RENTON — The New York Jets may have had a great 2009 season, but Leon Washington certainly didn’t.
After leading the NFL in all-purpose yards in 2008, Washington and the Jets were talking about a contract extension when the fourth-year running back suffered a mid-season compound leg fracture and had to watch while his team missed the Super Bowl by the final 30 minutes of the AFC Championship game.
While the 2010 Jets have been celebrated as lead dogs by many prognosticators and were splashed all over HBO in their profane glory, Washington was rehabbing in Seattle, having been traded for a fifth-round pick during the draft. Speculation was that Washington would miss training camp and might have to start the season on the physically unable to perform list. But Seahawks camp observers were surprised and intrigued by a quick back wearing No. 33, alternating reps with Justin Forsett and Julius Jones.
Ladies and gentlemen, Leon Washington was back, and ahead of schedule. During several practices, I saw him cut and burst with the same speed and agility he used before to blow up defenses. He had his first chance to show it on the field Aug. 21 at Qwest Field in an exhibition game against the Green Bay Packers.
At one time, there were those questioning whether Washington would ever be able to put on pads again. Now, as Pete Carroll’s first Seahawks training camp closed, Washington was ready to go.
“I feel great — every time I go on that football field, I feel better and better because I am so fortunate to be able to play football again,” Washington told me earlier this week after one-a-days were done. “I missed it for the last 10 months, and watching the Jets almost make it to the Super Bowl, and not having a hand in that, hurt me a lot. I told myself that every time I come out here I’m not going to take another day for granted.”
Washington will get chances in the rotation against a Green Bay defense that ranked strong against the rush in 2009. Whether he’ll go against the No. 1 unit is the only question. As far as returns, the Seahawks may hold off putting him out there just yet, but he looked good doing so in practice.
“Pretty much everyone’s role on this team is that whatever you do best, you do it,” he said. “So I’m in the special teams meetings looking at punt returns and kickoff returns [as well as] catching the ball and running the ball. I envision my role in helping this team win is that I touch the ball as much as I can. If I can start the game off by giving us great field position with a return, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just looking forward to getting back out there and touching that rock.”
How often he’ll touch that rock is the big story here. The three-way competition for time in the Seahawks backfield has Washington, Forsett and Jones bringing their best every day, which is precisely the idea. “It’s different [from the Jets] in that coach Carroll’s motto is Competition,'” he said. “Everyone is competing at every position. We have a healthy competition at running back right now, and we say on our running back group, The strength of the group is the group.’ We can all do so many things well — you saw Justin running the ball and catching the ball out of the backfield really well. Julius [Jones] can run and catch. When I get out there, I can do some different things.
“Right now, we’re all competing with each other and making each other better, but we know that when the season starts, you might see a three-, four-, or five-headed monster out there.”
That’s a common thread among teams whose running games are defined by offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, who is bringing his particular brand of zone blocking and zone running to a Seattle offense desperately in need of assistance. But according to Washington, what many may not know about the Jets’ 2009 league-leading running game was that it was a Gibbs creation, at least in part.
“The Jets probably gained 70 percent of their [rushing] yards on zone-running schemes,” Washington recalled. “Before the 2009 season, [Jets offensive line] coach [Bill] Callahan sat down with Alex Gibbs and learned the zone-running scheme that we implemented last year, and that’s how we led the league in rushing, with zone and power. So, I’m used to running the zone scheme. It really suits our backs, because we attack the line at different angles. It will be fun to see the things I learned in New York carry over to here.”
Washington said he is medically 100 percent, and ready to make a difference with his new team. He’s used recent setbacks as an opportunity for growth, and he understands the transitory nature of the business. Pro football isn’t even about “What have you done for me lately” — it’s all about “What can you do for us now?”
“For me it’s just adjusting to a new system,” he said. “I had been working with different terminology for four years, and now it’s something else. I feel fine and I’m getting better — mentally, I’m just on it.
“I’m all clear and ready to go.”