March 7, 2007
The latest news from the NFL's second season, free agency, concerns a couple of solid running backs changing teams in search of what look like greener pastures. With Thomas Jones now a Jet and Travis Henry falling lovingly into the arms of Mike Shanahan and his Broncos' zone-blocking schemes, both backs have left teams where they were under-appreciated and forced to split time for roles in which they will be the undisputed ball carriers.
Or will they?
The case with Jones seems pretty cut and dried. He's been a durable and above-average performer for the Bears for the past two years, but with Cedric Benson coming on strong (and earning lotsa cash), Chicago had to do something to clear the logjam and establish Benson as the guy.
Makes sense, but still; Why mess with a good thing? As much as it infuriates fantasy football owners, employing a running-back-by-committee scheme can make good sense, especially when it keeps your feature back from wearing down. With Benson's injury history, the Bears could be in trouble if they don't go out and get a solid backup.
What doesn't make sense is how easily the Bears let Jones go, giving him up for just a swap of second round picks. Jones is a 1,000-yard rusher and a proven feature back, and all he's worth is moving up 26 spots in the second round? This trade is a steal for the Jets, and a great opportunity for Jones, who asked for a trade last week.
But will Jones get the feature back love he never quite earned in Chi-town? According to reports out of New York, he will—but (and this is a big but) Leon Washington will serve as the "change-of-pace" back. That sounds an awful lot like running-back-by-committee to me.
Washington didn't do all too bad in New York last year after they started giving him the ball, and with his shifty style as a complement to Jones' power running, the Jets should have a good one-two punch. So the days of sharing carries aren't over just yet for Thomas Jones, but he certainly is in a much better position to capture the majority of touches.
As for Henry, he's been in limbo for a few years after getting unceremoniously booted out of Buffalo to make way for Willie McGahee. Henry was no doubt a solid performer for the Bills and showed flashes with the Titans for a stretch last year, but has been dogged by competition with other backs and bouts of inconsistency.
Will all that change in Denver? It might. Mike Shanahan's patented offensive system has made a 1,000-yard rusher out of nearly every running back fed through its gears, and Henry should be no exception.
But Shanahan is also known to be pretty fickle when it comes to choosing his starting backfield, and he doesn't play favorites or cater to name players. We all remember the Mike Bell/Tatum Bell carousel from last year. It's not out of the question that, come August, training camp reporters will be buzzing about the Denver late-round draft pick who has won the starting job over Henry.
Finally, a note about a third running back who is staying put: LaMont Jordan, who is restructuring his deal to stay in Oakland. Just a year ago, analysts were praising Oakland for signing Jordan and giving him top grades for his first year in Silver and Black (as well as tanking many a fantasy season by anointing him a top-five running back). Fast forward a year, and Jordan has barely escaped rumors of his impending release to stay in Oakland because, well, face it: What other options do they have?
What a difference a year can make in the life of an NFL running back. Feel free to share your thoughts below as to how Jones, Henry, and Jordan will fare next season, and check back soon for another installment of As the NFL Turns...
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