Kellen Clemens, sitting next to Jets rookie running back Joe McKnight on the team plane from Denver back to New Jersey after the Jets beat the Broncos back in October, found himself compelled to ask the question.
“Joe, what’s been your turnaround? Because you’ve really impressed the other players and coaches,’’ Clemens asked McKnight.
McKnight wasn’t impressing anyone when he first came to the Jets as a fourth-round draft pick in April.
He threw up in rookie minicamp because he was in poor physical condition.
He failed the pre-training camp conditioning run test.
He fumbled all over the place in preseason.
And perhaps most embarrassing of all to him was being featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ series being ripped by running backs coach Anthony Lynn for messing up in a training camp practice.
McKnight’s world was spiraling so out of control there were many around him who didn’t think he was going to make it, some perhaps even wondering if he might simply quit.
Rex Ryan frankly told reporters that if McKnight wasn’t a draft pick he’d have been cut from the team.
To this day, Jets fans are angry with McKnight because they view him as the reason Danny Woodhead was released. All Woodhead has done since being immediately signed by the Patriots is rush for 528 yards and five TDs with a 5.6-yard average and catch 34 passes.
“When he made mistakes sometimes he had a hard time getting over them,’’ Lynn said. “I told him, ‘Sometimes it’s like quicksand when you make one mistake and you just keep sinking and sinking.’ His morale was down, his body language was down. He had no confidence.
“I knew it weighed on him, but it weighed on him in a good way because he cared so much. He didn’t want to disappoint. He wants to please everyone and do the right thing. He needed to learn to build some mental toughness, and you build that by going through some tough times. I’ve seen that kid almost do a 180.’’
Lynn said he knew exactly when he realized McKnight was going to be all right. He received a text message from McKnight at 12:45 a.m. the night the “Hard Knocks’’ episode ran. It read: “Coach, you’re wrong. I’m going to prove you wrong. I can do this.’ ’’
McKnight will have a chance in Sunday’s regular-season finale game against the Bills at the Meadowlands to show he can, indeed, do this, because with LaDainian Tomlinson likely to be rested, he’ll have a lot of chances to carry the ball.
“He’s going to get a ton of playing time,’’ Ryan said. “I think he’s ready for it, so we’re going to find out. I expect him to play a lot.’’
Said McKnight: “This is a real good chance for me to redeem myself and show the coaches that I can play.’’
Sunday’s game will be a bit of a full-circle moment for McKnight, who played his first NFL game against the Bills in Buffalo in Week Four. That was the first game in which he was activated.
He got some carries late in that game, rushing four times for 12 yards in his first NFL carries.
Asked if that “broke the ice’’ for him, McKnight said, “I don’t think I broke the ice yet; I’ve still got a lot of stuff to make up for. If everything goes well this game, then I can say I broke the ice.’’
McKnight is bent on proving to Ryan and the Jets organization that he’s not the bust so many people perceive him to be.
“I could have been out of here, I could have been somewhere else, I could have been sitting at home,’’ McKnight said. “But knowing coach Ryan kept me around gives me a lot of confidence. I want to go out and show him and the coaches they made the right decision bringing me here.’’
McKnight was inactive in seven of the first eight games. He’s been active in the last seven, playing mostly special teams. Along the way, the coaches have raved about how much better he’s gotten.
Asked what’s changed in him, McKnight said, “For one, I’m in shape, two, I ain’t throwing up anymore, three, I’m more comfortable with being around the team and learning from everybody and showing the coaches that I can play.
“I didn’t have that in the beginning. I could have been out of here. But coach must have seen something in me to keep me around. I’m just trying to show him that he made the right choice. It’s been a good learning curve for me, finding out what it takes to be a professional. You have to be consistent to last in this league.’’
One player who’s helped him most learn how to be a professional has been Tomlinson.
“LT’s kind of been his big brother,’’ Mark Sanchez, who like McKnight is a USC product. “Joe’s going to be able to look back on that and think how lucky he was to have a future Hall of Famer, someone who’s the consummate professional to help him.’’
Tomlinson said his message to McKnight was: “In this business you’ve got to grow up, nobody babies you.’’
“With Joe, I wanted to make him aware this is a business first and foremost and no one’s going to feel sorry for you,’’ Tomlinson said. “Most rookies don’t really understand how to practice and how to prepare and get themselves ready to be a pro. That’s all I’ve tried to help him with, how to prepare every week and get himself ready to play in games.’’
McKnight, who’s single, said Tomlinson “is the only person I really have right now’’ to talk to.
“He just said, ‘You’ve got to stay with it, stay focused, don’t get down on yourself,’ because I was down,’’ McKnight said. “Everything was too heavy on me and I thought I could handle it, but it turned out I couldn’t handle it.
“It was me messing up, fumbling, throwing up at minicamp, failing the conditioning test. I thought I was man enough to handle it, but I came to find out I wasn’t, so I had t talk to somebody. And who better a person to talk to than LT? He gave me good advice. He told me, ‘You’ve got to just change it.’ ’’
One of the things McKnight was determined to change was that perception that came out of the way he was portrayed on “Hard Knocks.’’
“If people think I’m a negative person, they really don’t know me,’’ McKnight said. “When I saw the show that bugged me, just knowing that everyone in the world is seeing this and that’s what their perception of me is.
“It got to the point that I started thinking I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t meant to be here and that’s when I started getting really down and pressing a lot and stressing. Everyone was saying ‘he’s throwing up, he’s not meant to be in this league,’ everyone was talking about Woodhead.
“It bugged me a lot, and it still bugs me to this day. All I can do is go out there and try to change it.’’
Sanchez said McKnight “just hit some speed bumps.’’
“He got sick, he wasn’t in the best shape at one point, throwing up,’’ he said. “I mean, how many guys have just gone to the side and thrown up and no one ever saw it and it’s no big deal? But the fact that everyone saw it made it such a big deal. He learned quickly how things become a big deal in this town.
“They were really good lessons for him, tough lessons to learn, but nothing he couldn’t bounce back from. He’s done such a good job. He’s competing his tail off and he’s helped us a lot, making tackles on special teams, on kick returns last week (in Chicago) in snowy weather.’’
Lynn said McKnight’s support system has grown with so many people seeing how hard he’s worked.
He mentioned the encouragement McKnight has gotten from Ryan, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, general manager Mike Tannenbaum, receivers coach Henry Ellard and offensive line coach Bill Callahan, saying, “You talk about taking a village to raise a child. The whole coaching staff has been encouraging this kid and helping him along the way.’’
Lynn said perhaps “one of the best things to happen’’ to McKnight was having to play so much scout team in practice. With the defensive backfield thin because of injuries, McKnight was asked to play some cornerback on the scout team defense. Because he already plays offense and special teams, McKnight never got off the field for a breather in practice.
“Joe took every single rep of scout team practice on defense, offense and special teams for two months,’’ Lynn said. “It was a blessing in disguise for him because it helped get him in shape, which was a problem for him.’’
Clemens, who runs the scout team offense, saw McKnight’s work first-hand and called him “a handful for our defense, because he’s that good.’’
“He’s had a chance to regroup now and let his natural ability take over and he’s going to be a special player,’’ Clemens predicted. “It’s not fair to write those stories (of McKnight being a bust) this early. It’s not fair to form a final opinion that quick on that kid, because I’m telling you he’s going to be a special player.’’
When Clemens asked McKnight that question from 35,000 feet en route home from Denver, the rookie’s response was: “I wanted to show everybody that what they’d seen is not me.’’
“And he’s done that,’’ Clemens said.