Curtis Martin asked for more carries in the preseason, believing he would be sharper when the season began. He was right.
Coming off a tremendous Week 1 performance, a rejuvenated Martin will try to continue his quick start when he leads the Jets into Qualcomm Stadium for a matchup with the San Diego Chargers.
Martin ran for 196 yards, the seventh-best rushing performance on opening day in NFL history, and scored two touchdowns as the Jets kicked off the season with a 31-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals last week.
“I feel as though I could go do it again right now,” Martin said. “I’m not joking.”
The performance was especially rewarding considering the 31-year-old running back had been the subject of criticism in the past for starting slow. The Jets seemed to follow his lead.
Last season, Martin didn’t total 196 yards until the fourth week of the season and the Jets started 0-4. Martin fought several injuries to start the 2002 season and didn’t get his first 100-yard game until the fifth game as the Jets started 1-4.
So coming into this past training camp, Martin asked Jets coach Herman Edwards if he could be used more than usual during the exhibition schedule. After practicing once a day in previous camps, Martin went twice a day this year and had 22 carries for 92 yards during New York’s 3-1 preseason.
The extra work paid off in a big way against Cincinnati, as Martin shredded the Bengals defense for his highest total since rushing for 203 yards against Indianapolis in 2000.
“He was ready to run like that,” Edwards said. “I said to him, ‘You got it left, don’t you?’ He looked like a gladiator coming out of there.”
A young gladiator is more like it.
“He looked about 19,” receiver Santana Moss said. “Curtis looked fresh. He was rolling. His preseason was so phenomenal this year, the way he went through camp and did all he did.”
Finding holes easily behind a strong offensive line, Martin averaged 6.8 yards per carry to open things up for Chad Pennington. The fifth-year quarterback was 20-of-27 for 224 yards and two touchdowns, including a 3-yarder to Martin.
“Luckily we were able to establish the run, and when you establish the run everything comes a little easier,” Pennington said.
Martin and Barry Sanders are the only players to rush for 1,000 yards in each of their first nine seasons. He needs just 210 more yards to pass Thurman Thomas for 10th on the NFL all-time list and with another 1,000 this season he could move up as high as sixth.
“It feels so much like a new beginning,” Martin said. “I think it’s simply because this offseason was methodically planned out for an expected end. It was gratifying to see it pay off, and hopefully it will keep paying off.”
The Chargers got a few surprise performances of their own last week as quarterback Drew Brees, who struggled mightily in 2003, and second-year tight end Antonio Gates formed a strong tandem in a 27-20 win over Houston.
Brees, who might not have started if prized rookie Philip Rivers hadn’t held out for most of training camp, was 17-of-24 for 209 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions—a passer rating of 125.2.
“I worked tirelessly in the offseason to get to this point,” said Brees, who had 11 TD passes and 15 interceptions last season. “There was never a doubt in my mind that I would be the starting quarterback.”
Gates, who hadn’t played football since high school before signing with the Chargers, finished with eight catches, including five on third down, and leads the AFC with 123 receiving yards.
“I was put in a situation to make plays, and (Brees) did a good job of delivering the ball”, said Gates, who was a standout basketball player for Kent State.
LaDainian Tomlinson did his part to open up the passing game, plowing his way to 121 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.
“I think we played really good,” Tomlinson said. “Obviously we’re going to get a lot better. We’re going to become more consistent, more dangerous as an offensive unit as the season goes along.”