by Dave Hutchinson/The Star-Ledger
Thursday November 27, 2008, 8:49 PM
Eric Barton of the Jets keeps it light off the field, but is all business when he nears a quarterback, as the St. Louis Rams' Marc Bulger found out earlier this season.
If there's a practical joke being played in the Jets' locker room, chances are linebacker Eric Barton's fingerprints are on it. The former Oakland Raiders bad boy, now in his fifth season with the Jets, loves life and his teammates.
The other day, sporting a mohawk haircut -- he plans to get it cut -- Barton led the razzing of veteran fullback Tony Richardson, who had a 14-yard run against the Titans, his longest since 2002.
During his interview, Barton exchanged one-liners with left guard Alan Faneca, whose locker stall is adjacent to his. Later, he posed for the cameras during practice.
Nose tackle Kris Jenkins, who was roommates with Barton at the University of Maryland, says that was just Barton's warm-up act. He declined to go into specifics about some of Barton's vintage performances because it would "incriminate" him.
"He's crazy," said safety Kerry Rhodes. "He's one of those guys who is going to lighten up the day. If it's a tough day, you can go to him for a laugh. You have to have guys like that on your team."
Barton, however, is also about his business and his business is football. A student of the game, he constantly amazes his coaches with his smarts and challenges even the scout-team guard to give him a better look at an opponent in practice.
The 10-year veteran is the brains behind the Jets' third-ranked run defense, which is allowing just 78 yards rushing per game. He calls all the defensive signals and has a team-leading 82 tackles, including a career-high 17 against the Patriots two weeks ago. He also has 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
"Things are clicking for us and that's all that's really important right now," said the 6-2, 245-pound Barton, a former outside linebacker who made a seamless transition inside when the Jets switched to a 3-4 defense three seasons ago. "I'm doing what they're asking me to do.
"I really don't look at it (as him flying under the radar). I just want to win and whatever I can do is what I'm going to do. No one really cares here about who's getting the accolades or the press. As long as we're getting the goal accomplished."
Last week, the Jets limited the Titans to just 45 yards rushing -- the fifth time they've held a team under 50 yards rushing this season -- and Barton was again in the middle of the fray with eight tackles.
"He's done a great job," coach Eric Mangini said. "What I like about Eric is things come very quickly to him."
Surprisingly, Barton and the defense hasn't appeared to miss hard-hitting inside linebacker David Harris, who was their leading tackler before undergoing groin surgery and missing the past four games. Harris' absence has resulted in Barton playing more on third down, not to mention getting used to a new partner inside in veteran David Bowens.
"When you look at Eric physically, you wouldn't think he plays in the NFL. He's small," Bowens said. "But he's one of the toughest guys I've been around. He'll hit you. He likes to blitz. He's good in coverage. He's the total package."
Barton, 31, says he has never been around teammates that he genuinely likes as much as he does this group. And he feels that with the addition of Jenkins, linebacker Calvin Pace and the stellar play of second-year cornerback Darrelle Revis, the Jets have the talent to go deep into the playoffs. He started on the Raiders' team that lost to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII and it still haunts him.
This, though, is the final year of Barton's contract and it could be his last chance to make it back to the Super Bowl as a Jet.
"Of course, I would like to stay here," said Barton, who signed with the Jets as an unrestricted free agent after five seasons in Oakland. "I love the guys here. But it's a business, so who knows what's going to happen. We'll see. Right now, I'll just worry about Denver."