The early 2010s New York Jets remain a symbol for squandered potential around NFL circles. And no what-if is more emblematic of their fast decline than running back Shonn Green.
Heading into the 2011 regular season, the Jets were in a great spot. They had rattled off 11 victories the year before, sported one of the league’s best defenses and were fresh off an appearance in the AFC Conference Championship, a mere one victory away from making a Super Bowl appearance.
Greene played a pivotal part in their success during that 2011 season. He was not their every-down at that point; said honor belonged to LaDanian Tomlinson. But the Jets preferred to control the pace and milk the clock by leaning on their ground game. Only one team tallied more rushing attempts than them in 2011. Ipso facto, they needed more than just Tomlinson to get by. And Greene provided that second-option punch, averaging a stellar 4.1 yards per carry.
By 2011, in fact, he had superseded Tomlinson as the team’s every-down runner. He responded to the additional responsibility fairly well, averaging a rock-solid 4.2 yards per carry, scoring six touchdowns and mixing in some possessions as an early-down pass-catcher.
With quarterback Mark Sanchez firmly removed from the stardom track for which he was originally ticketed by this point, the Jets struggled to gain any sort of momentum. They finished just 8-8. Still, their running attack carried them to a top-13 offense. The infrastructure of a better team appeared to be in place.
But then the 2012 season came around.
Greene was the every-down back by this time, and he turned in another admirable year. He amassed over 1,000 rushing yards, rattled off another eight touchdowns and kept his average gain per rushing attempt right around four years. And yet, behind a shoddy passing attack, the Jets still placed 28th in points per game. Those struggles lead to a 5-11 record, and the decision not to retain Green leading into 2013.
Talk about a free fall. The Jets went from defensive darlings and Super Bowl hopefuls to non-threats. And while no one decision is to blame, you can’t help but wonder if things might’ve changed had they deployed Greene more properly.
Depending on him more in the red zone would’ve been a good start. Then-head coach Rex Ryan was too trusting in Sanchez. More importantly, it would’ve helped to use Greene as a receiver more frequently. He had the jukes and misdirection footwork to make defenders miss in the open field.
Whether it’s because Sanchez wasn’t the QB to maximize Greene’s skill set, or because the offensive line was too crummy, or because the Jets weren’t well-coached, the verdict is clear in hindsight: They did a terrible job deploying Shonn Greene after the 2011 season.