FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- For nearly a month, the headlines surrounding the New York Jets have been dominated by Geno Smith's jaw/IK Enemkpali's fist, Sheldon Richardson's misdeeds, Muhammad Wilkerson's hamstring, Darrelle Revis' return and Brandon Marshall's mouth. At the same, unbeknownst to many outside the organization, Chris Ivory -- the most important non-quarterback on the offense -- has been enjoying his best training camp with the Jets.
When Ivory isn't smashing heads with his physical running style, he's turning them. Count coach Todd Bowles among those impressed.
When he greeted Ivory on the sideline after his 33-yard touchdown run last Friday night against the Atlanta Falcons, Bowles told his No. 1 running back he didn't realize he was that fast. Ivory smiled and shrugged. A man of few words, he'd rather knock out your mouthpiece than be one.
Because he's not a self-promoter, Ivory doesn't create much buzz on a national scale, but there's no denying his importance to the Jets. If the Jets want to end their four-year playoff drought, Ivory must crack the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. (His previous high: 833.) It doesn't have to be 1,200 yards or a number that would put him among the NFL leaders -- after all, he'll be sharing some of the load with Bilal Powell -- but 1,000 would mean a healthy and efficient season for Ivory.
Despite the addition of Marshall, Bowles wants to have a balanced, ball-control offense, and you can't play that way without a stud in the backfield. The Jets won't be successful if Ryan Fitzpatrick is throwing 35 times a game, as he did during his heyday with Chan Gailey and the Buffalo Bills. He needs the support of a strong running game, and that's why Ivory is a vital piece to the puzzle.
"People haven't seen my full potential," he said. "People that actually watch the game, they know my talent and what I'm capable of. Me, within myself, I definitely know what I'm capable of. I'm striving for greatness."
In two seasons with the Jets (see, former general manager John Idzik made some good moves), Ivory has established himself as one of the most physical backs in the league. Of the 13 players with at least 1,600 total rushing yards in 2013 and 2014, only one has a higher yards-after-contact average than Ivory -- Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks. His average is 2.20 per carry, Ivory's is 2.10, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"He's the toughest running back to tackle in the league," teammate Demario Davis said of Ivory. "Say what you want to say and pick who you want to pick, but 33 is the toughest. That's coming from a defender who plays on one of the top defenses in the league. You look at him, Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, they've got something inside of them. They're physically gifted and strong, but they have an innate characteristic that makes them hard to tackle. I don't know what that characteristic is, but [Ivory] has it."
Guard Willie Colon described Ivory's style as "controlled chaos." Ivory, 27, wants to be more than a tough guy. He wants to be a fast guy, too, and he devoted his offseason to improving his speed. He trained in Houston with the renowned James Cooper, who has worked with the likes of Peterson and Dwight Howard. In the past, Ivory spent a couple of weeks in Cooper's program. This year, he stayed longer, sometimes training four hours a day -- sprints, distance, you name it.
People are noticing.
"I knew he was a good player, [but] I didn't know he was as fast as he was," Bowles said. "He's got very good feet. Chris has got very good quickness. You don't have to be that fast to have foot quickness and he's got foot quickness."
Based on early indications, Ivory could have an expanded role in the offense, meaning he could be more involved in the passing game. He's never been known as a proficient receiver (only 23 career catches), but he believes he can excel if given the opportunity. Fitzpatrick has a history of throwing to his checkdown options, so Ivory could see more balls in his direction. He likes that.
"I'm doing a lot more in this camp," said Ivory, who is entering a contract year. "We did the same stuff with the last coordinator [Marty Mornhinweg], but the ball wasn't getting to me as much. Now it's getting to me more. Now, I guess, people can see I can catch the ball. I felt like I was catching it fine in the past -- maybe not as much, but I was catching the ball."
Ivory was stuck in a tough spot last season because, out of respect for Chris Johnson, Rex Ryan and Mornhinweg made it a 50-50 split in playing time even though Ivory was the better back. Ivory said he wasn't frustrated by the time-share. This season, if they're smart, they'll keep giving him the rock. We're not talking about a run-him-into-the-ground plan, a la DeMarco Murray with the Dallas Cowboys, but Ivory should get at least 225 carries.
It would be good for Ivory and, more importantly, good for the Jets.