The e-mails have been coming with the questions posed and the sports radio callers are already inquiring: What are the Jets going to do about a feature running back nest season?
With the three-headed running-back-by-committee formula Eric Mangini has employed this season having been more survival than a real weapon (the Jets enter Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Raiders ranked 20th in rushing offense), Jets fans want a true feature back in the backfield next season.
The Jets faithful have been spoiled since 1998 with Curtis Martin, perhaps the most durable star running back in NFL history until his career was cut short last season.
Without Martin, it has been a struggle at times this season.
That’s why names such as Kansas City’s Larry Johnson, who’s scheduled to be a free agent after this season (though he’ll probably be franchised) and San Diego’s Michael Turner, LaDanian Tomlinson’s capable backup, have begun to surface.
Here’s a question Jets management must ask itself, though, before it reaches out for a high-priced free agent: Should they look to within the organization before going outside?
How about Leon Washington?
Washington, even in his rotation role, leads the Jets with 597 rushing yards and a 4.4-yards-per-carry average. He, too, is emerging as a dangerous receiver out of the backfield as evidenced by his scintillating 64-yard catch-and-run that won the game for the Jets Monday night in Miami.
Among NFL rookies, only Joseph Addai from Indianapolis, Maurice Jones-Drew from Jacksonville, Laurance Maroney from New England and Mike Bell from Denver have rushed for more yards than Washington, who has two 100-yard rushing performances and one 100-yard receiving game to his credit this season.
“Leon is one of those scat backs, but he’s gained a lot of tough yards between the tackles, too,’’ Jets’ left guard Pete Kendall said, trying to help dispel the stereotype that could take away from Washington’s all-around capabilities.
If there’s one thing about Washington that’s as impressive as his shifty moves in space once he gets past the line of scrimmage, it’s his humble nature. That, too, will take him places.
“I get it from my mom,’’ Washington said. “Regardless of the situation, you've got to always stay humble and always never be content with what you're doing _ never be satisfied. Like I told Derrick Blaylock after the game, I'm blessed to be in a situation to be asked to make that play, and it's not over.
“We've got a long way to go, we've got goals set in mind. We want to continue to do what we want to do. If you stay humble in your approach, you'll be OK.’’
Washington was also kept in place by the stern approach of Eric Mangini, who recognized Washington’s talent but was frustrated by the rookie’s propensity to fumble the ball or drop it in the passing game when he first came to rookie mini camps and then training camp.
"When he first got here, he probably put the ball on the ground more than anybody else,'' Mangini said. "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.’’
Mangini’s way of trying to curb mental mistakes such as fumbled or dropped balls, penalties and other things that cause teams to lose games is to send the offending player on a punishment lap every time something like that occurs in practice.
"He ran more laps than anybody,'' Mangini said of Washington. "He could have run the New York Marathon after just the rookie mini camp. But what Leon did is he's worked at it, and he has good hands. He had a little rough spot. He has good hands. They didn't disappear; they weren't cut off.
"I think he just might have been a little bit of the excitement, but I give him credit. I was on him every single day. I got sick of saying his name, he got sick of hearing it, and I've stopped saying it for the most part.''
Washington has become one of the team’s top offensive weapons.
“Each week in our game plan we talk about who the playmakers are (on the opposing teams); who are the guys we've got to stop?’’ Jets’ linebacker Matt Chatham said. “In doing a scouting report of our own team, I think you can write 'two-nine' (Washington’s number) down as one of our playmakers, a guy you got to stop.''
Chatham joked about Washington’s moves being a detriment to his own teammates sometimes.
"In pre-game warm-ups every game, we cover a couple of punts and usually in my career that serves as a confidence builder before the game,’’ Chatham said. “You all run down, feel good about yourself and feel the legs fresh. But Leon catches the ball, makes a few ridiculous cuts and makes my legs crumple and I don't like going into the locker room thinking, 'Damn, I don't think I could have tackled that guy.'
"That doesn’t help your confidence. You don't like taking that kind of shot to the ego prior to the game.''
Washington, though, remembers Mangini’s shots to his ego via the punishment laps and he has no negative feelings about them at all because he knows those incidents made him better.
That, however, doesn’t mean he wasn’t rattled early on.
“I got home and I called my dad and I was like, `Man, Dad, I ran more laps today than I actually did in practice,’ ’’ Washington recalled. “Those types of things definitely make you aware of the consequences. Some people might take it lightly in practice if you drop a punt or drop a pass, but in a game it may becomes very critical.
“Once you run a lot of laps, you get tired of running laps. When you get into a game, it's a lot easier to concentrate when you know the consequences of the
process if you drop the ball.
“I attribute it to (Mangini) trying to get me better,’’ Washington went on. “If you want to get better in this business and you want to get better in this profession you have to be able to take criticism and understand that it's not trying to downplay you, it's trying to get you better.
“Me running laps, I could easily brush it off and just ran the laps and not cared about it. For me, wanting to get better as a player individually to help my team out, I took the criticism the right way and understood that by me running these laps, I'd get better at what I'm doing.
“You got to just stick with it. You deal with adversity all your life, and that's one of the things. Just stick with it and handle that adversity and keep going.’’
Who knows where that leads Washington, who’s sure to be a big part of the Jets’ offense for years to come. The question is, in what role?
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON SUNDAY:
-As we all know, a Jets’ win and they’re in the playoff as one of the two wildcard entrants. Depending on the seeding with a win, their most likely wildcard opponent would be the Colts in Indianapolis next weekend. It’s also possible they could play the Patriots in Foxboro.
-A win would give the Jets a three-game winning streak for the first time under Eric Mangini. It, too, would mean the Jets would enter the postseason having five of their final six regular-season game and six of eight in the second half of the season.
-A win would give the Jets three consecutive wins over the Raiders, it would make them 7-5 against AFC opponents this season and 4-4 at home this year.
-Jets’ kicker Mike Nugent, who last Monday night in Miami, booted the first game-winning field goal of his career, enters this game having made his last 15 field goal attempts and 20 of his last 21 attempts since missing two in the first game of the season. His only miss since Week One was a 52-yarder in Cleveland on Oct. 29.