Less than two days after exploding for 201 rushing yards on Sunday Night Football, unheralded power back Jonas Gray exploded onto the cover of Sports Illustrated. Rushing for four touchdowns in primetime television tends to have that effect on a man’s celebrity.
Gray’s breakout performance represents one of the few pushbacks from his position against its downgrading by a pass-happy league. An RB didn’t go in May’s draft until the 54th spot. Chris Johnson, the marquee back on the free agent market, signed with the Jets in the offseason for $8 million over two years, half of his previous annual paycheck and much less than he had hoped for. Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s top back, and Ray Rice, a former All Pro, remain sidelined because of legal issues. Fittingly, an overlooked position woke up the NFL to its potency through an overlooked, undrafted back.
Gray bounced around the league as a practice-squad player in Miami, Baltimore, and then New England before finally lucking his way into an NFL game in October after an injury to Patriots feature back Stevan Ridley. Even at Notre Dame, Gray lived up to his name by meshing with rather than standing out from his surroundings. He played as a backup his first three seasons before sharing time his senior year with Cierre Wood, who also recently spent time on New England’s taxi squad. Many of the Colts fans watching Gray on Sunday night likely remained ignorant that the fellow who spent four nondescript years at South Bend was the same guy bowling over Indianapolis linebackers.
“I’ve been on two other teams, but [nothing] compares to here,” Gray told SI. “Everybody comes to work. They know what the schedule is. They stay late. They put in extra time. It’s about winning and it’s not about winning. It’s about the process.”
The SI attention comes ten months after another very similar undrafted New England back, LeGarrette Blount, appeared on the magazine’s cover and less than a day after the former Oregon Duck lost his way–one might say, lost the “Patriot Way.” After leaving the field prematurely during Monday night’s win over the Titans, Steelers running back Blount finds himself leaving his Pittsburgh contract prematurely.
The Steelers cut the hulking north-south runner as a result of his temper tantrum that resulted from not a single carry on Monday Night Football. A model citizen in New England, Blount made the wrong kind of headlines at Oregon by breaking the jaw of an opponent postgame and in Pittsburgh through his preseason citation for marijuana possession. Blount’s alleged partner in preseason crime, Le’Veon Bell, joined Gray as two runners eclipsing the 200-yard mark for a single game this season. Along with Arian Foster, DeMarco Murray, and Marshawn Lynch, the Steelers back plays as a crucial component in his team’s playoff push. Blount’s frustration largely stems from his diminished role just months after powering the Patriots into the playoffs–and himself, like Jonas Gray, onto the cover of the most important sports magazine in America.
The best-of-times/worst-of-times juxtaposition of the “tale of two RBs” has not been lost on Boston.com’s Steve Silva, who notes, “It’s a far cry from a year ago when Blount was playing the role Gray is mastering so well for the Patriots today.”