball, and I got a lot of downfield blocking," said Coles, who had six catches for 100 yards.
Holding a rather precarious 10-6 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Jets went to the airwaves for the deciding score. Pennington lofted a jump ball into the air in the right corner of the end zone as Jerricho Cotchery and Ellis Hobbs battled for position. Cotchery wouldn't be denied, effortlessly hauling in a 22-yard grab which put the Jets on top 17-6 with just 4:45 remaining.
"I just wanted to put the ball up there and let him try to make a play," said Pennington of Cotchery. "They had a good job of covering our other routes and he was the one guy who was one-on-one. The guy was playing off coverage. But I just feel
Patriots. The Pats' 24-21 victory over the Jaguars allowed the Jets to control their postseason destiny. A win over the Dolphins followed by a week seventeen victory over the Raiders would give the Jets an AFC Wild Card.
But the Dolphins weren't gracious hosts. They battled all night long in the rain for head coach Nick Saban (the talented coach would leave his post and accept the head coaching position at the University of Alabama on January 4.) In an interesting move with his team out of the playoff hunt, Saban sent Olindo Mare out for a game-tying 25-yard field goal instead of going for it on a fourth and one from the Jets'
job selling it. We caught them in a blitz and Chad got me the ball. It was great play calling. All I was thinking was 'Make a big play, and our kicker will make the field goal.'"
Currently immersed in his first offseason as a professional football player, Washington will soon return to Weeb Ewbank Hall as the same modest player and person he was in his exceptional rookie campaign.
"I'm just going to work hard, keep my head down and who knows what will happen in the future," he said. "You have to stay humble in your approach and you'll be okay."