Posted on: September 28, 2009 2:47 pm
Edited on: September 28, 2009 2:50 pm

New York Fans Have 'Two For The Show'

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

Posted on: August 30, 2009 8:18 pm
Edited on: August 30, 2009 8:49 pm

In the Nicks of Time

With Sure-Handedness an anomaly for Receivers, Hakeem is a Dream that must become reality.

Call it "garbage time" if you wish. Explain it away as just being another pre-season 4th Quarter where the darkest and deepest corners of the depth chart are fighhting for their rightful place on the Giants practice squad. Take it for whatever you think it's worth, but as a Giants fan I saw something in a receiver that has been sorely lacking since Glendale in February of 2008; confident hands.

Hakeem Nicks hadn't shown much leading up to the 3rd quarter of last night's annual exhibition against the New York Jets, hauling in just two catches in the first two games. But two touchdowns and 144 yards later, Nicks is finally comfortable with his role and with his new team. "I feel like I know what I'm doing out there" he was quoted as saying in a postgame interview.

OK, so it was primarily David Carr - and not Eli Manning - throwing the ball to Nicks, and it wasn't as if he was being covered by the amazing Darrelle Revis or even the savvy-yet-suddenly-sloppy veteran Lito Sheppard (who was pulling at Mario Manningham's jersey like a 13-year old girl would claw at one of the Jonas brothers Marc Ecko sew fly shirts). But when the game was on the line - and for Nicks, this was his moment to show what he could do - he made the big grabs and showed the superior route running ability and quickness that Jerry Reese drafted him for.

In the first quarter, Nicks had made an impressive 15-yard grab off a pass from Manning as he broke back towards the sideline and gained the inside edge on Sheppard - falling to his knees and scooping up the low pass just as it was designed. His first TD was a corner route to the back of the end zone where he curled around behind CB Drew Coleman and twisted his torso to the right as the pass came down - perfectly positioning himself on what was basically a desparation play by Carr who was about to get hammered in the pocket. On the 71-yard TD pass, Nicks was simply the benificiary of a blown coverage scheme as he was streaking down the right side - there wasn't a single white jersey in sight, and it was beautiful.

What - you may be asking yourself - is so beautiful about an easy touchdown catch that any legitimate NFL pro should be able to make?
It was as beautiful as Steve Smith's dropped pass was ugly.
It was as beautiful as Domenik Hixon's mishandling of an Eli pass (resulting in a David Harris interception) was disappointing. 

The Smith drop was a tide shifter that would have put the Giants up by two touchdowns in the first quarter. After going up 7-0, the Giants defense stuffed NY(A) for three-and-out. On the first play of their ensuing drive, a perfectly thrown 60-yard heat seeker by Manning landed right in the cradle of a wide-open Smith - who had five steps on the nearest defender, The ball had 'touchdown' written all over it. In... and out. In and out. 14-0 suddenly became 7-7 less than four minutes later. The first thing I thought of was the eerily similar drop by Hixon against the Eagles last year - same situation, same result. It's what I call an "inflation transfusion" from one team's balloon to the other's.

Hixon's was much less egregious, a bullet over the middle that was a bit off target (Manning has yet to learn he needs to take a little something off those to avoid breaking his receiver's fingers). Hixon, however had both hands on the ball. You know what they say, and it's true - if you have your hands on it, you have to catch it. Hixon did not, and it popped off his hands and straight into the air resulting in a turnover that led to the Jets first score of the game. 

If Smith and Hixon - the team's starters - can't make those catches in a preseason game, what will they do when it really counts?

Steve Smith said in a post game interview, "Perfect pass, right in the bread basket. I'm just glad it was a preseason game."

I'm not. And I'm pretty sure Tom Coughlin's not.

Maybe it's time to start planning Hakeem Nicks' "gradual transition" into the starting unit sooner, rather than later. 

Quotes source: RSS Feed (Dan Graziano) 

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com