From the time the Jets decided to part ways with running back Thomas Jones after the 2009 season and go with Shonn Greene as their starter, Rex Ryan has staunchly defended Greene as the go-to back for the team’s “ground and pound” running game.
Just one problem here: More than two full seasons into his career, Greene has yet to live up to his coach’s praise. And if he doesn’t start producing more, the Jets are going to have to seriously rethink whether he is their long-term answer at running back.
After emerging near the end of his rookie season with two strong playoff performances against Cincinnati and San Diego, Greene was anointed as the starter coming into last season. But he lost the job before the year even began, as the Jets promoted LaDainian Tomlinson after a listless preseason by Greene and questions about whether he was working hard enough.
A year later, Greene is once again the starter, with the aging Tomlinson now the third-down back, but after another listless performance in the opener against the Cowboys, I’m beginning to wonder whether Greene will truly become the kind of lead back Ryan can count on.
And it’s not too soon to start asking the question. After all, running back is one of the few positions where NFL players can immediately establish themselves, but Greene has yet to do so. While it’s still possible Greene will flourish – remember, it took Jones several years to blossom after his failed run with Arizona – the 26-year-old tailback needs to establish himself as the kind of inside force the Jets need. As much as Ryan wants to let Mark Sanchez air it out more this year, the coach’s first preference is to have a balanced attack that features a sound running game.
But that was hardly the case in the Jets’ 27-24 win over the Cowboys. The better word to use for the Jets’ offense was imbalance; they ran it just 16 times for 45 yards and Sanchez threw 44 passes.
“They had a great read on our running game, a lot of blitzes and stunts and stuff,” Greene said afterward. “So running the ball was kind of tough.”
Another challenge awaits on Sunday, when the Jets host the Jaguars at MetLife Stadium. Jacksonville won its opener over Tennessee, 16-14, and held All Pro running back Chris Johnson to just 24 yards on nine carries. Granted, Johnson was not in top form after missing most of training camp in a contract dispute. But the Jaguars’ improved defensive front was also a factor.
All the more reason that Greene needs to be the one to impose his will on the opposition. With the Jets’ offensive line still adapting to new right tackle Wayne Hunter, who replaced veteran Damien Woody, Greene has to get things rolling in a hurry. After all, there may be no turning back with Tomlinson, who is perfectly suited as a third-down back, but can’t be counted on take over as the starter again.
The numbers last year told the Jets as much. Tomlinson had 490 yards through his first five games, but just 424 yards in his next 10. Over his last five regular season games, he failed to rush for as many as 50 yards.
Tomlinson was excellent in the passing game against the Cowboys with six catches for 73 yards, and he added five carries for 16 yards.
So with no viable alternatives, Greene has got to be the go-to guy on a consistent basis. If not, then the Jets’ offense becomes too one-dimensional, and there’s too much pressure on Sanchez to throw. You saw how many times Sanchez got knocked around by the Cowboys, who got 10 solid licks on him and prompted the Jets to test their franchise quarterback for a concussion.
If Greene can get the running game going and allow Sanchez to better utilize the play-action passing game, which in turn helps negate the pass rush, then the offense will be in far better shape.
But if this 2.6-yards-and-a-cloud of dust stuff continues, the Jets are going to have some serious issues on offense and Greene is going to continue raising questions about whether he’s solution – or the problem – for the running game.