Byner triples Redskins' pleasure: He's 3 backs in 1 Intensity, heart impress Gibbs

September 05, 1991|By Vito Stellino

He runs, he passes and he catches passes. He even blocks, too.

If one game is any indication, Earnest Byner is going to be an old-fashioned triple threat and see more action in the Washington Redskins' backfield than any other player in coach Joe Gibbs' 11 years as the team's coach.

When Gibbs installed the one-back set in his first season in 1981, the idea was that John Riggins would be used on running downs and Joe Washington would come in as the scatback receiver out of the backfield on third down.

The players have changed over the years -- Byner and Kelvin Bryant handled the two roles last year until Bryant got hurt -- but Byner seems destined to fill both of them this year.

In Sunday's 45-0 victory against the Detroit Lions, he ran 16 times for 83 yards, caught two passes for 25 yards and threw two passes, completing one of them for an 18-yard touchdown. Of the team's 32 first-half plays, he handled the ball on 18.

In training camp, rookie Ricky Ervins seemed ready to step into the third-down back role, but Gibbs is reluctant to play rookie running backs. Ervins didn't get into the Lions game until the Redskins were ahead, 45-0.

Beaming about Byner's play, Gibbs said: "He's a great preparer Right now, he knows H-back in case we had to play him there because we're thin there. He's a running back, and he's a pass receiving third-down back."

The only thing Byner doesn't do this year is talk about his expanded role. He has declined to be interviewed.

His agent, Alan Herman, said he didn't know Byner wasn't giving interviews, but came up with one possible explanation.

"When he's interviewed, they always seem to bring up the fumble. It's very painful for him. It's a sore spot. It's like Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson. I think he got sick and tired of responding to it," Herman said.

With 67 seconds left in the Cleveland Browns' 1987 AFC title game against the Denver Broncos, Byner was was stripped of the ball by Jeremiah Castille of the Broncos on the 3-yard line as he was going in for what would have been the tying touchdown.

Byner said last year of the fumble: "That play haunted me then, and it haunts me now. It'll never go away."

The Browns traded him a year later to the Redskins for Mike Oliphant.

That year, the Redskins also got Gerald Riggs, who was supposed to be the new Riggins. But Riggs was injured and Gibbs then switched the emphasis to a three-wide-receiver offense down the stretch in 1988.

They started last season that way, but when the team struggled, Gibbs turned to Byner and went back to the running game. Byner responded with four straight 100-yard games down the stretch and finished with 1,219 rushing yards. He made the Pro Bowl.

Byner fumbled in the playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles last year. The Eagles returned the ball for a touchdown, but the instant-replay official overturned the play, ruling that the ground can't cause a fumble.

In the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, he had 51 yards on 12 carries in the first half before being injured. Riggs played the second half and got just 18 yards on 10 carries.

Besides liking the way he produces, Gibbs likes Byner's attitude.

"He's a guy you've probably got someone like in your office. He's the kind of the guy who doesn't really want to be told. He takes it as a personal insult if you've got to say Earnest, 'You messed that up. You need to do it this way.' He'll turn around and say, 'Yah, I should have done that.' He's going to be make sure with his pride and dedication that he's going to do it right," Gibbs said.

Gibbs also likes the way Byner runs.

"Sometimes he may miss something that somebody would say, 'Hey, there's a hole there,' but he's also going to hit a lot of things and fly out the other side because of the intensity with the way he hits things on the run. He also had some good blocks against the Lions. He's an excellent pass receiver, and he's a man when it comes to pass protection," Gibbs said.

The only question is whether at 5 feet 10 and 215 pounds, he can carry a double load all year. Gibbs said he'll rest him at times, but is counting on Byner to do it all.

"We think Earnest is a heck of a back and is going to lead us and do a lot of things for us, so right now as a coach, you have a tendency to put it on Earnest," he said.

NOTES: The Redskins will start practicing today for the Monday night game against the Cowboys. . . . The Redskins' last Monday night victory was in Dallas in 1987, but that was a strike game. Their last non-strike victory on Monday night was in 1986. They've lost 7 straight non-strike since then if you count last year's loss to the Colts, which was switched from Monday night to Saturday night to avoid a Christmas Eve game.

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