- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Relax.
The Jets exemplify what makes the NFL so compelling. There is great optimism, with their talent, that they can overtake New England and claim the AFC East, perhaps even represent the conference in Super Bowl XL. And yet there also is great uneasiness about the strength of Chad Pennington's right shoulder; how well the Jets will execute new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's scheme; just how good untested right tackle Adrian Jones is; how the Jets will replace nose tackle Jason Ferguson (signed with Dallas); the condition of cornerback Ty Law's surgically repaired left foot; the identity of the starting strong safety; and whether rookie Mike Nugent can make big kicks in the postseason.
Running back, however, is a different story. As in, around here, it's never a dramatic story. The Jets need not worry about Martin. Every year, the only questions when it comes to him are, "How?" and "How long?"
He is a constant, a certainty, like New York City traffic, the Brett Favre of his position. The fourth-leading rusher in league history (13,366 yards, 4,989 behind leader Emmitt Smith) with the fourth-most attempts, Martin has gained at least 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons, has played in 156 of a possible 160 games, and started every contest for the past six years (96 consecutive). In 2004, at age 31, he stiff-armed Father Time yet again and led the league in rushing for the first time with 1,697 yards while establishing career bests with nine 100-yard games and an average of 4.6 yards per carry. Martin is as humble a star as the sport has seen, but he takes great pride in last year's accomplishments.
"It just sounds like the right thing to say as you're getting older," Martin, 32, said after a recent practice, "but I just feel like I'm getting better. I get better mentally from year to year. I always find a little edge."
This year he came up with this: Martin's longest run last season was a 25-yard touchdown against Miami in the seventh game. Consistency, not speed, has been Martin's hallmark, evident by his solid if unspectacular 4.1-yard career average; last season was just the second time in his career that he has averaged as much as 4.5. Which brings us to the aforementioned performance anxiety issue.
Martin reviewed practice film and diagnosed the problem himself. And the contrast was clear: A deep thinker by nature, Martin has come to realize that, in game situations, he would have a little too much on his mind (securing the ball, for example) when he found himself with more room to run than he was accustomed, whereas in a relaxed workout setting he was more apt to outrun defenders for long gains.
"When I got into the open, I was usually so shocked, I'd tense up," he said. "It's just relaxing and allowing your legs to run freely. I just started putting more emphasis on focusing -- once I get in the open, the first thing that clicks in my mind now is 'relax.'"
He did anything but relax this offseason; the future Hall of Famer is not big on saving himself for game day.
"He could easily take practices off, but here's a guy that does both practices and goes all out every day, regardless if he's sore or what," said his understudy, Kansas City import Derrick Blaylock.
Beginning in April and continuing into early July, Martin practically called the Jets' facility home, taking part in the team's workout program and then some. He focused on increasing his speed for the first time since his early years as a Patriot, with Jets first-year director of physical development Markus Paul, also formerly of the Patriots. Back in Santa Monica, Calif., in an effort to increase foot speed, Martin sprinted his steps as opposed to merely running them.
Using bungee cords, Paul put Martin through resistance and assisted running. With a cord attached to his waist, Martin would perform drills, such as stepping through a set of cones, while being pulled from behind to lengthen his strides, or pulled forward to force him to move his feet quicker. Paul and Martin worked one day on straight-line speed, the next on cutting speed. Some days Martin worked out alone at Hofstra University well into the evening.
The result: Though Paul won't divulge Martin's time in the 40-yard dash, they agree Martin has improved his quickness and speed.
"I feel as though I'm just starting to learn how to run," Martin said.
Uh, come again?
"When I get in the open field," Martin said, "when I relax and run, I'm much faster. It seems as though I would have figured that out by now but I'm just now figuring that out. So I'm looking forward to breaking longer runs this year. I think this year I'll definitely have a few runs over 25 yards."
Heimerdinger was hired primarily to improve the passing game; if successful, Martin should see fewer eight-man fronts. But Heimerdinger also has tweaked the run blocking a bit, allowing the linemen greater freedom to make adjustments while giving Martin the welcomed opportunity to improvise more. "Instead of hitting a specific hole," Martin said, "what I love to do is just run wherever there is a hole. A lot of the runs are designed to allow me to be an artist."
One whose best work still may be forthcoming. Martin said he loves and enjoys the game now more than ever, evident by the enthusiasm with which he approaches studying. The career rushing record is not his goal. He'd like a championship.
"If the Super Bowl were an individual goal it wouldn't matter too much to me, but being that's it's the ultimate team goal, and me being a leader, I would love to lead my team to a Super Bowl," he said.
His plan, he said, is to play another three seasons, at least.
"In my mind, I feel like I'm going to slow down when I'm ready to slow down," Martin said. "I'm sure everybody thinks that but I really believe it. I feel like I can get better. I always believe the longer you do something the better you should get at it."
As for the rest of us, we'll just sit back and enjoy.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Jets RB Curtis Martin believes the key to another successful season is learning to relax when he's in open space.