HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (Aug. 8, 2006) -- These days, Curtis Martin seems more like a ghost than a running back.
The No. 4 all-time leading rusher has been squirreled away inside the Jets complex rehabbing his right knee, making it a mystery when he will play again. Even teammates sound spooked when asked about how their teammate is doing.
"Curtis? I haven't really talked to him," said fellow running back Derrick Blaylock. "I really don't know how he's feeling right now."
Curious, considering coach Eric Mangini said that Martin has attended all position and team meetings.
Then there is Chad Pennington, who said, "I haven't seen Curtis that much. I've been going from meetings to eating back to meetings to rehab. My schedule's been so full, I haven't gotten a chance to sit down and talk to him."
Seems that is the way Mangini wants it. Martin has made one public appearance since he was placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list the day before training camp opened, and there has been no update on his condition or when he could return. Mangini never talks about injuries, instead repeating the same mantra.
"Curtis is here every single day. He's working hard, he's rehabbing, our approach has been the same," Mangini said. "There's been no change in his status, with either our approach or his approach."
Still, Martin is being treated differently than the rest of the players who are injured. Nearly everyone else is required to do their rehab on the sideline during practice, either riding exercise bikes, jumping rope, working with medicine balls or doing sprints.
Martin, with 14,101 career yards rushing, is locked up tight indoors. Last weekend when the Jets had two practices at the Meadowlands, Mangini said Martin made the trip. But once again, he was nowhere to be found. Not even when the team had an open 10-minute autograph session.
Seems as if the Jets are going through great pains to disguise what is happening to Martin. He underwent arthroscopic surgery in December to clean out his knee. At the time, he said he expected to start running again in February. He also said there was no ligament or structural damage.
But it has been eight months since then, and many are now starting to question whether the 33-year-old running back will play again. One published report earlier this week said Martin urged the team to draft a running back in case he was not ready for the season, and described the problem with his knee as "bone on bone."
Rather than preparing for a future without Martin, the Jets chose the 5-foot-8 Leon Washington in the fourth round, but he is undersized and working behind Blaylock and Cedric Houston. None of the three seems to be the type who can carry the entire rushing load on their shoulders, so the Jets have put out feelers around the league for running backs.
One name that has come up is Titans back Chris Brown, who had his trade request declined. Still, there is no one available now who is the type of marquee, featured back the Jets want. They had one in LaMont Jordan, but let him go as a free agent last year.
Mangini has declined to discuss the options at running back, but said Martin is still providing a valuable service off the field.
"With a guy like Curtis, when they're around the players they have nothing but a positive effect," Mangini said. "He's done a lot of work with the younger guys, not just the running backs, talking about what it means to be a pro, what it means to practice like a pro, the way to conduct yourself. He has a wealth of knowledge in football and life the young players can't help but benefit from."
Still, it must pain Martin to be away from his teammates, away from the practice field, away from the game. He prides himself on being healthy, of showing up for every single practice.
Pennington for one knows the feeling, after missing most of last season with his second major shoulder injury. He just hopes to see his teammates back on the field soon.
So does everyone else.
"We know what Curtis means to our organization. There's no secret what he's meant to our team," Pennington said. "He's been a solid rock for me to lean upon. We just can't wait to see him out there."