Written by DFW Contributor Joe Kilroy

Greene’s Beginnings

Shonn Greene is often regarded as a disappointment within the fantasy football community nowadays. Entering the 2012 season, however, he is poised to have himself the best season of his young career.

He came into the league as the first pick of the third round by the New York Jets in the 2009 NFL draft. With Thomas Jones already in place as the Jets primary ball carrier, however, there wasn’t much to expect from Greene as a rookie.

Jones was coming off a stellar 2008 campaign – despite being 30 years old at the time – in which he ran for 1312 yards on 290 carries (4.5ypc) with 13 rushing touchdowns. Greene was added to the roster as insurance should Jones’ age catch up with him, and to no doubt take over as New York’s featured back in coming years as the team was bound to part ways with Jones eventually despite any amount of continued success he may have. This is often the case with ageing running backs.

Case in point, Thomas Jones’ 2009 outing in which he posted career highs in rushing attempts (331), rushing yards (1402), and rushing touchdowns (14). The veteran back’s production played a large role in the Jets finishing 9-7 that year, earning themselves a postseason berth for the first time since 2006.

Heading into the postseason, however, Jones was dealing with a knee injury that plagued him more than head coach Rex Ryan was willing to concede. Jones missed practices leading up to the Jets AFC divisional round playoff game against the Chargers, but Ryan insisted his veteran back could have participated “in full” if need be. He also contended that Jones’ knee issues were not a hindrance, although his performance in the playoffs suggested otherwise.

The then 31-year old back carried the ball a total of 45 times for just 117 yards (2.6ypc) and 1 touchdown over a three game span in the postseason. Given his lack of productionNew Yorkwas forced to rely on their rookie out of the backfield and Greene was sure to make a strong impression.

Having already produced 541 rushing yards on 109 attempts (5.0ypc) in the regular season (along with 2 touchdowns), Greene went on a tear in the playoffs carrying the ball 54 times for 304 yards (5.63ypc) while reaching pay dirt twice.

Although the Jets came up just shy of reaching the Super Bowl – losing to the Indianapolis Colts in the Conference Championship – Greene’s performance left team management feeling comfortable with their upcoming decision to part ways with Jones during the off-season.

Heading into the Jets 2010 campaign Greene would have the backfield all to himself, and surely he would be able to match the production the “decrepit” Jones had attained during his tenure with the team; or so we thought.

Enter LaDainian Tomlinson 

While the Jets felt they had squeezed just about everything they could from Thomas Jones and had no desire to pay him the $3 million roster bonus he was due in March, along with the $2.8 million he was to earn as a base salary in 2010, they still wanted a veteran presence in their backfield in case Greene couldn’t handle his new role as well as hoped. The best available free agent capable of filling that need as it turned out was LaDainian Tomlinson.

Tomlinson was easily amongst the best – if not thee best – running backs in the league during his prime. Heading into the 2010 season, however, he was coming off the worst year of his career and at the age of 31 he was no longer at his best. Although Tomlinson amassed double-digit touchdowns (12) in ’09, he finished with just 730 rushing yards on 223 carries (3.3ypc) in 14 games. It was the first time he had ever run for less than 1100 yards in a season. His 20 receptions were also a career worst, well shy of his previous low of 51.

For these reasons not only did the Chargers decide to cut ties with the player that had been the face of their franchise for the past decade, but it left virtually no one believing Tomlinson would pose a serious threat to Greene’s playing time. As it turns out people couldn’t have been more wrong.

Although Tomlinson didn’t return to his NFL glory days he did have a nice bounce back year in 2010 and performed far better than almost anyone anticipated. During the regular season he ran the ball 219 times for 914 yards (4.17ypc) with 6 touchdowns. He also proved to be a reliable target in the passing game as he hauled in 52 receptions for an additional 368 yards receiving.

What did it all mean? Well, for fantasy owners who spent a mid-to-late round pick on Tomlinson that year it meant a nice return on their investment. For those that bought into the Shonn Greene hype, however, they were none too happy with having burned an early selection on a running back that finished with only 2 touchdowns and 776 yards rushing.

Ever since then Greene has been considered a “bust” within the fantasy football community and it is a label many continue to associate him with today.

What Happened In 2011?

The simple answer to the question above is that the Jets weren’t a particularly good team last season. In regards to Shonn Greene’s production, however,New Yorksimply strayed too far from the run-first offensive philosophy head coach Rex Ryan successfully employed during his first two years with the franchise.

In 2009, with then rookie Mark Sanchez under center, the Jets were heavily committed to their ground game as they averaged 37.9 rushing attempts per game in comparison to just 24.5 passes per outing.

It didn’t make for what most would consider exciting football, but the recipe worked as Thomas Jones had himself the best season of his career and New York finished the regular season at 9-7, having earned themselves a postseason berth in the process. The Jets stellar defense also factored into the equation as they limited opponents to a league best 14.75 points per game.

The following season, in 2010, the Jets would again average more than 30 rushing attempts per contest (33.4 to be exact), but with Sanchez having had a year as a starter underneath his belt they were willing to air it out a bit more and attempted an average of 32.8 passes. It made for a pretty balanced offense, although it was still one that relied upon a successful rushing attack setting up the passing game.

In combination with another season of solid defensive play the Jets improved upon their 2009 performance, finishing the 2010 regular season at 11-5 and making a second consecutive run through the playoffs to the AFC Conference Championship game. Unfortunately for them, however, they again fell just short of making a Super Bowl appearance having lost on the road to the Pittsburgh Steelers by a score of 24-19.

After two seasons of regular and postseason success under Rex Ryan’s guidance, there was fair reason to view the Jets as a Super Bowl contender heading into 2011. The team got off to a good start winning their first two contests at home, but they then lost three straight on the road. Malcontent amongst players and coaches alike quickly followed with reports surfacing that wide receivers Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, and Derrick Mason approached Ryan to voice their concerns about how offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was running the offense.

Ryan himself, meanwhile, was put-off by his team’s inability to establish their ground attack like they had the past two seasons. Four games into their 2011 cycle New Yorkhad managed just 284 rushing yards on 92 carries (3.1ypc). It ranked them 30th in the NFL at the time.

Despite Ryan’s desire to turn the offense around the Jets would finish the 2011 season having averaged just 27.7 rushing attempts per game while throwing the ball an average of 34.2 times per contest. It was the first time under Ryan the Jets had averaged less than 30 carries per game and threw the ball more than they ran it. It was also the first time they failed to make the playoffs during his three year tenure with the team.

Needless to say, the flip-flopped focus of the Jets offense had a negative impact on Greene’s production. LaDainian Tomlinson was still on the roster, but at this point he was a shell of his former self and Greene was fully entrusted as the team’s primary ball carrier.

Greene did have himself his best season to date by establishing career highs in rushing attempts (253), rushing yards (1054), touchdowns (6), receptions (30), and yards receiving (211), but in the eyes of fantasy footballers it was a mediocre performance that left much to be desired.

In other words, Shonn Greene was still a bust.

Tony Sparano, Shonn Greene, and 2012 

Tony Sparano, coming off a four year stint as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, was hired as the New York Jets offensive coordinator on January 11th of this year (one day after the firing of former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer).

While the hiring hasn’t excited many, it is great news for anyone willing to invest in Shonn Greene in hopes that he can shake the label of “bust” once and for all in 2012.

Sparano didn’t have much success as a head coach inMiami, but as a member of Bill Parcells’ staff with the Dallas Cowboys from 2003-2006 (and another season in ’07 under Wade Phillips) he became one of the more highly touted assistant coaches in the league.

During his time with the Cowboys Sparano worked as the team’s tight ends coach in 2003 and 2004, then as the offensive line coach and rushing game coordinator in 2005, before adding the title of assistant head coach to his resume in 2006. While he never held the rank of offensive coordinator at any point during his tenure with the team he was heavily involved in calling plays for Parcells once he attained the title of rushing game coordinator in 2005.

In that 2005 season Cowboys running backs carried the ball an average of 32.6 times per game while amassing a total of 1861 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. In 2006 the Cowboys produced 1936 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns by way of ground on an average of 29.5 rushing attempts per game.

In 2007, following the departure of Bill Parcells, Sparano relinquished his duties as play caller (Jason Garrett took over as offensive coordinator that year) and the team’s run production declined.Dallasran the ball an average of 26.2 times per game that season while totaling 1746 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.

The following year Sparano began his tenure as head coach of the Miami Dolphins and went about applying his “Ground-n-Pound” approach to the team’s offense. Dan Henning, known for his heavily run oriented attacks during his time as offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers from 2002-2006, was hired to fill that role amongst Sparano’s staff inMiami.

During Sparano’s first three seasons with the Dolphins the offense averaged 29.2 rushing attempts and 120.25 rushing yards per game. TheMiamirunning backs also accounted for a total of 48 rushing touchdowns during that span, an average of 16 per season.

I have refrained from calculatingMiami’s 2011 rushing statistics into the numbers above only because Brain Daboll – now withKansas City- was Sparano’s offensive coordinator that year. He was brought in to bring more of an aerial approach to the team’s play calling.

Nonetheless, had I factored last year’s rushing statistics into my calculations it only would have raised the figures asMiamiaveraged 29.3 carries and 124.2 rushing yards per game in 2011. They also accounted for 11 rushing touchdowns.

So now that Tony Sparano is the Jets new offensive coordinator, and we know Rex Ryan has had his best success in New York when his team carries the ball more than 30 times per game (not to mention he has openly stated his desire to become more of a run oriented offense again), what can we reasonably expect from Shonn Greene in 2012?

Let us first establish what his “basement” production is likely to be. If the Jets are going to run the ball more than 30 times per game it is well within reason to believe Greene will handle 18-20 of those carries, if not more, each week. Given that rate, Greene, barring injury, will carry the ball roughly 300 times this year.

Three hundred carries at a very modest mark of 4.0ypc amounts to 1200 yards rushing.

There have been 16 instances of running backs having carried the ball 300 times or more during the last three NFL seasons. On all but one of these occasions – Cedric Benson in 2010 (321 carries, 1111 yards, 7 touchdowns) – these backs have ran for no less than 1220 yards in the given year.

Taking these statistics into account, combined with what we know Rex Ryan and Tony Sparano desire from their offense, it is well within reason to believe Shonn Greene will amass at least 1200 yards rushing in 2012. With a little luck – or any semblance of a compatible passing game – he may also find the end zone 8-12 times this season.

When considering Greene is being selected in the sixth round or later of many fantasy drafts (anywhere from 1-2 rounds later), it’s hard for me to believe there is a running back going in that range more undervalued than the Jets primary ball carrier in 2012.

His production may not be pretty, but it will be there. And if Greene truly excels in the offensive stylizing of Tony Sparano he could produce upwards of 1350-1450 rushing yards with 10 or more touchdowns; but I’m not about to go there, not yet anyway. It is, however, a possibility.

But what about Tim Tebow, Joe McKnight, and Bilal Powell?

We’ll address the Tim Tebow situation first, but quite frankly, there isn’t much to say about it.

Some are concerned that Tebow will function as a “touchdown vulture” whenever the Jets get within the red zone or run plays from the goal line. While this is a reasonable concern, my thoughts are that for every touchdown Tebow may score in those situations it also presents further opportunity for the Jets to use him as a decoy.

If opposing defenses are going to be overly concerned with what Tebow might do every time he enters the game it is going to free up space for Green to take a handoff and punch it up the middle – whether it be at the goal line for a touchdown, or from farther out within the 20 that allows him to gain a quick 10-yards and potentially take it to the house.

So yes, while it will be frustrating the times Tebow vultures a touchdown away from Greene, just remember it only forces defenses to further account for his abilities. And that in turn will benefit Greene’s overall production.

As for McKnight and Powell, I will concede that Sparano’s history of using a running back tandem to get the results he wants out of his backfield (Julius Jones and Marion Barber inDallas; Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams inMiami) could result in one of them making a notable dent in Greene’s production.

With that said however, neither McKnight nor Powell has proven themselves to be on par with the tandem of backs Sparano has used in the past. One will function as the third-down back and be sure to get themselves a handful of carries each week, but Rex Ryan has made it known Greene will be this team’s “bell cow” out of the backfield.

There’s little reason to believe McKnight or Powell will change that mindset.