The Unsung Hero

It’s been a busy week in Jets land.  I’ve been glued to ESPN, hanging on Adam Schefter’s every word waiting to see what moves will be made this off season.  I’ll be the first to admit that never in a million years did I expect the Jets running back corps to be the object of so much potential change.

All this movement has sparked many discussions and debate regarding the merits of players like Thomas Jones and Leon Washington.  With all this talk revolving around the Jets running game, Jets fans have let me down by not ever worrying about one key component to its success – Tony Richardson, until today.   

Richardson has been on the top of my list of Jets players that must be back next year.  Each and every discussion regarding the success of the Jets rushing attack should always include his name.  While the cohesiveness of our offensive line has led to great success, his contributions must be noted as well.
The fullback is by far one of the most undervalued positions on a football team.  Some refer to them as “football’s forgotten position”.  Unfortunately, the fullback position has diminished in importance over the past few decades as modern offenses such as the spread offense have become popular.
That being said, traditional fullbacks in the NFL are some of the fiercest and most physical players in the game.  They are physical lead blockers who specialize in paving the way on power runs.   The Jets are lucky to have one of the league’s best fullback take the field for them week after week.
Rich Cimini of the Daily News may have referred to Tony Richardson as “ancient”, but after 16 years at such a brutal position, T.Rich still plays like a 25 year old.  There are only 3 players left from the 1994 rookie class  - Kevin Mawae, Issac Bruce……and Tony Richardson.
Surprisingly enough, T.Rich entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent and was signed to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad.  He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1995 and played there for 11 years before joining the Vikings in 2006, and spending the last two seasons on the New York Jets. 
He’s played an integral role in the careers of some of the most notable running backs in the game including Marcus Allen, Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson and Adrian Peterson.  He has blocked for a 1,000 yd rusher seven times in five years.  The most recent being in 2008 blocking for former Jet Thomas Jones.
The four-time Pro Bowler has been an emotional leader in the Jets locker room and has been an “unsung hero” in helping the Jets become the number one team in rushing this year.  
While I’d love to have him continue to be our lead blocker for years to come, the reality is that Richardson’s retirement is looming in the near future.  On an interview this January on a Kansas City based sports radio show, T.Rich was asked when the end of his football career would be.  He responded “within the next 16 months”.
In my opinion, the Jets organization has not prepared well enough for this loss.  Has Tannenbaum completely forgotten to take notice of Richardson’s impact on the team as well?  History has proven that tailbacks often struggle when adjusting to a new fullback.  Both Larry Johnson and Adrian Peterson both suffered decreases in their average YPC once they were no longer running behind Richardson.
Tannenbaum stated today “re-signing Tony Richardson is a priority” and I couldn’t agree more.   Knowing that the veteran fullback wouldn’t be around forever you would think that they would have had a young player learn from T.Rich last season.  All pre-season, through training camp, Richardson mentored Jehuu Caulcrick.  Caulcrick never made the 53-man roster for reasons I still do not comprehend, and has now been signed to the San Francisco 49ers.
Jason Davis is the only other fullback on the Jets roster right now, and has been on the practice squad all season. Tannenbaum has spoken highly of Davis’ “physicality and upside” today,  but no way no how is a young player who’s spent the majority of the past 4 years on different practice squads,  remotely ready to take over the role of one of the league’s best fullbacks.  
The Jets better hope and pray that T.Rich has one more season in him and need to make sure that he finishes his career wearing a Jets uniform.  Our running game would not have had the success it did without the offensive linemen, or fullback we had last year.  If the Jets want to repeat this success, they will need Richardson to block for Greene, Washington (fingers crossed) and whoever is named as Thomas Jones’ replacement.
Still having a hard time seeing his value to the team?  I’ll leave you with this:
Remember the Jets vs. Chargers game when the Jets were faced with a 4th-and-1 at the Chargers 29?  Who landed the key block on that play that sealed the deal on the 17-14 victory? 
You got it…..the one....the only .....#49 himself - Tony Richardson.


The Game of Risk: Leon Washington

It’s been about a month since the NFL season has officially ended.  Most of us have kept ourselves busy discussing free agents, trades, salaries, combine results, etc.  Many of these post season discussions have revolved around the news of Thomas Jones being released by the Jets this week.  In my opinion this is a huge move that can potentially disrupt the Jets ever potent running game.   What hasn’t been discussed enough however and commands more attention, regards our “other” star running back – Leon Washington.

Rich Cimini of the Daily News reported late last week that although it was not yet official,  Leon Washington, a restricted free agent, would be tendered at the 2nd round level  ( $1.759 mil )

Let’s take a quick moment to review what this all mean.  Basically the Jets have until Thursday March 4th  to make this tender official.  After that teams can sign Leon to an offer sheet and any of the following scenarios can occur:
           1.    If a team makes an unreasonable high offer:   
                The Jets decide not to match this offer and receive a 2nd round pick in exchange for Leon

2.        2.    If a team makes a reasonable offer:
                The Jets decide to match the offer and keep Leon

3.        3.    If no offer sheets are presented:
                Jets keep Leon and pay him $1.8 million to play out the season

By tendering Leon at the second round level, the Jets have basically assured themselves that if they do end up losing him,  they will be compensated for it.  This move makes me believe that Tannenbaum does want to entertain offers.  If he really wanted Leon to stick around he would have tendered him at a first round level or at least a first & third.  No team would give up either of those picks for him and we’d be 100% positive Leon would be in a Jets uniform next year.

Most of Jets nation has found solace in the wake of Thomas Jones being released by banking on the fact that Leon will definitely be back next year.   Can you be so sure of that?

Many say that no team would be willing to give up a second round draft pick for a running back coming off a season ending injury.  Keep in mind though, Leon is ahead of his rehab schedule and in the world of sports medicine, it’s often easier to come back from a fracture as opposed to a ligament or tendon injury. 

The New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Kansas City Chiefs each have multiple second round draft picks.  There is a lack of running back talent in this year’s draft, and I have to believe that one of these teams would be willing to give up one of their picks for an explosive change-of-pace back like Leon.

For these reasons and more I worry that Tannenbaum is taking a big risk with this move.  The Jets led the league in rushing last season.  Say all you want about having a dominant defense,  this team would not have made it to the AFC Championship game without such a powerful ground and pound offense.

Is such a high risk worth disrupting the one strength our offense has?  The Jets could potentially be left with only Shonn Greene.  While I foresee Greene being a force to be reckoned with,  he hasn’t proven that he can carry the load for an entire season yet.

The Jets have a small window of opportunity to fill in some missing pieces and get the Championship we all know they are capable of.  The success of the team’s rushing attack is mainly due to the strength of our offensive line.  With Alan Faneca & Damien Woody getting older, the Jets may have only a few years left to capitalize on such a cohesive unit.  

March will no doubt be an exciting month with lots of potential moves to be made.  While I know the saying is true,  you don’t get anywhere in life without taking risks,  I can’t help but think that if something isn’t broke then why fix it?

I hope that I am wrong…..that this risk will pay off and we’ll see Leon Washington back stronger than ever returning the first kick-off in the new stadium next season.