Commentary

Jets' fate rests on Greene's shoulders

The QBs get all the attention, but the offense revolves around the fourth-year RB

Updated: September 7, 2012, 2:26 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The summer spotlight focused on Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez, the Wildcat, a few training-camp fights, Wayne Hunter, Tebow, a shirtless run in the rain, the Wildcat, the young receivers and Tebow.

Did we mention Tebow?

[+] EnlargeShonn Greene
Ed Mulholland/US PresswireThe Jets are depending on Shonn Greene to elevate his game in 2012.

The amount of words written about Shonn Greene could fit in a 140-character tweet -- or close. ("Just the way I like it," he said.) It's a strange phenomenon because, let's be honest: He's the most important player on the New York Jets' offense not named Sanchez or Tebow.

Greene is the lead running back on a team basing its entire season on a power-running blueprint. For the first time in his career, he's the most experienced and most accomplished back in the room, and second place is a mile away.

In other words, if Greene doesn't have a career year, the Jets are toast. So we raise the question: Is Greene, coming off a statistically average season, capable of being a true No. 1 back?

"Until you've been a No. 1 back, it's OK to question it," running backs coach Anthony Lynn said. "Shonn's always been a companion back. He's never been a true No. 1. This is his first year as a true No. 1."

Greene rushed a team-high 253 times last season -- three times more than future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. But that didn't qualify him for No. 1 status, not in Lynn's world. The coach described the 2011 Greene this way: "In a companion role, he was the lead back." Almost sounded like a category at the Academy Awards.

Lynn may sound a bit skittish about Greene's chances of thriving in his new old role, but that's not the case at all. Because he added: "In a year from now, we're not having this conversation. It's his time now."

It's his time now.

On many levels, that is so true. Greene is the focal point of the offense, he doesn't have Tomlinson to lean on, he's in the final year of his rookie contract and he's adapting to a new running scheme. Under new coordinator Tony Sparano, the Jets have shifted away from zone blocking, relying more on a gap scheme.

In a gap system, the ballcarrier is required to be a one-cut runner, hitting the hole in a north-south fashion. It's a downhill, physical style of running the ball, as opposed to the slow-developing zone scheme, which accentuates the back's vision and cutback ability.

From all indications, Greene has embraced the new concept, which surprised some coaches because he grew up in a zone scheme during his college days at Iowa. He liked it so much, he didn't want to come out of the preseason games.

In theory, this should be the ideal marriage -- a 226-pound back in a power-running scheme.

"If you're a power back and you can't get excited about this, your wood is wet," Lynn said. "You should be fired up."

Greene said he's comfortable in either scheme but acknowledged, "That's one of my strengths, getting downhill between the tackles." He did plenty of that last season, rushing 127 times up the middle -- the fourth-highest total in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

He was effective as an inside runner, gaining 547 of his 1,054 yards between the tackles. But he has to do a better job of making yards after contact and penetrating to the second level. He's never going to blow anybody away with his speed -- his longest run last season was 31 yards -- but he has to do better than 4.2 yards per carry.

"I'm excited about the possibilities with Shonn," Sparano said. "He really impresses me right now. ... The guy is built the right way, built for our style of football here."

The Jets need his A-game from Week 1, starting against a Buffalo defense that historically struggles against any and all Jets runners. They can't afford another slow start from Greene, who didn't crack the 60-yard mark last season until the fifth game. Ground & Pound begins with Greene, who has the world on his shoulders but refuses to call himself a world-beater.

"I don't want to make any predictions," he said. "I just want to predict wins, that's all. I'm not into the individual, statistic stuff."

That's OK, because the Jets don't need a fantasy stud. They need a running back who can carry the rock -- and the franchise -- to the playoffs.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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