If you're looking for a backup running back that can single-handedly take control of a game, then look no further than East Rutherford: Leon Washington & Ahmad Bradshaw are #1 and #1A in the NFL
Bradshaw's proving that 'Fire' can replace 'Wind'.
When the Jets and Giants offenses take the field for their first possession of a game, it's veteran Thomas Jones and 'Mount' Brandon Jacobs who are called upon to get things going. They are fixtures - penned in under all circumstances for the opening drive on gameday, and have earned those roles the hard way. Their presence in the backfield is unquestioned; their contributions are worthy of praise and their commitment to victory is always apparent. Each back brings something to the table that forces opposing defenses to plan around and prepare for, and over the past few seasons they've been instrumental in the level of success their organizations have attained. They get the attention and focus, and are expected to start the engines.
But what happens if that engine begins to sputter? When the flames turn blue and begin to flicker - and the most subtle breeze threatens to extinguish what's left of the fire - fans of these New York teams have grown accustomed to seeing their leading men take a back seat while their understudies come in and stoke the furnace to get the engines chugging again.
In reality, the term understudy is not an entirely accurate description. An understudy is someone who learns the entirety of a lead performer's role so they are able to replace that regular performer when/if required. When looking at the roles asked of the Jets' Leon Washington and the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw, it's obvious - they have their own parts to play, and in many respects they are stealing the spotlight from the leads. And their head coaches wouldn't have it any other way.
Leon Washington earned the tag "game breaker" right off the bat; the 117th overall pick in the 2006 draft, Leon began turning heads in the '06 preseason with his speed and agility on kick returns. At the time, the Jets had signed Kevan Barlow away from the 49ers as the heir apparent to Curtis Martin, who had just retired. It didn't take long for Washington to outshine his lead performer, and Jets fans immediately recognized him for the threat that he was. Against the Detroit Lions in October, Washington racked up over 120 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns in a 31-24 victory. He would prove dangerous in the passing attack later on that year with over 100 yards through the air against the Miami Dolphins on Christmas day. He wrapped up the year as the team's rushing leader, and despite taking a back seat to Jones the following season has been a force to be reckoned with ever since - giving opposing defensive coordinators and special teams coaches fits in preparing for him.
Ahmad Bradshaw's rise to prominence came a year later, having been drafted as the 250th overall pick out of Marshall in '07. Unlike Washington, Bradshaw's career started with less fanfare and more trepidation on the part of his coaching staff. His preseason performance was lackluster, prone to fumbling on kickoff returns and struggling to find open running lanes. Veteran Reuben Droughns began the 2007 season as the kickoff returner, but the aging Droughns started to show signs of slowing down and his abilities were quickly deteriorating. That - combined with injuries to Jacobs and Derrick Ward - gave Bradshaw the opportunity to show his stuff. His was given his first significant role in a game against the Buffalo Bills on December 23rd - and responded with 151 yards rushing on just 17 carries, including an 88-yard TD where he shot through the line like a missle and sprinted all the way to the end zone untouched. His team leading 42-yards rushing in Super Bowl XLII and heads-up recovery of an Eli Manning fumble further increased his stock. Despite losing 60-days worth of training camp heading in to the 2008 season (spent in Abingdon Regional Jail for violating probation for a juvenile charge), he worked his way back into shape and led the Giants in yards per carry with 6.7 for the season, being the third man on the totem pole in the "Earth, Wind and Fire" trio of running backs.
Bradshaw is currently leading the Giants in rushing with 201 yards (5.7 per carry), despite touching the ball 23 fewer times than starter Jacobs. This past Sunday in Tampa Bay, Bradshaw did what Jacobs could not; find the open lanes and make defenders have to work at dragging him down. Even though the Giants dominated field possession, the game clock and every offensive statistic possible, this could have been a very different game if Bradshaw was not there to keep the clock ticking and the chains moving.
Washington - despite being knee deep in a contract dispute - is the good soldier who puts his head down and does his job. He continues to be the x-factor for the Jets - and even though his performance this past Sunday against Tennessee was subdued in comparison, who can forget last years matchup in Music City when the Jets rolled to a 34-13 victory over the undefeated Titans? Washington ran for 83 yards on just 8 carries, and his 61-yard TD dash in the last quarter turned out to be the nail in the coffin. Whatever the details of his contract dispute are, it's hard to imagine that someone as valuable to his team as Washington is could be asking for anything more than he rightfully deserves.
This is not in any way meant to diminish the talent of other quote-unquote backup running backs in the league; some of the more valuable 2nd stringers like Mewelde Moore (Pittsburgh) and Darren Sproles (SD) have been clutch for their teams. And yes, there are other backup RB's out there such as Dallas' Felix Jones and New Orleans Pierre Thomas who have shown amazing ability off the bench and on special teams. But they haven't dominated games. They haven't been out there standing head and shoulders above the other 21 players on the field; like a solitary sailboat in an endless blue ocean, you fixate on the boat because there's really nothing else for you to look at.
These are two prolific athletes. They may be backups on the depth chart, but they are second to none when it comes to the intensity and passion they spill all over the gridiron. In a day and age where leaders need to lead both statistically and emotionally, it's nice to know that there are two young men here in the Apple that have the same potential to do what players like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Adrian Peterson and Randy Moss can do - that is, to hoist their temmates up on their shoulders and offer them a ride.
The fact that they come out of nowhere to do this makes the experience that much sweeter.
Every team is in the same boat; they trust their captains and sail the NFL seas with confidence in their crew. But every once in a while, things can slow down and goals become harder to reach than first thought. When spirits are low and someone needs to step up, Leon Washington and Ahmad Bradshaw seem to provide the gusts needed when the sails are up.
References: pro-football-reference.com, nfl.com