PHILADELPHIA -- In the specialized world of professional football, there never has been a player like Keith Byars of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Byars is an offensive weapon without a clearly defined base of operation. He is a running back and a tight end and a slot back rolled into one. He even throws touchdown passes.
Beyond Philadelphia, Byars' abilities have gone almost unnoticed. Officially labeled as a running back, Byars wasn't voted to the National Football Conference Pro Bowl team by his peers. That's understandable, because Byars has rushed only 37 times for 141 yards. But, tomorrow, Byars likely will play a featured role when the Eagles meet the Washington Redskins at Veterans Stadium in the first round of the playoffs.
In the patchwork quilt that is the Eagles' offense, Byars' role makes perfect sense. This is a team on which the quarterback, Randall Cunningham, is called upon to perform miracles, throw 95-yard touchdown passes and
rush for nearly 1,000 yards in a season. Byars, who has caught 81 passes for 819 yards, provides the key blocks and the third-down receptions that lay the groundwork for Cunningham's haymakers.
"There's no name for the position I play," Byars said. "The position I play is unique. It was created for me. I play a number of roles -- a little wide receiver, a little tight end, a little running back. Sometimes, even a little quarterback."
Among left-handers in the National Football League, Byars was second in touchdown passes behind the Cincinnati Bengals' Boomer Esiason. Byars was 4-for-4 throwing this season, and each completion went for a touchdown. Defenses were confounded by the Eagles' trick-play staple: Brown Right, 48 Halfback Option.
"Everyone knows I'm left-handed," Byars said. "They practice against it all the time. But, in games, they all suddenly forget that I can throw."
Byars' position has evolved over the years as the Eagles seek an offensive identity under coach Buddy Ryan. Drafted in the first round in 1986 out of Ohio State, Byars was supposed to be the team's punishing running back, capable of carrying the ball 25 times a game for 100 yards. Instead, his pass-catching ability has made him the team's possession star.
What makes Byars' transformation from running brute to receiving beauty all the more remarkable is his size. Players who are 6 feet 1 and weigh 238 pounds rarely have the soft hands required to tuck away hard throws.
"How soft are my hands?" Byars said. "Soft enough to catch 81 passes."
Some have noticed Byars' contribution to the Eagles. CBS-TV analyst and former San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts has called Byars the league's MVP -- Most Versatile Player. Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman reserved a place on his all-pro team for Byars as a receiver-back. Even Eagles tight end Keith Jackson, the NFC's Pro Bowl starter, said the honor should have gone to Byars.
Cunningham said that whatever the position, Byars is an All-Pro.
"Personally, I think he is a tight end," Cunningham said. "What Keith Byars has done for us is have the most productive season of his career, and that has made the offense work."
Byars said he was disappointed at being left off the Pro Bowl team.
"People have to be educated to what I'm doing," Byars said. "I can understand why the players didn't vote me to the All-Pro team. They may not know what position I play. I think I should be All-Pro. Guys in our league didn't know what to vote me for -- running back or wide receiver. I can't worry about that."
Tommorw's game against the Redskins is the most important in Ryan's five-year coaching reign. Despite all the boasting and bullying in recent seasons, the Eagles have yet to win a playoff game under him. Two years ago, they lost to the Chicago Bears, 20-12, in the "Fog Bowl." Last year, they were upset at home by the Los Angeles Rams, 21-7.
"Man, I don't even want to remember the game against the Rams," Byars said. "I had a rib injury and hardly played. I didn't like the way we lost it. We did nothing."
Against the Redskins, Byars said the Eagles expect to do nothing more than begin a march to the Super Bowl. Despite finishing the season with a mildly disappointing 10-6 record, the Eagles enter the playoffs as one of the league's hot teams, winners of eight of their final 10 games. Already, they are talking about a potential second-round playoff date against the San Francisco 49ers.
"People have written us off at various times of the season," Byars said. "We've proved them wrong, and we've made the playoffs. Now is our time to prove the critics way off again."