Substance over flashy displays characterized Martin's career
They say there is no cheering in the press box, but there can be cheering in the press room. That's what happened in November when Curtis Martin said his goodbyes to the New York media, thanking them along the way with his trademark grace. It takes a special player to turn one of the toughest media rooms in sports into a bunch of nostalgic softies.
Martin formally retired Thursday with a quiet statement released before most people drink their morning coffee. During television interviews, Martin dropped the stunning news that he would shortly buy into an NFL franchise as a part-owner, although he could not yet reveal the team. (It's not the Jets.) It's clear that Martin has already been using his trademark thoroughness and hard work to impressive use in his post-football career.
Martin finishes as the fourth all-time leading rusher in NFL history despite rarely being considered among the elite running backs in the game. There was always someone flashier to grab the headlines, from Barry Sanders to Terrell Davis to Marshall Faulk to Priest Holmes to LaDainian Tomlinson. Martin finishes his career with more rushing yards than all of them, which got us thinking: Is he the most overlooked great running back in NFL history?
Scanning the top-25 all-time leading rushers, it's not a hard case to make. Ricky Watters (currently 16th) is the only other player whose Q score would be lower than Martin, and he never had the career peaks or longevity that Martin enjoyed.
Substance over style
Perhaps the biggest reason why Martin was overlooked was his running style. For a guy known as a gentleman off the field, Martin played with barely restrained ferocity. He didn't make people miss, he took them on and then gained another couple yards. He was a 230-pound bruiser trapped in a 210-pound body.
His workmanlike style befits a man born in Pittsburgh during the peak of the Steel Curtain era. In fact it was that lack of flash, of breathtaking speed that caused Martin to fall to the third round of the 1995 draft after an impressive career at the University of Pittsburgh. In a SportsCenter era, the beauty of the five-yard gain can get overlooked, even by pro scouts.
Martin's penchant for staying out of the highlights is a big reason why most fans couldn't name a classic Curtis Martin moment. His Jets teams were often poor, and most of his memorable postseason games (the 1996 Super Bowl, the 2001 AFC Championship, the 2004 Divisional Playoffs in Pittsburgh) ended in defeat.
The 2004 season, capped by the devastating defeat to the top-seeded Steelers because of missed Doug Brien kicks, is what I'll remember best about Martin.
Running back is a brutal position that ends careers early and with decisiveness. By the time most runners reach 30 years old, their bodies give out, and they fade away quietly. Martin had his best season.
At 31, after averaging 330 carries per season for 10 years, after starting 91 straight games, Martin became the oldest player since the merger to lead the league in rushing. During the loss in Pittsburgh, Martin put up his usual workmanlike performance: 106 total yards, 77 on the ground, with a four yards-per-carry average. That's the same average he finished with during his steady career.
Herm Edwards essentially hastened the end of Martin's career by giving him 457 touches that season, a figure his body could not recover from the following years. It turns out Martin was playing with a bone-on-bone condition in his knee, but he never complained or mentioned it once publicly. He asked for more work. He didn't ask for sympathy when he tried to return to football in 2006; he set a goal to be New York's practice player of the week.
Martin officially walked away from the game on the field Thursday, but he will continue to be involved with the sport at the highest levels. Perhaps time will help to put his career into context; perhaps his role as an owner will give Martin the name recognition that often eluded him as a player. Two things are certain: He won't seek out the limelight, and he will be prepared to charge through what comes next. Four yards at a time.
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