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Richardson is Jets' leading man

Fullback Tony Richardson #49 of the New York

Fullback Tony Richardson #49 of the New York Jets has a long gain against the Buffalo Bills. (December 3, 2009) Credit: Getty Images

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - The Jets rushed for an NFL-high 2,756 yards this season, nearly 200 more than their nearest competitor.

Only 48 of those yards were gained by Tony Richardson, and 36 of those came on two rushes in the same game.

And yet a percentage of every one of the remaining yards - the 1,402 credited to Thomas Jones, the 540 belonging to Shonn Greene, the 800-plus scattered among nine other Jets - belongs to the fullback whose job it is to create running room.

That would be Richardson, who has a degree in education from Auburn, an MBA from Webster University, and a Ph.D in people-moving, courtesy of Mother Nature, who blessed him with a body built for contact.

"Oh, I don't know about that,'' Richardson said with a laugh. "I'm not running. I'm just moving guys out of the way.''

Precisely. Richardson is one of those athletes who makes his teammates better in ways the average fan barely notices but whose teammates and coaches recognize is indispensable. And at this time of the year, when the most important football often is played under the worst possible conditions, two aspects of the game become vital: defense and the running game.

Not coincidentally, the Jets excel in both areas, which is why no one was laughing the other day when coach Rex Ryan expressed the opinion that his team, which barely squeaked into the postseason, actually could be considered favorites to win it all.

And while Jones and Greene and Mark Sanchez and Brad Smith and Jerricho Cotchery might well dominate the stat sheet, there was no doubt in the coach's mind about what makes the Jets' offense go.

"When you talk about our rushing attack,'' Ryan said, "I think you gotta start with T-Rich.''

And why not? That is where virtually every Jets running play begins, with a 6-1, 238-pound human bowling ball clearing a path.

No doubt Jones is an outstanding running back and Greene a rookie of great promise, but without Richardson doing the lead blocking, maybe neither of them ever gets out of the blocks.

"With a fullback like that, you can go out there and know that if a lineman or a tight end [misses a block], he's gonna come along and clean it up,'' Jones said. "I couldn't play fullback. I wouldn't want to play fullback.''

Really, who would? A fullback's lot is a rugged one, the life of a grunt, the position more that of a sixth offensive lineman than a member of the backfield.

And Richardson is not just any fullback. In a job for which a 30-year-old is considered ancient and the average career lasts about five seasons, he's a three-time Pro Bowler who is in his 16th season and just happens to have turned 38 on Dec. 17.

By reading the stat sheet alone - in 16 games, he carried the ball only seven times, caught but three passes and scored no touchdowns - it is easy to overlook Richardson's contribution to the Jets' offense, or even worse, minimize it.

Such a job could easily be perceived as a thankless task. Richardson prefers the word "selfless.''

"When I'm doing my job knocking people around for Thomas and Shonn, I don't think about my body or my stats,'' he said. "I just think, whatever I do to make these guys successful is gonna make the team successful. I don't need all that other stuff. Their success is my reward.''

That attitude, he says, comes from being the son of a sergeant major who served in Vietnam and was stationed in Germany, where Tony was born and lived the first 12 years of his life. "I was taught young that when you're working as a team, you don't care who gets the credit,'' he said. "My dad was a high-ranking official and had a lot of people serving under him, but I always saw how humble he was and how he always diverted the credit to someone else. That taught me a lot about being a teammate.''

Like father, like son. Tony Richardson now diverts the credit to the men for whom he has cleared the way for the past 16 seasons. Ask him about his proudest moments in the NFL and he talks about blocking for Hall of Famer Marcus Allen as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs; he talks about blocking for Priest Holmes, who gained at least 1,400 yards per season his first three years running behind Richardson and made the Pro Bowl each time; he talks about blocking for Adrian Peterson the day he rolled up an NFL-record 296 yards against San Diego while a member of the Minnesota Vikings; he talks about opening the holes for a Jets backfield that set a franchise record for rushing yards this season.

He barely mentions that in 2000, the year before Holmes arrived in Kansas City after four so-so years in Baltimore, the Chiefs' featured back had been a guy named Tony Richardson, who rushed for a creditable 697 yards on 147 carries, a more-than-respectable 4.7 yards per carry.

He shrugs off the cruel reality of a league in which a man can make the Pro Bowl, as Richardson did for the third time in 2007, and be released a month later, as the Vikings did to him in a salary-cap move.

And he seems almost embarrassed to discuss his statistical high point of his 2009 season, in the 19-13 Week 13 victory against Buffalo. In the midst of a 249-yard rushing day by the Jets, the highest average-yards-per-carry belonged to Richardson, who ripped off runs of 19 and 17 yards the only two times he touched the ball.

"OK, so I stuck a couple of those in there,'' he said. "But I've had my day in the sun, and at this point in my career, this is what I want to do.''

He moves people on the field and he moves teammates in the clubhouse. Ryan, Jones, Greene and tight end Dustin Keller, Richardson's training partner and closest friend on the team, credit him with being as strong an influence off the field as he is a force on it.

"He's one of the best people I ever met,'' Jones said. "He always does the right thing and he takes pride in it.''

Said Ryan: "He is someone you would love for your sons to grow up and be like.''

Tomorrow's wild-card playoff game against the Bengals, a rematch of the 37-0 trouncing the Jets put on Cincinnati in the last game of the regular season, will be only the fourth trip to the playoffs for Richardson, who has never had a postseason carry.

Nor did any of the three Chiefs teams he played for, all of which came in as favorites with league-leading 13-3 records, win one of those games.

"I doubt I'll touch the ball this week, either,'' he said without a trace of bitterness or regret.

The only time Tony Richardson puts himself out front, it seems, is when there's a teammate carrying the football behind him.

The Richardson File
WEIGHT 238 lbs.
AGE 38
BORN Dec. 17, 1971 in Frankfurt, Germany
PRO BOWLS 3 (Kansas City 2003, ‘04; Minnesota 2007)
WHAT ELSE Has blocked for teammates who gained 1,000 yards in a season eight times since 2001 (Priest Holmes 3, Thomas Jones 2, Larry Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor).

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