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ON FOOTBALL

Jets' Martin finally making a statement

FOXBOROUGH -- He can still run. After all these years, all those hits, and all those predictions of his doom, Curtis Martin can still run.

Before this season, Martin did something unconventional, at least for him, to make that point clear. He spoke up for himself. Not loudly or brashly, just matter-of-factly. Like the way he does his business on the football field. No chest pounding. No dancing. Just a warning.

To be honest, it was a bit of a promise he made last spring, but nothing boastful, except by his modest standards. Martin simply said he thought he could rush for 1,500 yards this season. These days that's relatively tame, but for Martin it was, well, shocking because he has spent his career quietly running in the shadows of less productive men and saying nothing about it.

One year it's Jamal Anderson. Another year it's Terrell Davis or Robert Smith. Another it's Fred Taylor or Jamal Lewis or Edgerrin James or Eddie George or Tiki Barber. The list has gone on for nearly a decade, but Martin has done more than all of them.

Martin ranks eighth all-time with 12,282 rushing yards, only 30 yards behind the legendary Jim Brown. Only seven running backs have rushed for more yards than the quiet man from the University of Pittsburgh, who a former Patriots' regime decided was, like Roger Clemens, in the twilight of his career seven years ago.

It has taken more than half a decade for the Patriots to come close to finding a replacement, and that back is Corey Dillon, who has played only five games in red, white, and blue. Dillon has been an extremely productive runner (8,583 career yards) during his seven-plus NFL seasons, but as good as he has been, he's no Curtis Martin. Hardly anyone has ever been.

Not O.J. Simpson or Earl Campbell or Franco Harris or Marcus Allen, and soon, not even Brown, who is the greatest running back who ever lived in the opinion of just about anybody who ever saw him carry a football.

In this sport, company does not get much more exclusive.

"Only [seven] other guys who ever played can say they're better than him," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said Monday. "I can't talk to you on an educated level about Jim Brown or Walter Payton, but to me, Curtis has been one of the best around. "It doesn't surprise me what he's done since he left here because I knew his work ethic and his mentality. I think he works even harder when people doubt him the way they have the last couple of years. I see how aggressively he's playing and the way he's finishing runs. He's getting up all fired up. He's not flashy. He's not talking or on the highlight shows, but Curtis has some hidden agendas. He wants to be the best there ever was."

Martin rushed for 3,799 yards in three years in New England and was underpaid. Martin never complained publicly, but when Bill Parcells left to coach the Jets, he took Martin -- who was a restricted free agent -- with him by virtue of a slick contract clause and an unfailing belief in Martin's ability, toughness, and reliability.

The Patriots didn't have that faith, relying on a computer-generated projection that told them most backs are on the downside of their careers after three seasons. Martin had some nagging injuries that sidelined him after 13 games in his final season (1997) in New England.

But Martin is special, a fact he's proven since he left the Patriots, rushing for 8,483 yards with the Jets. He's rushed for 1,000 yards or more nine straight seasons and seems on pace to make it a record-tying 10th this season. That would give him as many consecutive 1,000-yard seasons as Barry Sanders, who retired after his 10th season.

Martin plans to keep running until, just maybe, the world finally notices. But if they don't, it won't really matter because when you look in the record books, you won't have to read many names before you get to his on the all-time rushing list. The way things are going, in fact, you may not have to read anyone's name but his.

"Curtis is pound for pound one of the strongest players in the league," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "That's not indicated by his overall physical stature, but it's true. He can do it all. Run, catch, run with power, make guys miss in the open field. It's hard to get a square hit on him."

Martin is the league's leading rusher with 613 yards in five games, an average of 122.6 per game, and is third in total offense with 719 yards. Martin is on pace to rush for 1,961 yards, which would leave him fourth all-time, behind Emmit Smith, Payton, and Sanders.

You do things like that and you don't have to say much of anything because, eventually, people have to see you for what you are. In Martin's case, what he's been since the first day he arrived in the NFL is, along with Emmitt Smith, the best pure runner of his generation.

"He's not as flashy as some guys, he just works and works," Bruschi said. "And he gains yards."

Gains them long after some people thought he'd entered the twilight of one of the greatest careers in the history of pro football. 

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