Much like Michael Turner did for Matt Ryan with the Atlanta Falcons in 2008, Thomas Jones will have to be the running back every defense has to respect.
But before that happens, the 31-year-old running back has to prove he’s actually capable of shouldering the responsibility on his own. Yes, he’s still at that stage of his career.
It may seem absurd to suggest such a notion with Jones coming off one of the best statistical seasons he’s ever had, but there are harsh realities that shouldn’t be overlooked or, at the very least, examined in-depth.
New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum may not realize it, but he sparked some legitimate questions and concerns when he pretended not to hear Jones’ offseason grumblings for a new contract.
Although the 10th-year running back led the AFC in rushing with more than 1,300 yards and set a single-season Jets record for TDs (15), Tannenbaum refused to listen, fully expecting Jones to honor the contract he signed. And Jones did exactly that, avoiding any ugly offseason standoffs with the Jets.
Yet the obvious reluctance to even entertain Jones’ unhappiness raises some eyebrows.
Realistically, Jones’ production was consistent with the expectations the Jets had of him when he was traded from the Chicago Bears in 2007. Jones’ resurrected his career in Chicago, maxing out at 1,335 rushing yards in 2005—a total Jones was shy of by 24 yards in 2008.
But can he do the same without a well-established gunslinger under center in 2009?
Detractors can say what they will of Brett Favre’s tenure with the New York Jets, but denying his impact on the running game would be irresponsible.
Upon Favre’s arrival, the indecisive quarterback brought immediate credibility to the Jets’ passing game—a luxury Jones was not afforded in his disappointing, 1,119-yard inaugural season with New York.
When Jones was given an opportunity to run against a less-congested line of scrimmage, he flourished.
It was when defenders stopped respecting Favre and the Jets’ receivers to command a double-team that the Jets suffered. As defenses uncovered the Jets’ weaknesses, they honed in on the running game and Jones struggled.
But the issues were never as generic and bland as football fans assumed early in the offseason. It’s not a simple storyline starring Favre as the aloof villain with Jones and the Jets cast as the unlikely victims.
There’s a significant subplot involving offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and how deeply he was involved in the week-to-week strategies.
In six of the Jets’ seven losses, Jones carried the ball less than 20 times per game, with a meager 10 carries in three losses. By comparison, Jones was handed off to over 25 times against New England and Tennessee—wins which marked the Jets as midseason favorites for the Super Bowl.
The depth of Schottenheimer’s involvement will ultimately be determined in 2009.
Sadly, there is a worst-case scenario for the extreme pessimists to hang their hats upon. And it could be the most telling reason as to why Tannenbaum gave Jones the silent treatment.
Is Thomas Jones only as good as the talent Tannenbaum acquired during the 2008 offseason? How much of Jones’ success is hinged upon the financial commitment the Jets made to improving the talent surrounding him?
Favre, left guard Alan Faneca, and right tackle Damien Woody highlighted the Jets’ new, high-priced offensive faces in 2008—with Faneca and Favre representing the Jets as two of seven Pro Bowl selections.
When combined with the talent already in place—Leon Washington, Nick Mangold, and Pro Bowl alternate D’Brickashaw Ferguson—Jones was in an ideal position to succeed without having it do it alone.
While all of those players are returning in 2009—Favre being the single exception—one has to wonder if they’re better prepared to be in 2008′s midseason form or if they’ll continue to be haunted by the late-season disappointment that’s followed them all offseason.
With a rookie under center to start the season, opposing defenses will try and rattle Mark Sanchez until he can establish himself as a franchise quarterback.
Whether Jones is prepared for it or not, the Jets’ offensive success in 2009 hinges more upon his own ability than it does on any high-priced rookie.