Commentary

Tip Sheet: Playoff standouts to watch

Originally Published: January 29, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Shonn GreeneKirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireJets rookie running back Shonn Greene emerged as a home-run threat during the playoffs.
Given that four of the past 10 Super Bowl most valuable players were former first-round draft selections (including the past three), and that the game rarely produces an MVP of otherwise anonymous stature, the title matchup in recent years hasn't exactly been "A Star is Born" opportunity.

The streets of South Florida might echo with "Who Dat?" chants over the next week, but the odds are pretty good a similar query won't be necessary when Super Bowl XLIV has concluded and the most valuable player is chosen. Recent little-known MVPs such as safety Dexter Jackson (Super Bowl XXXVII), wide receiver Deion Branch (XXXIX) and cornerback Larry Brown (XXX), were all great stories, but clearly were the exceptions.

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On the game's biggest stage, it's typically the players who earn the spotlight during the regular season who star in the Super Bowl.

The paucity of breakthrough players, however, isn't nearly as pronounced during the playoffs in general. Recent history suggests that while the Super Bowl probably won't produce many surprises, the same isn't necessarily true of the playoffs' first three rounds. And this postseason wasn't much different, as nearly all 12 teams in the playoffs relied on players who were not household names.

Topping the list was rookie tailback Shonn Greene, the former third-round draft choice who helped power the New York Jets to the AFC Championship Game.

The former University of Iowa star, who began the 2009 season as the Jets' No. 3 tailback, rushed for 304 yards and two touchdowns on just 54 carries, an impressive average of 5.6 yards per attempt. Before exiting in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game with a rib injury, Greene posted a pair of 100-yard outings and had touchdown runs of 39 yards (versus Cincinnati in the wild-card matchup) and 53 yards (against San Diego in the Jets' division-round upset).

During the regular season, Greene carried 108 times for 540 yards and two touchdowns. Not until the Jets lost Leon Washington to a broken leg did Greene move up the depth chart to become the primary backup to Thomas Jones. Greene didn't even register a carry until the fourth game of the season, had only seven attempts in the first six contests, logged more than a dozen carries only three times and had just one 100-yard game.

Greene's postseason performance could possibly force Jones out of a starting job in 2010. Although Jones was the NFL's third-leading rusher in 2009 (1,402 yards), the much-respected 10-year veteran is 31 years old and, perhaps as important, is due a $3 million roster bonus in March. Plus the reliable Washington, who excels in space and ranks as one of the league's top kickoff returners, is likely to be retained.

"We all want [Jones] back... but when he had to, Greene ran with authority and power, and he had fresh legs," said New York right tackle Damien Woody. "He definitely gave us a boost when we needed it."

Greene, who rushed for 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns with the Hawkeyes in 2008, was not the only young and fairly anonymous tailback to break out in the playoffs. Felix Jones of Dallas, who missed much of his 2008 rookie season with an injury, averaged 7.2 yards per carry in 30 rushes for the Cowboys, sparking some speculation that the team might attempt to trade starter Marion Barber in the offseason.

Barber is likely to be back with the Cowboys in 2010, and Thomas Jones with the Jets, as well. But the postseason performances of Greene and Felix Jones, which catapulted them into the public consciousness, probably earned each more player significant roles next season.

Said Greene: "I was able to do it in big games, and that really helped my confidence and the guys' confidence in me."

A number of young players had potential breakthrough performances in the playoffs, and here are a few of them:

  • WRs Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon (Indianapolis): With the loss of Marvin Harrison and the knee injury to Anthony Gonzalez in the opening game, wide receiver was believed to be a question mark for the Colts. But in the playoffs, second-year veteran Garcon and rookie Collie combined for 27 catches, 360 yards and three touchdowns, and each had more than 100 yards in the AFC Championship Game.

  • WR Early Doucet (Arizona): The 2008 second-round pick played in just 16 games in his first two seasons and had only 31 receptions. But with Anquan Boldin injured for the playoffs, Doucet registered 14 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. His development could make Boldin expendable in the offseason.

  • DE Ray Edwards (Minnesota): Edwards often played in the shadow of right end Jared Allen. But the four-year veteran, arguably the least-known player on the Vikings' front four, had a terrific playoff run with eight tackles, four sacks, four tackles for loss, eight hurries and two forced fumbles.

  • ILB David Harris (New York Jets): The former second-rounder (2007) was always known as a run-stuffer during his career, but demonstrated his overall versatility in the playoffs with 14 tackles, two sacks and one pass defensed.

  • Punters Pat McAfee (Indianapolis) and Thomas Morstead (New Orleans): Rarely do punters merit such acclaim, but these two rookies, who also handle kickoff duties for their teams, made a big difference. Morstead averaged 48.2 yards gross and 45.0 yards net, put 10 of his 13 kickoffs in the end zone and had six touchbacks. McAfee had three touchbacks, and placed seven of his 12 kickoffs in the end zone. As a punter, he posted a gross average of 46.0 yards and a net of 42.8 yards, and forced six fair catches.

  • OG Carl Nicks (New Orleans): Has been a two-year starter for the Saints, but the rugged in-line blocker has been overshadowed by right guard Jahri Evans, who was named to his first Pro Bowl this year. But on fourth-and inches in overtime of the NFC Championship Game, the Saints went over Nicks for the critical first down. Nicks is a tough run-blocker, who at 343 pounds can handle the league's biggest tackles.

  • LB Clint Session (Indianapolis): After starting 15 games at strongside linebacker last season, moved to the weak side this year and prospered, really displaying his versatility in the playoffs. He not only adds some bulk to undersized Indianapolis defense, but shows tremendous lateral quickness to the ball, and rarely misses a tackle.

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