LOS ANGELES -- At 6 feet, 216 pounds, Roger Craig has always fancied himself as one of the stouter, more rugged running backs in the NFL. Then, just last Sunday, he heard perhaps the most unsettling remarks of his nine-year pro career.
The Los Angeles Raiders had given Craig a breather against the San Francisco 49ers by inserting rookie Nick Bell into the game, then had sent Craig out again.
"Somebody told me," Craig said later, "that after watching Nick Bell run, then I go out there, it's like a midget. And I think I'm a big back.
"Football is changing, man."
Perhaps so. And the Raiders appear to be near the front of the pack, keeping step.
In an era in which jumbo backs Christian Okoye, Marion Butts and Ironhead Heyward are valued highly, the Raiders present Bell, a second-round pick out of Iowa who stands 6-2, weighs 253 pounds and is said to cover 40 yards in 4.55 seconds.
The Raiders may have something on the others, though. Their guy has been battling for years to convince people that he is a halfback -- not a fullback or tight end or even offensive lineman. As such, he seizes any opportunity to show off his uncanny agility.
"He really runs with a little bit of finesse and a little polish for someone who's 255-260," said guard Steve Wisniewski. "He doesn't put down his head and smack into the back of his offensive linemen. He picks his holes and runs well."
An enormous, agile, fast back. Yikes. It may distress Craig, but think what it'll do to for smallish linebackers and tiny free safeties of the league.
Here are some facts and figures to trouble their sleep:
* It's natural. This guy weighed 235 pounds in high school and was an offensive lineman for three years at that level. He has neither the puffed-up look of one of those steroid mutants or the bunchy musculature of a weight-room freak. He's just . . . big.
* Most of it is concentrated below the waist. Wide rump. Thighs that measure 30 inches around. Each. "That's why it's harder for people to tackle me. I'm not top-heavy," says Bell.
* He averaged 6 yards per carry as a senior in college, 8 as a senior in high school.
* He's heavier -- by 15-18 pounds -- than the fullback who blocks for him, Steve Smith. He's faster in a straight line than Marcus Allen in his prime (4.55 vs. 4.6). He has better hands than any of the Raiders' tight ends.
Presently, Bell is working exhaustively, under pressing conditions, to live up to these raves.
A severe hamstring strain in the Raiders' second summer exhibition game cost him seven valuable weeks of NFL indoctrination. Now he jumps in with a team badly in need of some offensive spark.
"The combination of not being in football shape and just taking in all the information at once is the hardest part," said Bell. ". . . Take seven weeks away from somebody, that's a long time."
Perhaps so, but it didn't seem terribly evident in last weekend's win over the 49ers. While spelling Craig, Bell averaged 4.4 yards rushing (seven carries, 31 yards) with his powerful, tackle-breaking running style, and also caught three passes for 23 yards.
Thus, in only spot duty he personally accounted for one-fourth of the Raiders' 220 total yards on the day.
"We'll try to get him more into our scheme of things," said coach Art Shell.
Bell, who sports a poised and unaffected manner in interviews, said of the prospect of an increased workload: "It may be my role this week, it may be my role the rest of the season. Young people have to be able to step in."
Said running backs coach Joe Scannella: "He can be an outstanding player, but he has to play, and this is his chance."
It was a bit of a draft-day stunner that the Raiders had their chance to get him.
Some projected Bell as a mid-first-round pick, but he fell all the way to the middle of the second round, No. 43 overall, where the Raiders traded up to grab him.
Why such a dizzying tumble? Well, Dan Marino, Thurman Thomas and Marcus Allen have been similarly puzzled in recent years.
In Bell's case, rumors of a knee injury surfaced just prior to draft day. (Uh, on the Raiders' Cybex test, a knee he'd injured as a junior tested stronger than the average healthy knee.)
Also, there were reports that Bell was adamant about playing halfback, not fullback, in the NFL -- he'd gone to Iowa, he admits, because Hayden Fry was about the only coach who promised to let him play halfback. Bell denies that his pre-NFL attitude was stubbornly tied to one position.