Goodbye, Boy Wonder

In this review of Curtis Martin's career, Doug Farrar reflects on what football can do for a life, revisits the Number of the Beast for all running backs, and remembers the career intersections of Martin and one Shaun Alexander.

“The guys who carry themselves with dignity get overlooked” – Jim Brown

This week, the oldest player ever to win the NFL’s rushing title called it a season – and, quite possibly, a career. When Curtis Martin of the New York Jets called a Wednesday press conference, announcing that his right knee will not allow him to play in any part of the 2006 season, he also spoke to the future of a legacy that goes far beyond the game.

“I don’t know if it’s even possible”, Martin said when asked about playing next year. Bill Parcells, his former coach in New England and New York, told him recently that he needs to know when to stop pushing. Needs to know that when the words “bone-on-bone” are used in relation to your knee, it’s time to think about the rest of your life.

Parcells was one of the many who has admired Martin’s toughness and determination. How he rose from a criminal background in the worst parts of Pittsburgh, where crime was the norm, bullets would fly by, and a gun had once been held to his head. His grandmother and aunt met violent ends. Martin himself ran with the wrong crowd until football at Taylor-Allerdice High and a scholarship to Pitt brought him out of the sludge and showed him what was possible.

Now, he is a role model, a Christian. A man to whom much has been given. A man of whom even more has been asked, and always the most from the face in the mirror.

Parcells would eventually refer to him as “Boy Wonder”, and the Tuna wasn’t using his legendary rapier wit with that nickname. Originally derived from his 102-yard debut performance with the Patriots in the first game of the 1995 season, it was his coach’s admonition to the media that his new back was only a “one-game wonder” at the time. But the name grew as the productivity grew. As the man grew. As the legend grew.

In his first ten seasons, he missed only three games and ran for over 1,000 yards every year. In 2004, at the age of 31, he beat out Seattle’s Shaun Alexander by one yard for the NFL rushing title, leading to Alexander’s contention that his own coach, Mike Holmgren, had thrown him under a bus by not allowing him to carry the ball more in the season finale against Atlanta. (19 carries for 80 yards to Martin’s 28 for 153 against St. Louis ). Alexander didn’t know it at the time, but his coach’s restraint would allow him to bag the 2005 rushing title AND the NFL MVP award, with 1,880 regular-season rushing yards on … 370 carries.

Uh-oh.

Martin didn’t know it at the time, but that last glorious season put him two carries over the number that has been the line of demarcation for running backs through NFL history. With his 370th and 371st carries in 2004, Curtis Martin’s future as a productive NFL back flew away forever.

Football Outsiders has written about the “370 Phenomenon” at length (Exhibit A and Exhibit B) – how this number represents the overuse, and subsequent career decline, of marquee backs to an amazingly specific degree. In retrospect, Martin may be the most intriguing example.

In his fifth season, Martin ran the ball 367 times for 1,464 yards and five touchdowns. No ill effects. In his rookie season, 368 times for 1,487 yards. No problems there. In his fourth season (his first with the Jets), 369 carries for 1,287. No matter how close he came to the ceiling, nothing seemed to stop him.

Then, the reckoning in 2005. In what will probably be his last season, he ran the ball 220 times for 735 yards, a 3.3 average which was the lowest of his career. He missed one more game in ’05 than he had in the previous ten years, and he ran for over 100 yards exactly once. His final game, against his former Patriots, saw him carry the ball 15 times for 29 yards.

Thank you and goodnight.

Age and depleted offensive lines conspire to upend running backs – the Jets’ line, which ranked second in the league in Adjusted Line Yards in 2004, plummeted to 24 th in 2005. Martin’s protectors got old and injured in a hurry, which led to the Jets’ top-heavy O-line draft in 2006. But that evil 370, which Shaun Alexander also can consider as he continues to recover from a foot injury and the first missed games of his career, seems to have an almost eerie effect on their futures.

As a side note, Martin’s head coach in 2004 was Herman Edwards. Edwards currently presides over the future of one Larry Johnson in Kansas City, and has him on pace to cart the rock 393 times, behind an offensive line with more than its share of problems, in 2006.

Some people never learn.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.


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