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Rushing toward oblivion

The Jets will give RB Shonn Greene the lead role in 2011, but if he doesn't produce, they'll be in the market for a back next season. Matthew Emmons/US Presswire

New York reporters caught up with New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer last week and learned running back Shonn Greene is ready to graduate to the 300-carry level as a runner.

As appealing as that sounds professionally, Greene should be on guard. It has become increasingly tougher to be a 300-carry running back in the pass-happy NFL. This promotion could lead to Greene's exodus if he doesn't do well. Getting to 300 carries is hard enough, but Greene is going to have to get 1,200 or 1,300 yards to convince the team not to draft a running back next season.

Being a back in the NFL is increasingly becoming one of the worst jobs in sports. The good backs are targeted for replacement once they reach the age of 28 or 29 or have 1,600 carries on their résumé. First-round runners sign five-year rookie contracts and rarely get second deals from the team that drafts them. Plus, more teams are using backfields like carpools and go into a season spreading carries among two, three or four runners.

Starting in 2007, the number of 300-carry backs dropped significantly. There were 13 in 2003, nine in 2004 and 10 each in 2005 and 2006. Since then, only six backs had 300 or more carries in 2007, five in 2008, six in 2009 and seven last year, an average of six per season.

Steven Jackson of the Rams, Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, Chris Johnson of the Titans, Michael Turner of the Falcons and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jaguars each enter this season with the expectations of being 300-carry backs. Cedric Benson has those expectations in Cincinnati, which is why the Bengals have to scramble to re-sign him.

Arian Foster of the Texans, Ray Rice of the Ravens and Rashard Mendenhall of the Steelers were the last three to graduate into that elite class. Their challenge this year will be to repeat it, which isn't easy. Turner, for example, wasn't the same back in 2009 that he was in 2008, when he rushed for 1,699 yards on 376 carries. It took him until 2010 to bounce back for a 334-carry, 1,371-yard season.

At 32, Thomas Jones of the Chiefs is no longer expected to be a 300-carry back, particularly now that Jamaal Charles has emerged as a star.

Believe it or not, Greene is in a tough spot. First of all, only seven teams averaged 30 or more rushing attempts a game last year. The league as a whole has gone so much to the pass that 59 percent of the formations are designed for the pass, not the run.

Three of those seven teams have elite quarterbacks -- Matt Ryan of the Falcons, Joe Flacco of the Ravens and Eli Manning of the Giants. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Falcons and Ravens unleash their quarterbacks even more and let the rushing totals drop below 30 a game this year. Both teams are indicating their quarterbacks will take more control of their offenses this season.

That leaves the Chiefs, Jets, Raiders and Jaguars as the remaining teams angling for a 50-50 balance of run and pass. The Chiefs will spread their 34.8 carries between Charles and Jones. Raiders coach Hue Jackson has Darren McFadden and Michael Bush.

Of all the run-driven teams, the Jets might be the most demanding. Quarterback Mark Sanchez has proved to be a winner, but he's still only a 54.8 percent thrower for a team that had five pass-catchers with 50-plus-catch talent. Under Rex Ryan the past two seasons, the Jets ran the ball 37.9 and 33.3 percent of the time.

The Jets expect only about 17 completions a game from Sanchez. The backs have to perform. Greene wasn't ready to be the prime back last season. Replacing Jones as the inside runner, Greene came into the season a few pounds overweight and tried too many runs with LaDainian Tomlinson's east-west style. That's not Greene.

Coaches worked with him all season and by the end of the year, Greene got back into being more of a north-south pounder. He's 5-foot-11, 226 pounds and does his best when he lowers his helmet and charges into a hole. He averaged 5 yards a carry as the Jets' third back in 2009, but he dropped off to 4.1 yards a carry with his 185 attempts last season.

The plan this year is to use Tomlinson on passing downs and let Greene be the main early-down runner. Anything less than 4 yards a carry could put the Jets in the market for a back next season.

I do expect a little bit more running in 2011. With young quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen and Cam Newton, the Panthers are going to try to re-sign DeAngelo Williams to pair with Jonathan Stewart. The Titans and Vikings are young at quarterback and will try more running. That may not increase the total of 300-carry backs, but teams will be a little simpler with their schemes this season because there's been no offseason for their players.

For Greene, though, I don't know whether to send him congratulations or condolences. If he doesn't get to 300 carries or average at least 4 yards a carry, he probably will be handing his job to another back next season. Tough deal.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.