The New York Jets’ 24-7 victory over the Houston Texans in Week 1 should have signaled to the NFL that things will be different for Gang Green this season.
The hiring of Rex Ryan to replace Eric Mangini as head coach and the defensive makeover that occurred during the past offseason appears to have paid dividends. Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez — who passed for 272 yards and a touchdown in his debut — is for real. And a previously underused offensive weapon is about to be unleashed.
Last season, the arrival of Brett Favre seemed to be a distraction for coach Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, as they effectively put the offense in No. 4’s hands. Favre chucked the pigskin roughly 30 times per game and handed the ball to veteran halfback Thomas Jones 17 times a contest. Creativity was minimal, and a potential playmaker was somehow overlooked.
Now, if Sunday’s game against the Texans is any indication, the league had better prepare for a much heavier dose of Leon Washington.
The 27-year-old Washington is a diminutive 5-foot-8, 195-pound running back. He earned a trip to Honolulu as a Pro Bowl special teamer last year, but averaged less than seven touches a game otherwise. If the former Florida State Seminole made that much of an impact as a kick returner, doesn’t it stand to reason that he could be a weekly difference-maker on offense as well?
One of the greatest running backs of all time and current NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk certainly thinks so.
“I call it the Barry Sanders effect,” Faulk told Rich Cimini of the New York Daily News. “Whenever they handed the ball to Barry, you knew something good was going to happen. Even if it was a two-yard gain, it was the best two-yard gain you’ve ever seen. Leon has a lot of that in him.”
You’d think that Faulk — Washington’s idol, and one of the few players with 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards in NFL history — would know a thing or two about a running back’s playmaking ability. And by handing Washington the ball 15 times and tossing it his way four more last week, the Jets finally showed that they’re buying into Washington’s talent as well.
To measure Washington’s potential impact as his role in the offense grows, the San Diego Chargers’ 5-foot-6 phenom Darren Sproles is a good barometer. Sproles saw his playing time vastly increase last year, when LaDainian Tomlinson was hampered by injuries, and Sproles thrived in the expanded role, leading the Chargers to the second round of the playoffs in LT’s place.
But Washington — who is similarly shifty, quick, and deceptively strong — averaged more yards per carry than Sproles last year (5.9 to 5.4), behind a rather shaky run-blocking unit. If Washington gets a dozen carries and a half-dozen passes a game, he has the ability to be a special asset, both in helping Mark Sanchez adjust to the NFL and in adding a spark to the offense as a whole.
The New England Patriots will be the next team forced to deal with Leon the Leprechaun, and their success in doing so may be the X factor in the matchup at the Meadowlands this Sunday. With middle linebacker and leading tackler Jerod Mayo out with a knee injury, the Patriots will need his replacement, Gary Guyton, as well as their other linebackers and the secondary to step up in an effort to prevent Washington from having a significant impact on the game.
By extension, that means the spotlight will be on Washington, and the Jets hope their little guy can have a big impact. If teams can contain him, they will put the pressure squarely on the inexperienced Mark Sanchez and the aging Thomas Jones, making time of possession an issue, and potentially forcing a fatigued defense to lead the team to victory.
Teams were able to utilize that game plan against the Brett Favre-led offense last year, and they’ll surely try it again.
But in giving Leon Washington 15-20 touches a game, the Jets are confident that it won’t work anymore.
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