The New York Jets have become the Land of the Recycled Running Back.
Frank Gore, 37, who signed a one-year contract two weeks ago, will be the eighth top-50 rusher in NFL history to play for the Jets — more than any team in the league. The eight-man list stretches from Gore, third all time in rushing, to Freeman McNeil, who is 50th — and the only one to play his entire career in a Jets uniform.
This phenomenon occurs every few years. Looking to fill a void on offense, someone in charge will get the bright idea to bring in — let’s phrase this delicately — a seasoned running back with the hope his performance will belie the numbers on his odometer.
Sometimes it works; sometimes it’s a spectacular failure.
Each experiment always begins with a quote from the coach or general manager that praises (insert appropriate running back) for his extraordinary intangibles, insisting said intangibles will improve the locker room and conquer Father Time.
Speaking of Gore, Jets coach Adam Gase acknowledged, “He’s had a lot of carries, he has a lot of miles on him.” But …
“This guy goes in practice like it’s Monday Night Football,” Gase told the Jets’ website. “That’s how Frank has always operated. He’s never taken anything for granted. I think the biggest mistake most people make is they doubt him and they tell him something that he can’t do, whether it was injury, age or whatever the circumstance may be. He’s proven people wrong time and time again.”
“It seems to be a trend when you get around guys that are future Hall of Fame players that they all seem to have a very similar makeup,” he continued. “It’s outstanding work ethic, football intelligence and that natural leadership where they affect other guys in a positive way.”
In 2016, the Jets felt the same way about Matt Forte, who was 31 at the time. They gave him a three-year, $12 million contract, believing he still had enough left to be a lead back. He delivered one mediocre season (813 yards in 2016) before a chronic knee injury robbed him of the gifts that made him such a wonderful player for the Chicago Bears.
Let’s go back a little further.
In 2014, the Jets signed Chris Johnson to a two-year, $8 million contract, thinking he would be a weapon to take pressure off young quarterback Geno Smith. Nicknamed “CJ2K” because of his 2,000-yard season with the Tennessee Titans in 2009, he failed to be CJ1K in New York. Johnson looked older than his 29 years and rushed for 663 yards and one touchdown before the Jets gave him a pink slip after the season.
From when the Jets let him go to just recently, Johnson has whined about his time in New York. On April 6, he tweeted:
Just thinking to myself how did I pick going to jets over Baltimore Ravens in 2014 🤦🏾♂️🤦🏾♂️🤦🏾♂️ what a bad decision !!!!
— Chris Johnson (@ChrisJohnson28) April 7, 2020
Before Johnson, the Jets actually enjoyed a nice, four-year run with retreads in the lead role.
In 2007, they traded for the well-traveled Thomas Jones, who was 29. All he did was rush for 1,119, 1,312 and 1,402 yards in three seasons. He was released in a surprising salary-cap move.
The Jets then pivoted to future Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, who arrived at 31 — a dangerous age for backs. The move was greeted with skepticism, but Tomlinson answered his critics with a 914-yard season in 2010. He might have cracked 1,000, but he opted to rest for a meaningless Week 17 game so he would be fresh for the playoffs — a selfless act that impressed coaches and teammates. He played the second year of his two-year, $5.1 million contract, but the magic was gone.
The Jets have recycled younger backs too, with mixed results. Isaiah Crowell rushed for a single-game franchise record (219 yards) in 2018, but his one season in New York always will be remembered for his embarrassing butt-wiping gesture that resulted in an endorsement deal. Chris Ivory lasted three seasons, capping his time in New York with a Pro Bowl in 2015. He was a solid acquisition.
Then, of course, there’s Le’Veon Bell. His first season was a major disappointment, but he will get another chance to change his Jets legacy. If he sputters again, he will join Johnson and Forte as star running backs who failed to recapture their previous glory.
The Jets are so reliant on castoffs because they can’t find good ones in the NFL draft. The best running back they ever drafted was Hall of Famer John Riggins, but they let him get away to the Washington Redskins in 1976. The Jets’ all-time leading rusher is Curtis Martin, a Hall of Famer and sixth on the NFL’s rushing list, but he came from the New England Patriots. The last homegrown player to lead the Jets in rushing was Shonn Greene in 2012.
In comes Gore, who likely will join Martin, Tomlinson and Riggins in Canton, Ohio, one day. Gore’s situation is somewhat different in that the risk is minimal (only $1 million) and he isn’t expected to be the No. 1 back. But if his tank proves empty, Gore will land on the Jets’ Not Mount Rushmore of running backs.