RB Curtis Martin is only the second back in NFL history to open his career with 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons
Curtis Martin, the fourth-leading rusher in NFL history, has just 226 yards and no touchdowns through four games for the New York Jets, averaging 2.8 yards per tote.
Martin, who doesn't know what it's like to finish a season without 1,000 yards, turned 32 in May. One might be tempted to link that number with those above. After all, running backs usually have a relatively small window of success in the NFL, and most are over the hill by the time they turn 30. Right?
Uh, no. Not even close, if the current NFL landscape is any indication. In Kansas City, Priest Holmes celebrates his 32nd birthday on Friday, and he'll have a long bye weekend to contemplate his 305 yards and three touchdowns.
In Charlotte, the league's leading touchdown-maker, Carolina's Stephen Davis, is 31, but he's still fueling the Panthers' offense with six scores. He's just one touchdown up on New England's Corey Dillon, who will turn 31 in two weeks. A bit farther South in Atlanta, 30-year-old Warrick Dunn has 394 rushing yards and is leading the league's top rushing attack.
In Denver, the 32-year-old Mike Anderson came out of nowhere to hold off such highly-touted youngsters as Tatum Bell and Quentin Griffin, and Anderson has 267 yards for the Broncos. In New York, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit this weekend, Giants scat-back Tiki Barber has 333 yards despite turning 30, and he had 1,518 last year.
Heck, it was only last year that a 31-year-old, another New York back, led the NFL with a career-high 1,697 rushing yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns.
That would be Curtis Martin.
And that would be the Curtis Martin the Buccaneers are preparing for this weekend. When the Bucs' advance scout put together his report for the Jets this week, you can bet he paid little attention to the number 32 when evaluating number 28. In fact, if anything explains Martin's slow start, it's a scheduling gauntlet that has already pitted the Jets against three of the league's top 10 run defenses and two of the top three.
Kansas City, Baltimore and Miami have top-10 run-stopping crews through four weeks. Jacksonville, the Jets' fourth opponent so far, is not in the top 10 but features perhaps the best defensive tackle duo in the league in John Henderson and Marcus Stroud.
"If you haven't seen Jacksonville's run defense, that has a lot to do with it," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden, laughing at the thought that Martin has tailed off. "If you've seen the Ravens on film, they are really good on defense. The Miami Dolphins – you'll see them next week – they're stuffing everybody. You can ask Denver that. They've seen three really good running opponents and they caught Kansas City in a situation where they were behind early and they had to throw to get in it. I'm not expecting anything but a lot of Curtis Martin."
It probably also hasn't helped Martin that the Jets' passing attack has struggled, ranking 26th in the league in large part due to injuries. Starter Chad Pennington was scuffling before he got hurt, and now he and backup Jay Fiedler are out with shoulder injuries. After scoring only three points at Baltimore with first-time starter Brooks Bollinger at the helm, the Jets have switched to Vinny Testaverde, who is 10 years Martin's senior.
Though Testaverde might command more respect given his experience and still powerful arm, that doesn't mean the Buccaneers are going to back off Martin. The tough news for the Jets back is that he now has to face the league's number-one rush defense, and one that considers stopping him the top priority.
"Vinny's a very smart quarterback, and still has a very strong arm," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan, who has made a significant difference in the Bucs' rush defense this year. "But first and foremost that offense is run by number 28. Let's not get it wrong, Curtis Martin the past 10 years has had 1,000 yards every year. He got the rushing title last year. What more can you say about the guy? The guy is a workhorse, he's an iron man. First and foremost, we have to stop him."
Martin and Barry Sanders, who famously retired early or we might be including him in the list of 30-somethings above, are the only backs in league history to start their careers with 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons. He is virtually the same size as the Bucs' rookie, Cadillac Williams (both are listed as 5-11, Martin at 210 pounds, Williams at 217), and like Williams runs with surprising power. The key to both players is their vision, and that is not something that has diminished with age for Martin. He can still pick the correct hole and hit it fast.
Thus, it's imperative that the Bucs' keep closing those holes, as they have through the first quarter of the season. Tampa Bay's defense is allowing a league-low 61.5 rushing yards per game, a dramatic improvement over a year ago, when it ranked 19th in the league with 123.3 yards allowed.
Even those Buccaneer defenders who would seemingly be more concerned with Testaverde are keying on Martin, as cornerback Brian Kelly attests.
"Absolutely, Curtis Martin is a workhorse for them," said Kelly. "We know what kind of weapon they have running the ball. We are definitely going to have to stop the run."