HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. The reality of not challenging for the playoffs at the end of December sank in a while ago for Curtis Martin. Now that the season finale is at hand, the star running back for the New York Jets isn't any more comfortable with the idea of going home early.
Although Martin has had his ninth straight 1,000-yard rushing season, one short of Barry Sanders' league mark, 2003 has been a struggle. There's been criticism that he's not the same runner although the Pittsburgh Steelers, against whom he ran for 174 yards in the snow on Dec. 14, would argue against that.
There's also a losing record for the Jets for the first time since 1996, a full season before Martin joined New York as a free agent.
''This is only the second time in my career that at the end of the season there is no hope,'' Martin said. ''It is a feeling you don't like and it leaves a taste in your mouth and a feeling in your stomach you don't want.
''In a personal way, in 2002 the pain was physical (from a high ankle sprain) I had to deal with. This year, with all the criticism, you hear things that affect your mind.''
Martin and the Jets got off to a rough start. With Chad Pennington out with a broken wrist, they lost their first four games. The offensive line performed poorly, rarely giving Martin any room to run. He totaled 197 yards in his first four outings.
Then he began coming on, including three games over 100 yards rushing in a four-week span. Heading into Sunday's game at Miami, Martin has 1,216 yards and, with a strong showing against the Dolphins, he could surpass all but three of his season totals. Once again, anyone who doubted the strong-willed veteran learned just how resourceful he is.
''It was new territory,'' he said. ''I always was credited with being the cause of our team to win. This year, I was the focus of why we did not win.
''But I didn't have any problem with it. I get good press nine out of 10 times, so if one time it's bad, I can't be mad, I'd be a fool.
''I knew nothing had changed and it was just a matter of us thinking and getting together. There were a lot of different factors people don't get to see that go into it.''
Martin admits the physical pain he went through in 2002, when the Jets went from 2-5 to 9-7 and AFC East champions, was much more difficult than the mental burden of dealing with critics. He ''did not consider it a pain, but a challenge,'' Martin said.
''Even more important than what people say about you is what you say about yourself,'' he added. ''I said something different about myself than (what others said). I believe knowing what I am and what I am capable of is more important.''
No one is a bigger fan of Martin's than the coaches for whom he's played. That begins with Bill Parcells, who drafted him in New England and signed him away from the Patriots for the Jets.
Current coach Herman Edwards calls Martin ''the ultimate warrior'' and wishes he had a roster full of Martins.
''You're talking about a great player and a great leader and a man who sets a great example for everyone around him,'' Edwards said. ''Curtis is everything you want in a football player: tough, smart, great work ethic, a leader.''
But Martin couldn't lead New York back to the playoffs, and that definitely hurts.
''We feel there is no reason why we shouldn't be in a better situation,'' he said. ''To have this season get away from us is the most frustrating.
''So we'll just go out on a winning note and that makes you feel good until you get it going next year.''
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